[Guest Post] You Shall Not Go To The Ball

Cork Feminista has chosen the theme of ‘Sharing Stories’ for its celebration of International Women’s Day, 2012. I’d love to join everyone for an evening of story-sharing at the Metropole Hotel but I can’t, and why I can’t is part of my story…the story of disability as the Cinderella of feminism.

When the first Slutwalks started to happen the organisers were contacted by members of Black women’s groups who felt that the marches were a sign of white female privilege. They described their own experiences of walking on their own streets and their feelings of exclusion from this particular manifestation of feminist activism. They said that they felt that white western feminism should ‘reach out’ to them and their experiences. When I watched the Slutwalks and listened to their critics I wondered whether either side had any idea of how big a luxury it is for some women just to get past their front doors at all.

Issues of sexuality and race are dynamic and edgy, they’re the daily fodder of feminist blogs and forums. Disability and particularly the situation of those that care for the disabled are almost invisible. It’s not sexy, it’s not edgy and disability caring leaves precious little time for online presence. So the 80% of unpaid disability carers in Ireland who are women frequently remain isolated and unheard and the 20% who are men suffer the same fate for engaging in what State and society alike still consider to be low-status women’s work.

I am not disabled myself and so I am not qualified to write on behalf of women who are but my son is. The story of how that has affected my life is not just my story, it’s the story of the many other women like me and it’s a story that I want to be heard because I don’t think that disability and its implications should continue to be the Cinderella of feminism.

If a child is born disabled the change to your life starts straight away but my son is autistic and like so many others he was a perfect baby, developing normally until the age of fifteen months when his regression began. When a child starts to disintegrate before your eyes the very last thing you expect is that both your marriage and career will also have an alarmingly high likelihood of falling apart, as both of mine did. And you don’t expect to have to battle continuously with State systems that are both demeaning and begrudging and often insulting.

In the UK 34% of all single parents are primarily women with disabled children and most are in that position because their partner has been unable to cope and has left. The most recently available statistic for Ireland dates back to the 2006 Census and gives a figure of 8%, with no more recent estimates being currently available.

In my past life I was a university researcher/lecturer but the extreme demands and uncertainties of my son’s condition meant that there was no hope of that continuing. I’ve seen the same thing happen to many other working women as they’ve struggled against a tide of hopelessly inadequate supports and services that increasingly confine them to their homes and the desperately necessary care of their disabled children. As their capacity to generate earned income declines their reliance on benefits becomes inevitable and the callousness with which the present government has hit at the disabled and their carers has currently made a vulnerable situation much, much worse. And this is in spite of the fact that the cost of raising a disabled child is three times greater than a non-disabled one.

The impact on the lives of women raising disabled children alone is both personally and financially devastating as socialising becomes impossible and the waste of their employment expertise is huge. My son, at eighteen, is entirely home-based, requiring care 24/7/365. I was originally allocated only four hours per week of support cover for him. He can never be left alone but being severely autistic and intellectually disabled it is not always possible to do simple things like supermarket shopping with him in tow so some of that time has to cover basic things like this. It took two separate attempts at kicking up a stink to get our support hours raised to eight per week. There are one hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week and with just eight of them covered getting out of my front door is a big achievement. The truth is that mostly, for the other one hundred and sixty, I don’t.

So please, if you’re celebrating International Women’s Day with Cork Feminista then spare a thought for those who can’t be there and please do what you can to put disability on to the feminist agenda for 2012.

Gaia Charis … www.gaiacharis.com … for International Women’s Day, 2012.

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7 Responses to [Guest Post] You Shall Not Go To The Ball

  1. Percy Magdalene says:

    Thank you Gaia for reminding me about the ‘absent’ women – the ones no so much left behind by feminism, but forgotten and unnoticed in their absence. Thank you for reminding me that the right to free movement that I can enjoy, is not necessarily a privilege that other women – even in the West, in Europe, in the UK and Ireland, in my home town – can necessarily avail themselves of. Thank you also for spending you precious free hours writing and posting your thoughts and experiences for us to see – you generosity of spirit and soul is an inspiration to see.

    • gaia charis says:

      Thanks Percy…one of my own inspirations is the Black writer Patricia Hill-Collins and her work on Intersectionality, which shows the true complexity and fluidity of ‘privilege’ and concomitant disadvantage. I really wish that feminists of differing perspectives would not reproduce the divisiveness and hierarchical dynamics that are so characteristic of the patriarchal and masculinised mindset. If I could have a wish for International Women’s Day 2012 I would wish for global feminist understanding that we are all on the same path and also for an understanding that we should all, the world over, be connected by a constant flow of both ‘reaching out’ and being ‘reached out to’.

