Why I Can Say What I Darned Well Please


 

I have earned my stripes.

 

I was brought up in an Irish Catholic nuclear family.

I went to a convent boarding school and was berated thus:

“When a woman whistles, Our Lady cries”

I waited ’till the builders came to renovate the dormitories

and then I whistled through any corridor I choose

(even down the dread Back Stairs,

where the lay sisters lived,

where the bell-pull hung,

and which were said to be haunted.)

They assumed the sound was male.

At sixteen I was the first person ever

in the entire history of the Congregation of the Faithful Companions of Jesus,

to wear false eyelashes to Benediction.

 

In 1972 with 46 other women,

I took the so-called “Pill Train” from Dublin to Belfast,

to flaunt the law by smuggling contraceptive jels and condoms

across the Border down home to the Republic.

 

In 1974, I helped found the first Family Planning Clinic in our town

and thus earned myself free cervical smears for life.

When I was 29 I went to the posh gynaecologist with the soft pink hands.

(All posh gynaecologists have soft pink hands.

I think it is because they are so wealthy that they don’t have to dig gardens, mend things

or burn themselves with irons, ovens, pots and pans.)

I told him I wanted the Leboyer Method of natural childbirth.

He had never heard of Leboyer, so I lent him the book.

 

I had my daughter in ten minutes flat,

without so much as a stitch or an aspirin or a gulp of gas

then I walked upstairs to my room,

braided my hair around my head and felt like a madonna.

(I paid the pink gynaecologist my money though I had done all the work

but he never gave me back the book.)

As the child arrived I asked if they wanted to keep the placenta – good blood.

They looked at me as though they had a nutter in the bed.

Nowadays, every week,

juggernauts full of precious gamma globulin transverse Europe:

frozen placentae for the blood banks of the world.

 

Ten years later I hustled a divorce from the Dominican Republic

(divorce was still illegal in Ireland) and I paid for it all myself.

(My husband was a dotey pet, but I didn’t have wings on my heels.)

 

Then I flew to the United States to get married again

(To someone else) (I had wings on my heels)

but my back cracked up from overwork before I left,

so I wed lying down on a couch in Connecticut,

and, moulded into a kind of inflatable burial canoe,

was flown home to face the surgeon’s knife.

 

I reared my daughter solo for the first eight years of her life.

I learned to drive aged 32 and bought a car and a house

with money I had earned myself, for stuff out of my own head.

Recently I got a note from the *Irish Council for the Status of Women,

To congratulate me on an article on International Women’s Day.

And that is why I reckon that when it comes to women,

I can say what I darned well please.  

 

This poem was written in 1994, because I had just had a bad experience. We were dining in the Colombe d’Or, the famous  restaurant frequented by Picasso and his chums, up in the hills above Cannes, during a Television Festival in the town.  One of the company was a highly placed female executive from the national (Irish) broadcaster. In jest, I said with irony “oh I’m just a woman, I wouldn’t know about that…”     I left the table to go to the loo, which was down a flight of stairs.  This woman followed me out, fuming:  “You’re lucky if don’t push you down those stairs for saying a thing like that” she said. “Don’t ever say a thing like that again.”   I returned to the table shocked and frightened.  Later, when I told my husband and her colleagues what had happened, the men dismissed the abuse, saying it was ‘alcohol fuelled” and to take no notice.   I will never forget the vehemence with which she spoke.  I wrote the piece to give me back my feminist confidence.

By coincidence, yesterday, tidying files, I came across the actual article I had written in the (Cork) Irish Examiner, the one for which the Council for the Status of Women congratulated me. It was written 27 years ago.   Twenty seven years ago, in Cork, this is how women were marking International Women’s Day. Twenty seven years later, lot has happened to better the lot of Irish women; another generation has taken over with the confidence – which we, their mothers fought and suffered for – and the platforms to fight for women’s rights. This is the article, on International Women’s Day, March 8th 1994. It was headed “Women Have Progressed, But Male Power Is No Myth”

YOU didn’t honestly think that I could write about anything else on this day, but women, did you? Actually, I was percolating another idea and then last week International Women’s Day started to blossom, to break free of its 24-hour restriction and suddenly I was in the midst of a very happy and inspirational celebration of the endeavour, creativity and achievement of women. Towards the end of the 1950s ( when men were men, women were ball-and-chains and I was but a child) my parents entered me in a fancy dress competition in the City Hall. My mother got me a tweed jacket, a long skirt and a straw boater and my father painted a sign for me which read ‘Votes for Women’.

I was a Suffragette, even before I knew what the word meant. My parents had cast me admirably and unwittingly dressed me, handed me a picket and pointed me on the path would take for the rest of my borners. (Incidentally, I won a prize.) Then when I started carrying real placards, they clucked disapprovingly, innocently ob-livious of the root they had planted, from whence the urge had sprung.

