Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In which Garret Fitzgerald invades a TV studio and debates feminism

Garret Fitzgerald as Taoiseach in the 1980’s

Much recent commentary about Garret Fitzgerald after he died during the queen’s visit (18 May). Here's an episode from his life that I hoped to learn more about, but which sadly attracted few mentions.

First a bit of context. On 14 April 1971 the Irish women’s liberation movement was launched at a packed meeting in Dublin’s Mansion House.  I strongly recommend this 28 minute episode of RTÉ radio’s History Show (1 May 2011) where these events are recalled by three of the movement’s founder members. (The link should open an mp3 file.) “We had no idea if anyone would turn up - we thought there might only be 20 women there in the Mansion House” says one. Another describes a woman taking the microphone and announcing “I am an unmarried mother”; and tells of the stamping of feet, the cheering, the tears, that greeted this statement.  Because up to that point in time no-one in Ireland had ever uttered the words “I am an unmarried mother”; the phrase was only ever whispered in hushed tones, and used about someone else.

Now we skip backwards five weeks to 6 March 1971. To a debate on the Late Late Show on RTÉ television presented by Gay Byrne. A group of feminists formed the panel promoting equal pay, equality before the law, contraception, as well as justice for deserted wives and unmarried mothers. This broadcast is credited with attracting publicity to the movement and making the Mansion House meeting a few weeks later the storming success that it was. 

Saturday 22 May 1971. Women at Dublin's Connolly Station ready to board the "Contraceptive Train" to Belfast. This was 6 weeks after the Mansion House meeting. Hear more on The History Show. This photo may have originally appeared in the Irish Times.
So what of Garret Fitzgerald?  At this time he was 45, a TD, but 10 years before being Taoiseach.  And he was there in the television studio.

But here's the point of the story : he wasn’t invited.

It seems the feminists’ appearance that night on the Late Late Show generated such heated argument that Fitzgerald left his fireside and took it upon himself to turn up in the studio to discuss the problems with the women on the panel. But in the words of one of them, June Levine, “a free-for-all screaming match followed between Garret Fitzgerald and various women in the audience”. (footnote 1)

Another, Mary Kenny, describes the event like this:

Gay Byrne host of Late Late Show 
“Halfway through the programme, Gay Byrne suddenly announced that Garret FitzGerald had been sitting watching the show at home and had felt so engaged by the subject that he asked if he could come and join us, and Gay had eagerly agreed.

"The announcement was greeted by a sustained, and entirely spontaneous, orchestra of booing from the assembled group of women, panel and audience. 'You're hijacking our show!' we cried. There was huge resentment, both of Gay and of Garret, that these two men couldn't have let the women have their say, uninterrupted, without trying to muscle in on the act. Garret, all innocence, protested that he was a male feminist. Oh, yeah? Maybe so, we all agreed afterwards, but he is also a politician. And a politician knows just when to jump on a bandwagon. Even if he was sincere - and he certainly was sincere - the prevailing feeling of the sisters was that men just won't let women speak without putting their oar in. It's the 'pasha complex': in a harem of women under the Ottomans, you had to have the male, the pasha, take charge.” (footnote 2)

I should dearly like to get hold of a recording of that Late Late Show but I've checked with the RTÉ archives, and none exists. Recollections differ. The three women on the recent History Show that I mentioned above, seem to recall the audience being rather quiet.

Just a few more comments about Garret Fitzgerald. To tell the truth, until he died I had him filed away in my head under miscellaneous conservative politicians. But all commentators seem to agree that he was special in some interesting ways.  He was a top intellectual in economics and statistics. (In reference to which Charlie Haughey - routinely described in the obits as “Garret’s nemesis” – made a habit of calling him “Dr Fitzgerald” as a put-down). To the end of his life he was extremely open to the ideas of young people.

As Fine Gael leader Fitzgerald launched a social reform programme aimed at secularising the Republic to make it more attractive to Protestants in the north. He championed reforms concerning divorce, contraception and abortion, and faced stern opposition from the Catholic church, and some within his own party.  He believed in being ahead of public opinion, not in focus group politics.  In office he lost on divorce (badly), lost on abortion, but won on contraception. But it’s generally accepted that divorce wouldn't have become legal as soon as it eventually did (1995) without Fitzgerald having blazed the trail. The consensus is that he laid the groundwork for social progress in Ireland.  He sounds to me like an all round good egg.

By the way I'm not sure it’s technically possible for a man to be a feminist.


(1)    June Levine, Sisters: the personal story of an Irish feminist, Dublin, 1982, p.166.  She was one of the panellists that night

(2)   Mary Kenny, Irish Independent, 20 May 2011. Also on the panel.

Links (First is to The Irish Times, the rest are Wikipedia):-

IWLM : BROKEN LINK This is a personal account from Mary Maher, a journalist with The Irish Times, a founder member of the IWLM, and a platform speaker at the Mansion House meeting. Also includes report on the contraceptive train from the Irish Times archives

Divorce : GF was hammered two to one in the 1986 referendum, but it passed by narrow majority 9 years later.

Contraception : GF succeeded in a liberalising the law in 1985.

Abortion : in 1983 the constitution was amended to ban abortion. GF unsuccessfully campaigned against the ban. It remains banned under the constitution