      • Percy Magdalene says:

        Patricia Hill-Collins is one of my inspirations too, and I employ her ‘matrix of domination’ theory in my own work. I share your frustration with the apparent struggle for dominance of voice of some of the different groups/perspectives within the feminist movement – the argument that ‘my’ feminism is better or more authentic than ‘your’ brand of feminism, seemingly forgetting that feminism is about equality, not superiority.

        I too yearn for a time when the myriad voices within the feminist movement can come together to speak of the value of women’s equal participation in society, and of the pernicious effects on all people (but particularly women and girls) of the system of gender. How wonderful it would be to imagine a world in which we were all free from the shackles of gender and the hierarchies (and matrices of domination) that they create.

        So my wish for IWD 2012 is for the scales to fall from people’s eyes – for our law-makers and change-makers to take the time to understand the complexity of subordination and disadvantage, for feminists to work together in all their glorious difference to the common goal of the full emancipation of women, and for all supporters of patriarchy (women and men alike) to realise that reliquishing power in the name of equality will not diminish them, and does not represent defeat in a war of the sexes.

        Here’s hoping…

  2. Colette Finn says:

    Dear Gaia,

    Thank you for sharing your story. Its beyond sad that we have built a society in Ireland that is so uncaring towards those who care and those that need to be cared for. I too was unable to attend on Thursday because of caring commitments. However my daughter will hopefully one day leave my home to make her own way in the world. Plus I also have the ability to combine a career and a social life with my caring role. You on the other hand find that your caring role is all consuming. I am involved in the 5050 group which is promoting greater female participation in politics. The Government is legislating for gender quotas at candidate selection for the next general election. I know you are critical of the idea that this will automatically change how we do politics. You are right – there are no gaurantees but we have to start somewhere. My hope which is why I put so much of my precious free time into this cause is that with more women at the decision making table that the caring element which is not part of the present economic formulas will change. I know that it may seem gauling that the women who are at the forefront of these campaigns are often very privelidged but it saddens me that this should be a cause for division. I don’t have your caring commitments but I do understand what its like to be expected ‘to do it all’ One of our founding members also has a son with autism and she has been unable to attend this issue as much as she would like. In the same way that I have been surprised by the support we have received from men and the opposition there has been from some women to greater gender balance in politics, I think its important not to be too critical of those that are at least trying to promote a better society.

  3. gaia charis says:

    Thank-you for your response Colette, which is to both of my last posts and not just this one. Whilst I agree with much of what you say I think it is important to clarify some aspects. I do not personally find the ‘privilege’ ( a concept which is far more fluid and complex than is usually considered ) of anyone else, either man or woman, to be galling and I must contest that it is this privilege that causes what you have termed as ‘divisions’.. This concept of division feeds in , I think, to your final comment where you say that it is important not to be too critical of ‘those that are at least trying to promote a better society.’
    Firstly, I must point out that nowhere in either article have I been critical of anyone’s attempts to create a better society nor have I been critical of either the concept of the mis-named ‘gender’ quotas ( quite the opposite in fact ) or those who are active in working towards this end. I have been specifically critical of the actions and attitudes of female politicians who have certainly appeared to have no understanding of the realities of life with disability and who have been willing to execute policies which would very radically reduce life quality for people who are extremely vulnerable and who are already well below the rest of the population with regard to their life quality. If the feminist cause requires me to remain silent on these issues then it will be a cause that I will regrettably, after many decades of commitment, find myself having to resign from.
    There are many ways to contribute to the promotion of a better society. Direct action ( as in the 50:50 group ) is one, analysis and comment is another. As someone who has, and does, work within both of the latter I feel it is important to contribute to that analysis and you may wish to browse the ‘Articles and papers’ section of my website http://www.gaiacharis.com, where there are pieces on both disability and gender.
    It is not ‘privilege’ that causes what you term as division..it is the actions of any politician, and in this case female ones, who firstly do not protect the very vulnerable and secondly, actively undermine them. If voicing the perspective of those in the latter position is perceived as ‘criticism’ , which could be construed as requiring them to keep quiet, then I would suggest that my warnings to feminism contained within my first article are not without foundation.

  4. Pingback: Disability: the Cinderella of feminism? | Women's Views on News

  5. Pingback: Disability: the Cinderella of feminism? « Sisters of Frida

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