Women on the platfrom of Connolly Station, Dublin in 1971 prior to bording the Belfast Train to buy contraceptives, which were illegal in the Republic in the 1970s and 1980s.
(Nell McCafferty if pictured second left, chin partially obscured by the banner.
Pic: The Irish Times

Jeanne Sutton: That Madeleine Albright Quote

A few months ago I went to an International Women’s Day party hosted by a literary press. There was red and white wine. I think some prosciutto dotted plates. Hummus was probably on the menu too. As regards olives, I do not recall.

The event was packed and well-meaning people were turned away at the door, where ticket prices were donated to a very worthy women’s charity. Floor-to-ceiling book shelves propped up humans who couldn’t source seats. The atmosphere was sweltering, and most of the women present were in knitwear – which, while fitting with the vibe, didn’t help.

Adding to this claustrophobic feeling was a couple caressing each other in plain sight, standing in front of me and my friend. Very close. They were doing that early-days-of-the-relationship lean back into each other. The curve of her arse pressing up against his supportive – she performed a reading later – groin. I love seeing couples thinking they’re getting away with foreplay in public. All that smug love with heavy eyelids is the nicest thing to be a part of when you’ve just fallen in.

The readings were good. Throughout a series of confessional excerpts and poems two big dogs lumbered through the crowd, moving too awkwardly to be petted. They were not in the mood, and one dog went outside briefly to shit and came back in, trailing a stench, which we all said nothing about. That would have been rude, especially while someone was busy pouring their soul out in a self-aware mid-Atlantic tone.

After the interval we managed to find seats. But they weren’t ours for long, because we had to leave soon after.

Earlier I had spotted one of Ireland’s leading 1970s feminists in the crowd. Her writing was something I had sought out in charity book shops as a teenager, getting shouted at in religion class for being pro-choice. (I had a habit of staying in the grey when it came to condemning the hypothetical women detailed on printed pages from our ‘morality’ workbooks.)

This capital letter Feminist was the type of woman who did the Irish state some service, even if the official state hated her at the time. I didn’t approach her; I thought about telling her that her various books were excellent but decided to hold back. Turns out my reluctance to gush was a good decision.

The Famous Feminist asked for the floor, and she was granted it with a cheer. The day that was in it and all.

Young men and women behind me were manning the bar and poured her wine, for she had asked for some. They passed it along frantically like a swishing parcel, desperate that she be holding a glass. That was the first weird thing. Then she began speaking.

She spoke about a news story of inter-familial surrogacy, an irrelevant issue that she somehow thought we should all consider before voting on the then-upcoming gay marriage referendum. What she was trying to say wasn’t subtle. Later, those who wanted to transition gender were treated to an insulting throwaway line about ‘trends’.

People were laughing along. Faces you recognise from bylines. Was I missing out on the joke? It’s not everyday I attend a literary salon with a feminist bent, but I was pretty sure this sort of talk is the type you keep off the playlist.

My friend and I stood up and left. We were both visibly upset. An intern stopped us at the backdoor and asked us why we were leaving. In my incensed confusion I rambled about being a journalist.I said I should have recorded what was happening. (Side note: I have never made a Freedom of Information request so let that settle that label.) Then we stormed out and called the woman, whose books on injustice have brought me to tears, every name under the moon.

They say never meet your heroines. They’re all complicated now anyway.

When I was studying law in Canada, I took a class with a now deceased lecturer who wrote a book called How America Gets Away With Murder. He was such a brilliant and kind man. On St. Patricks Day he laughed and sang ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ to me and the other girl from Trinity. I could barely keep up and he was nice enough to let me barely pass. As part of his classes on International Criminal Law we looked at the Bosnian conflict in dizzying detail. It was all new to me. When I was younger that war was Euronews at breakfast before school.

During this spate of lectures, Madeleine Albright’s name kept popping up. You know, the celebrated female diplomat who once made a guest appearance on The Gilmore Girls? The woman who said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Blame that gal for a few hundred op-eds that have made the same point.

Anyway, I was a bit flustered as one of our classes progressed to discover that this Goodreads Quote of the Day stalwart was actually considered by some parties to be a warmonger who, as US Secretary of State at the time, made an already fractious war even more violent. ‘Madeleine’s War‘ was what some called it.

Before, her famous sentence about women supporting each other was all I needed to think she was great. Unquestionably fabulous. A reserve line for impassioned conversations with women about other women. Now Madeline’s words make me feel uneasy. What happens when your support comes with certain terms and conditions?

The concept Internet Feminism reads as dismissive, but when it comes to disappointment in Great Women it’s the first thing that rises to my mind. Words like TERF tell you all you need to know when it couples a big name in your feed. Tweet something nice about Lena Dunham and there’s always an incoming mention telling you how you’re wrong. Illumination is good, but the HD camera focus on examining every aspect of a woman who embraces the term ‘feminist’ makes me jittery. One friend was taken to task recently, in real life, by a guy for not using her internet influence to talk more about abortion.

But then the woman at the party needed an IRL calling out. And more of an internet one. (My tweets led nowhere really, and only resulted in another established feminist calling me ‘silly’.) Looking back, I know there were reasons for people to keep calm and say nothing.

Yet I still expected more. I wanted a rousing speech about the right things. And when that didn’t work out, I wanted an angry audience.

I don’t know if it is possible to have heroines anymore. You can’t put your faith in anyone entirely, because gravity. That woman you think is ace? She probably once tweeted something silly, speedy words that a mob will eventually twist into an unforgivable manifesto. Thank you, search function. Maybe when you introduce yourself at an event she might act distracted and look over your shoulder for the duration of the exchange. Or she could be just human and owe you nothing, having no expectation of your Madeleine Albright prescribed ‘help’.

Jeanne Sutton is a writer based in Dublin. She is a senior editor at Image Daily and a founder of the Women’s Museum of Ireland. She has a Tumblr and tweets at @jeannedesutun.

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