“We need stories to change stories”: A discussion on female representation

Herstory marked the beginning of Women’s week in Trinity with an examination of the retelling of history

To celebrate the beginning of Trinity’s Women’s Week, DU History Society, DU Gender Equality Society and Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union organized a panel of women to speak on their experiences and work highlighting the contributions of women throughout history. Over the course of the evening, the five panelists discussed the lack of female representation in fields such as history, law, and criminology, as well as the work they are doing to combat these concerns.

The panel opened with a speech from Melanie Lynch, founder and director of Herstory, an organization working to rewrite history in a more inclusive way that recognizes and tells previously forgotten stories of women whose experiences were pushed to the periphery. Lynch began her talk by bringing to light all of the positivity that can come from dismal times, drawing attention specifically to how the election of Trump in the United States sparked feminist movements, such as #MeToo and the Women’s Marches, across the globe. She discussed how emotional consciousness and emotional empowerment drive social justice movements. Anger, Lynch argued, is the last negative emotion before one is able to channel positive emotions; anger can be a catalyst for positive change. After discovering stories of women who did not receive the recognition that they deserve, Lynch said she “needed to alchemize the rage”, and so she founded Herstory to do that.

When Lynch’s talk had concluded, Senator Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at Trinity, was invited to speak next. Bacik began by talking about justice, explaining that while there is a perception of neutrality in justice, it is a very male-centric concept. She argued that ideas and examples of excellence and merit are seldom questioned anymore, and therefore each individual has biases about what those attributes look like. It is important in fields such as criminology, law, and politics, according to Bacik, that history is deconstructed and the work of women is highlighted when and where it was previously overridden by men.

Discussing the implications of overlooking women when creating and teaching law, Bacik explained that often concepts in law are taught as objective but that these ideas need to be questioned and deconstructed to understand the biases they may be built upon. Using the provocation defense as an example, which is a common defense in law stating that under certain circumstances a criminal can argue loss of autonomy due to uncontrollable rage, Bacik highlighted the difference in application of law based on gender. The provocation defense is seen as an objective measure of emotion and reaction when, in fact, it impacts women and men differently, especially when applied in cases of abuse. Similarly, in criminology, when faced with higher statistics of men committing crimes than women, Bacik highlighted that feminist criminologists would pose the question: “what about our construction of masculinity makes men more represented in crime statistics”, rather than focus on the actions of the women. Bacik pushed for action and activism such as litigating cases that support women or social issues or making sure to voice your opinions through voting and political action.

As the evening progressed, Ailbhe Smyth, advocate for women’s and LGBTQ rights and co-director of the Together for Yes campaign, read a piece of writing that reflected on the importance of storytelling. Smyth highlighted the impact of stories on how we as individuals think, exist, and communicate, and warned of misusing stories to disenfranchise, silence, and exclude individuals and groups that do not conform with social and cultural norms. “We need stories to change stories”, Smyth said, pointing out the necessity of counter-narratives. Since the 90s, Smyth explained, stories of hidden horrors have been systemically uncovered to reveal pains from the past that she feels comes grimly close to current truths. Finally, Smyth made a point to check her personal privilege, recognizing that she is in a position where her voice not only has the potential to shadow the voice of others but that she too could still become disenfranchised.

The fourth speaker of the night, Dr Mary McAuliffe, assistant professor in Gender Studies at University College Dublin, discussed her experience as a historian trying to highlight the experiences of women, specifically in Irish history. McAuliffe began by discussing an article she read, wherein the author argued that historians have not made enough progress in terms of highlighting women in history. In bringing up this article, McAuliffe pointed out that after her personal 40 years of working and researching in this field, many people are still uneasy with moving away from previous understandings of a male-dominated history. Her current research, McAuliffe explained, focuses on the treatment of women during the Irish Civil War and War of Independence. McAuliffe described how women were disciplined through violence, rape, and head shaving by the IRA for associating with the British, and how they were also assaulted and raped by the British as part of their guerilla warfare tactics. McAuliffe stated that for women in Ireland, “the home became a frontline”. Finally, McAuliffe pointed out that the leaders that condoned and participated in this abhorrent violence against women ultimately became the individuals that constructed and founded Irish society after the war.

Finally, Dr Julie Bates, assistant professor in the School of English at Trinity, discussed the work YU: The Lost Country by Dragana Jurisic, who followed the course of the novel, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, throughout what once was Yugoslavia. Jurisic took photos of the areas West spoke of, and documented them with her own commentary. The combined retelling of history by Jurisic and West, according to Bates, represents something similar to a Herstory, in that these two individuals are highlighting the neglected aspects of a history for a country that no longer exists. Bates argued that conventional understandings about the history of Yugoslavia contradict within the different countries that were derived from Yugoslavia, and that the representation given through the combined works of Jurisic and West are reflective of the unofficial, but legitimate, history of Yugoslavia.

Throughout the evening, each woman provided an interesting take on what feminism means and looks like in their individual fields. Significantly, they all highlighted the importance of stories and personal narratives in bringing these issues to light. The Herstory Salon provided a myriad of perspectives on issues caused by the underrepresentation of women, making it the perfect panel to jump-start Trinity’s Women’s Week.