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Reflections of an obstreperous woman
By Lorna O’Hara
‘The thing about the yes side is that they kept their cool and it really stood to them. That’s why they won’.
I suppose that was the best compliment my dad could offer me. I’d only been out canvassing for a month; I was a blow-in on the grand scale of things. Some friends thought I was brave, but truth be told, I was shittin’ it the whole time. Not only do I have crippling social anxiety but I’m, let’s say, a passionate person. Or perhaps that’s just a romantic way of saying I’m stubborn as fuck. Either way, I’m definitely emotional, especially when it comes to things like, ye know, asking for my human rights. Call me crazy but I tend to get a wee bit upset when someone fails to understand why I should have control over my own body. Call me crazy…because I’m pretty sure most of the people I’ve had arguments with on the internet already do anyway.
So I knew canvassing was going to be a challenge for me. I spoke before in one of my previous columns about how I had sat down and had “the talk” with my mam about the referendum. I was really worried that the conversations on the doors would unfold like it had with her. I had all these great arguments and facts ready in my head that I was planning on saying to her but most of it went out the window and I turned into a blubbering mess. After that experience I was just a little bit concerned about how I’d be able to hold it together when I was out talking to strangers. Would I just start crying on their doorsteps? Would I end up in a shouting match with them in their front garden? How would I manage not to punch them in the face when they’d say something like “sure it’ll only end up being used as contraception”?
I’m not good with anger. Or perhaps I’m fantastic with it. That’s the thing. People don’t like anger and people especially don’t like angry women. As a woman you just don’t seem to be allowed to own your anger or express it. You have to shove it down deep inside yourself and let it smoulder like a hot rock in your stomach until eventually you burst out crying in a supermarket. Or perhaps you just go silent and force a smile. You end up giving them “the silent treatment” when you’d much rather give them the “shouty treatment”. Now I’m not saying everyone should go around shouting the head off everyone or getting aggressive but I do feel that we have a right to be angry and that anger, when properly channelled, can be very therapeutic and incredibly productive. We didn’t get where we are now because we “kept our cool”, we got where we are now because women got angry and banded together to turn that anger into an unstoppable force.
We all knew there’d be tone-policing in this referendum just as there had been in the marriage equality referendum. I’ve no time for that, I really don’t. I know it’s unpleasant to have people at each other’s throats but when one of those groups of people is denying someone their basic human rights, you cannot tell someone from an oppressed group to “calm down”. Did anyone ever in the history of humanity actually calm down after being told to do so? I highly doubt it. You abdicate the right to a reasoned debate when one side of that debate is blatantly lying all over national media. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the women of Ireland didn’t burn the whole place down in the run-up to the referendum because the absolute abuse that was thrown at us was, at times, unbearable. If it looked like we kept our cool it was because many of us had to put our anger on hold and then go home and scream into a paper bag.
So by now you’re probably wondering how I managed on the doors. Well the best way I can describe it is that a switch flipped in my head when I was out canvassing. I went into, what I call “customer service” mode. If you’ve ever worked in retail you’ll be fully aware of this approach. I basically managed to frame the people I encountered on the door as a “customer” which helped me to distance myself from anything hurtful they might say. The customer is always right…except this time they really, really weren’t. Believe me, my will was tested. These “customers” certainly had a lot of colourful things to say to me. One woman lamented how young women “just hop into bed with anyone these days” and hence should “take some responsibility for their actions”. I nodded and smiled while suppressing the deep and insatiable desire to scream “YES PUNISHING SOMEONE YOU DISAPPROVE OF WITH A CHILD IS A GREAT IDEA!!” Another time a gentleman opened the door, looked me dead in the eye and said “if women just kept their legs closed it wouldn’t be a problem” and I had to just come up with some sort of reasoned response rather than going with my natural urge to smack him over the head with my clipboard. Indeed from some people’s comments on the door it would appear as though women were off getting pregnant on their own somehow, just for the craic.
“Don’t take it so personally” – I was told this again and again. But how can you not take it personally when the whole country is basically dissecting your whole personhood? “Just breathe and stay calm”. Women have been told to be calm most of their lives. We’ve carefully trained ourselves to grin and bear it lest we look hysterical or rude. I did the best I could for the sake of the campaign but the moment I took off the high-viz vest and got in the door I was venting my frustration at anyone who would listen. If women throughout history had stayed calm then we wouldn’t have the right to vote. We wouldn’t have access to contraception. We wouldn’t have access to education or have the ability to shape our own destinies in any way. Angry feminists are my favourite type of feminists because if you’re not outraged with the world and how unfair it is for so many people because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, class or ability then you’ve got your head in the clouds.
It seemed in this campaign we weren’t allowed to express our anger and frustration at what were often some seriously dirty tactics on the part of the ‘no’ side. The burden of proof and the expectation to keep a level head was always on the ‘yes’ side. It was a heavy weight to carry. Once we won there was a massive outpouring of emotion, emotion that had often been reigned in throughout the campaign. I was at Dublin Castle when they announced the official results. The atmosphere was euphoric; a few champagne bottles could be heard popping when the announcement was made. People laughed, cried, cheered, hugged and danced. It turned into St. Patrick’s Day, only not awful. The atmosphere was a party atmosphere and rightly so! But then, of course, the criticism began again. Look at those ‘obstreperous’ women celebrating abortion! Where is their decorum? The people who made those comments completely missed the point just like they miss the point when they fail to understand how you don’t win rights by asking for them nicely. This was always about more than just abortion; it was about Ireland accepting that women were human beings with the right to decide what was best for them. It was the first step on the road to re-dressing a long-history of state-sanctioned abuse of women. We all know abortion isn’t an easy decision someone makes but their right to make that decision is definitely something worth fighting for just as much as it’s something worth celebrating.
Lorna O’Hara is a doctoral student and feminist activist currently living between Berlin and Dublin. Her writing and research focuses on feminist activism and art, in particular similarities/differences between international feminist groups and artistic projects that have a focus on increasing awareness about/changing violence against women and the control of women’s bodies.
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