As we waited for the final results of the Irish abortion referendum on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I did what any self-respecting feminist did – drew the curtains and watched the Handmaid’s tale in the dark with everything crossed.
Watching a television drama about a dystopian world where the state removes women’s agency over their bodies and reproductive rights felt all the more powerful that day. When the final result came through, like so many, I wanted to burst with joy. Broadcasters were briefed that people had been encouraged not to look “too” happy but I’m afraid that ship had sailed. This was a moment of celebration for women because this was a fight about our bodies which we had won – at a moment of peril for progressive politics and gender equality. And stop telling us women how to behave!
You cannot underplay the emotions wrapped up in this moment, which made Ireland shine after so much historical repression of gender, sexuality and basic human rights that we often take for granted. An Irish friend texted me “Home rule instead of Rome rule! Last step in breaking free from Catholic stranglehold on legislation. So proud of modern Ireland.”
What a testament to modern, mature leadership to hear Leo Varadkar (Indian, Irish and gay – #justsaying) utter the two words that so many men in positions of authority and power find so hard to get their head around “trust women”.
But it’s not just men in positions of power, is it? If only it were that simple. For all eyes are now on Northern Ireland where women are now left behind on access to abortion. Yesterday this paper highlighted the grotesque and heart-breaking case of a 12-year-old girl who was raped by her own uncle in Northern Ireland but could not get an abortion there as it is illegal – even in the case of incest and rape (there was both here). She had to travel to Manchester with police officers so they could get a DNA sample to prove that it was indeed her uncle who impregnated her. Just a reminder, this is not an OTT scene from the Handmaid’s Tale – this is happening in the United Kingdom right now.
The power to change the law and help women in Northern Ireland rests in the hands of two women – Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster. This was always the dream scenario for feminists such as myself. We dared to imagine that if women were in positions of real power, then they would use that power not just for themselves and for their own personal ambition but to help other women – women without voices. That was the drill. People often told me I was naive to think that women in power would automatically help other women – I hate to say it, but maybe they were right because so far, it looks like neither of these women will lift a finger to help their sisters in this case.
May has been strangely quiet the issue. At the time of writing this, she hadn’t tweeted anything about the rather large and historic abortion result from her personal account but had found time to update us about a rather jolly afternoon at the cricket. The official No 10 account did tweet congratulations after Sunday’s result in Ireland, but her spokesman then rather curtly told journalists that abortion was a matter for the devolved Northern Ireland government. That tells you a lot. That tells you she’s not in the mood.
Labour’s Shadow Attorney General Baroness Shami Chakrabarti has called Northern Ireland abortion reform a test of May’s feminism. And she is right.
May once famously sported a T-shirt by the Fawcett Society with the slogan: “This is what a feminist looks like.” Those words should be changed to “This is what someone who is s**t scared of the DUP looks like.” Because that’s what this sorry mess comes down to. May is in such a weak position since losing her majority last year, that she is propped up by the DUP and needs their votes to get anything through parliament, especially the three big Brexit votes. We know Foster’s DUP is stubbornly pre-historic in their stance on abortion. To call them dinosaurs, seems unfair on Jurassic Park. Also seeing as they’re creationists, the DUP don’t even believe in dinosaurs. The DUP has said ominously there would be “consequences” if the Prime Minister caved in to demands for reform when it comes to those Brexit votes.
No-one underestimates the nightmare position May finds herself in. But as a female Prime Minister who boasted about being a feminist, now is the time for action. Abortion is about human rights so that is not a devolved matter. There is no functioning administration in Northern Ireland right now. There doesn’t need to be a referendum because Northern Ireland is part of the UK. We need to get this done swiftly. There could be a vote in the Commons and there would be cross-party support for her to make it a free vote from Labour women like Stella Creasy, many in the SNP and those on her own side including Penny Mordaunt, the Minister for Women and Equality who tweeted that Sunday’s result should give hope to Northern Ireland. It’s rare for women in politics to have a moment when they can have the actual power to effect such big change. It’s never easy but sometimes you have to take a risk – like Barbara Castle did with the Equal Pay Act. You need to be brave. Of course, Brexit looms large, but so does the responsibility to women all over the United Kingdom. May should stand up to Foster, make a strong feminist, moral argument and call her bluff over those Brexit votes.
I get that May is terrified that if she loses those votes, she could lose her job. But selling Northern Irish women – and children like that 12-year-old girl – down the river to save her own skin is shameful. What a far cry from the words she herself spoke when she unveiled the statute of Millicent Fawcett just a few weeks ago: “The fight for equality is far from won. And as long as that is the case, we will need brave men and women to stand up and speak out in the face of injustice and discrimination. Doing so will not always be easy. But courage calls to courage everywhere.” I agree with Theresa – does she?