I remember the psychologist Maureen Gaffney as a student in UCC  and I always enjoy her ideas and opinions. The basis of her approach is common sense, illuminated through intelligence and, though scholarly, she always allows some humour to come through. But not on Saturday night. Here was Maureen Gaffney, turning aside and raising her eyes to heaven at the rámais of an unctuous man who called himself “us feminists” and was to have ‘shared’ a testimony at the Bobbit trial (for John Bobbit).

He and Gaffney were on a TV talk show discussing his book “The Myth of Male Power.” He holds that there is no such thing as ‘Male Power’ and was allowed to state his case, but when the psychologist tried to speak, he whinged and whined and constantly interrupted, but made sure to say “You should read my book, ‘The Myth of Male Power.’ ” Maureen turned aside and rolled her eyes, evidently peppering at this time-wasting exercise and raging at having dashed away from a nice afternoon in Skibbereen only to be subjected to hysterical inanity. To point out to him that male power is not in fact a myth, she could merely have shown him a photograph from that day’s Cork Examiner, of those selected by the Fianna Fail party in Munster to stand in the forthcoming European elections.  All the boys invited to the Boys-Only party (by the Boys’ Own Party) blowing out the candles on Brian Crowley’s birthday cake.

Last week, purely by chance, while doing ordinary everyday things, I came across many instances of how women were made to feel inferior and to shrink from pride and power. It had been so long since I had sewn a bound buttonhole on a jacket with facings, that I had to look up the technique in the book  “The New Butterick Dressmaker” published in 1927.

Looking for ‘bound buttonholes’ I came across the section on maternity clothes…… “Maternity clothes have two objects: one is to make your condition unnoticeable, the other is to give you every physical advantage possible. If your clothes make you feel conspicuous and awkward, you will shrink from going out. Clothes that are designed solely for maternity wear are apt to look the part and call attention to a woman’s condition. At this time you do not want to be conspicuous in any way. You want to look as much like other women as possible so that there will be nothing to draw notice to you.”

The bearing of children was considered so shameful that women hid their condition and, after giving birth, the Catholic Church decreed that they should go before a man for their bodies to be cleansed of this filthy, unspeakable deed. Aine Hyland, the new Professor of Education at UCC, told me recently that she had accepted without question the Irish law which decreed that on her marriage she had to give up her job in the Civil Service in Dublin, though her husband, also a civil servant, kept his. There was no choice, the marriage bar was law.

Prof. Denis O’Mullane of the Dental faculty in UCC told me of the custom — still practised up to the 1940s — for Irish women to have all their teeth taken out and false teeth fitted as a dowry before their marriage. It suited the men because they didn’t want women with unsightly teeth (their own green mossy, tobacco-stained stubs were, of course, above reproach) and they wouldn’t have to pay for treatment if problems arose.

In researching an article on jeans, I came across references to the huge antipathy in the western world throughout the ages, from St Paul (who preached that women in men’s clothing was an abomination) two thousand years ago to employers of the present day, who hold that women should not wear trousers. (In fact, when Maureen Gaffney first went up to UCC as a student, it was still forbidden for women to wear trousers in the College grounds). The comfort and ease of movement afforded by pants, which allow for climbing up the rigging of ships, jumping on horses and buckling ones swash, was denied to women, who were hobbled by ridiculous skirts and tight corsets.

The film “The Age of Innocence” admirably relates the rigid suppression of women, in body, soul, intellect and mind by high society New York a mere hundred years ago. “The Age of Innocence” is a fictional account of real manners and mores, but its creator, Edith Wharton, suffered from being a woman and her writing was overshadowed for decades by her male contemporaries. This year, 1994, will be the first time ever that the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood will be presented by a woman (Whoopi Goldberg.)

Women’s role in society is changing, but it is changing very slowly and the changes are a massive achievement over huge male opposition and that is why International Women’s Day is such a celebration. If it has turned into a week, or indeed a month, then it is but testament to the diversity of women’s talents and organisational skills. On Thursday evening last, Dolores Dooley of the Department of Philosophy in UCC opened an exhibition of poetry, paintings and sculpture called ‘Image, Women Text’ at the Boole Library in College.

She said: “The Cork Women’s Political Association works to correct an inherited absence of women in many spheres of pubic life: government, art, industry, literature, the churches…We have taken a giant leap beyond the false modesty required of woman… The CWPA takes it as one of their primary objectives to help correct this inherited distortion of women’s absence from the world of literature and art.”   The ‘Image Women Text’ exhibition is a strong, highly enjoyable show, with short poems of women’s experience, paintings demonstrating a wide vision and delightful sculpture. (My modesty, false or otherwise, forbids me to mention the contributors).

Tonight, the Cork Federation of Women’s Organisations will be launching their book “Wise Women.”  Edited by Maire Bradshaw, it is a portrait of 13 women — all over 60 — who managed to establish themselves and excel in male-dominated areas, including those of business, the media and the arts at a time when it was twice as hard as it is now for a woman to be accepted as an intelligent, capable human being. (Again, inherent modesty makes me shy from listing the participants. If I were a man, I would have no qualms about noting the names of two generations of Sheridan-Healys who push their pens within.)

 

 

 

 

 

Isabel Healy

Isabel Healy

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