Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020
Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020

DAY 1: The Future Is Female – Dalkey Book Fest

We are at a precarious moment.

Those of us who have been paying any attention to global events for the last while knows this to be true. The fundamentals that so many of us build our societies upon; striving to create a future better than the present – are under threat.

But hearing Catherine Mayer say this, here in Ireland, in the same week that this story made headlines around the world, feels ominous and cutting.

“Global progress is in danger of slipping away” she tells the crowd assembled in The Secret Garden. Her latest book, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, charts the rises and falls of gender equality over the years; a cause that has advanced, but not completed its mission.


But there is hope. “This is a moment of activism” Catherine says, as Jen O’Connell sits beside her, agreeing. “Moments of great progress do not happen at times of stability. This is a moment of opportunity.”

Catherine Mayer is a woman who walks the walk that backs up the talk. She co-founded the Women’s Equality Party in the UK – an organisation that now has over 65,000 members and 73 branches. But it’s inception was accidental; after attending a festival in Southbank, she rang her friend and fellow activist Sandi Toksvig with her vision of a national party to push the agenda of women’s equality. In a serendipitous encounter, Sandi replied “But that’s my idea, darling!”

The two formed the organisation in 2015, but the electoral process in the UK has not been a friend to equal representation.

“First past the post [systems] exclude women and minorities” Catherine tells Dalkey Book Fest. “We won’t get a parliament that reflects what we look like [under it].”

On the recent outcome of the UK election, she calls the deal between Theresa May and the DUP an “alliance of weakness”.

“Parliaments achieve parity either through direct quotas for government or direct quotas in parties” Catherine says.

She doesn’t believe it’s a solution. “It’s a short-term mechanism to speed progress.”

The speed of progress is at the cruz of gender equality; change is happening, but it is painfully slow. Which Catherine finds interesting given that gender inequality doesn’t work for anyone – men or women.

“Gender equality benefits men” she passionately tells the audience.

So how come there are so many young, white men who are against it? Catherine believes she knows why.

“Part of [their] anger is not understanding or seeing [the benefits], but being only thinking they are being oppressed and under attack.”

The truth, she says, is that the beneficial outcome is more closely aligned than they think. She gives an example of how the gender pay gap works against men. If fathers want to take more time off to spend with their children or take as much parental leave as their wives, often this is impossible as they earn more money. However, without the existence of the gender pay gap, this becomes more feasible and manageable.

On the subject of women and childrearing, Catherine made the astute observation that “Women are told something is wrong with them to be pregnant and not be happy about it.”

In fact, the language we use in the descriptions of women are very powerful. All too often, women are called “hysterical” in attempt to silence them.

As Catherine and Jen swap experiences of Silicon Valley, it’s an illuminating insight for our audience into an insular and secretive world.

“People who think they are liberal [but actually aren’t]… are as much as a problem as Arlene Foster. They are reinforcing the status quo – Silicon Valley is filled with those people” Catherine informs us. One cannot help but wonder how many faux liberals we all know in our own daily lives.

As the evening draws to a close, Catherine brings us through Equalia – the utopian place that she envisions in the final chapter of her new book.

Explaining why she chose to imagine such a place and use it to close the book, Catherine says “There is no country in the world that’s gender equal.” So instead, Catherine envisioned a world where we were all equal. It is a diverse, vibrant place that she paints with vividness and fairness. Only her words will do justice – words that close out Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Catherine urges everyone to take action. “We need to channel that energy… unless you do something with it, it disappears… Repeal the 8th, Women’s Aid, the National Women’s Council Women For Election…” she cites as ways to get involved in gender equality in Ireland.

Finally, Jen asks Catherine for her definition of feminism. It is simple and elegant – advocacy for women to the benefit of everyone. It is the parting thought, the rallying call to those of us gathered together under the night sky.