Fifteen years ago, when International Women’s Day had a lower profile than it has now, I attended a lunch where Anita Roddick of The Body Shop was guest speaker. I remember her as being dynamic and funny; she delivered extemporaneous stories, talked without a script, and effortlessly held the attention of her audience. It was a glitzy affair, in a grand hotel in Dublin’s Ballsbridge. Round tables of younger women, middle-ranking in their professions and supposedly ‘on-the-up’, were there to be inspired. Billed as an event to stimulate and encourage, she gave tips on how to be extraordinary, how we must fly as high as our potential allows, or even exceed it, know no boundaries – that kind of thing. Although it was great fun, and Anita Roddick left a lasting impression on me as a warm, charismatic woman, I could feel the aspirational rhetoric melting from me like a dollop of ice-cream on warm apple crumble. I’m not big on ambition and worldwide domination via Shea Butter Body Cream sounded to me like many years of sleep deprivation. I came to the conclusion, as the saying goes, that it was a case of ‘horses for courses’.
There is much rhetoric around International Women’s Day and many different interpretations as to what it means and represents. For some it is a fun day of celebration, for others it’s political – about advancing equality, or highlighting women’s rights. For others again, it is a practical platform, a springboard to help women to get ahead, a day to showcase the best, brightest and most high-achieving women and say, ‘Go for it, sister, you too can be like her!’ It is fantastic to laud and applaud, to shout about the high achievers and to encourage our daughters to become particle physicists working at CERN, and I am not clipping anyone wings, but I keep thinking about that phrase, horses for courses.
Fast forward to sixteen years later when, yesterday, I attended my second ever International Women’s Day event. For me, yesterday covered all bases of what IWD might be about – fun, equality, celebration, information, inspiration, but it also added an important, new dimension. It marked those changes and advances for individual women that were extraordinarily significant for them but that might seem small or insignificant when compared with the dynamo that was Anita Roddick. Yesterday, groups of quietly extraordinary women sang in a choir to an audience, many for the first time ever, marking significant progress for various personal reasons. Others, overcoming negative self-beliefs and binning things they had been told in school like, “You’re useless, and you can’t spell,” read their own poetry in public. There were inspirational talks, there were flowers and cakes and balloons, there was drama (staged and unstaged!), there was storytelling and rooms full of laugher, there were rooms that made you sneeze with the pungent smells of bath bombs being made, and there was a quiet room filled with mindful women. There were comings and goings and at every turn there were smiling faces making choices about what interested them and what didn’t. It reminded me of something R. said to me in a letter this week, ‘I think knowing who we are not and what is not ours to do is as important as its opposite.’ I left every bit as inspired, if not more, as I’d been in the grand hotel room in Ballsbridge all those years ago.
She Mends An Ancient Wireless,by Paul Durcan
You never claimed to be someone special;
Sometimes you said you had no special talent;
Yet I have seen you rear two dancing daughters
With care and patience and love unstinted;
Reading or telling stories, knitting gansies
And all the while holding down a job
In the teeming city, morning until dusk.
And in the house when anything went wrong
You were the one who fixed it without fuss;
The electricity switch was neither on nor off,
The t.v. aerial forever falling out;
And now as I watch you mend an ancient wireless
From my tiny perch I cry once more your praises
And call out your name across the great divide – Nessa.