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Interview with Melanie Lynch - Ireland

Melanie Lynch

Melanie Lynch is the CEO, founder, and creative director of Herstory. Initially pursuing Mathematics & Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, she transitioned to art college. This led to a successful advertising career in London and Paris. A life-changing trip to Kenya in 2016 inspired her to establish Herstory. She launched significant initiatives like Herstory on RTÉ, Ireland's first comprehensive women's storytelling platform, and "Blazing a Trail," the first women's exhibition to circulate through the Irish Embassy network globally. Lynch spearheaded the successful campaign to recognize Brigid’s Day as Ireland's first national holiday honoring a woman. Besides her professional achievements, Lynch is a passionate feminist. She explores her migration story on RTÉ Culture and engages with the indigenous Dayak culture in Borneo. Her work reflects her belief in transforming gender conflicts into a collective pursuit of equality.

Women in Ireland

Irish women are often found in lower-paying jobs and are under-represented in decision-making positions. They are also disproportionately affected by gender-based violence. While significant progress has been made in gender equality, including legislation supporting equal treatment at work and rights to maternity and parental leave, challenges persist. Women remain underrepresented in leadership roles and are less likely to be promoted than men.

The 2021 Gender Equality Index from the European Institute for Gender Equality ranks Ireland 7th in the EU, with a score of 73.1 out of 100, which is 5.1 points above the EU average. Ireland's score has improved since 2010, but gender-based violence remains a significant problem. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue, with an increase in domestic violence and high-profile violent attacks on women.

Despite Ireland's progress in gender equality, there is still work needed to address the gender pay gap, underrepresentation of women in leadership, and gender-based violence.

Globally, some progress on women’s rights has been achieved. In Ireland, 83.3% of legal frameworks that promote, enforce and monitor gender equality under the SDG indicator, with a focus on violence against women, are in place. The adolescent birth rate is 6.2 per 1,000 women aged 15–19 as of 2018, down from 7.2 per 1,000 in 2017.

As of February 2021, only 22.5% of seats in parliament were held by women. In 2018, 3.3% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Also, women and girls aged 15+ spend 20.6% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 9% spent by men.

As of December 2020, only 45.9% of indicators needed to monitor the SDGs from a gender perspective were available. In addition, many areas – such as gender and poverty, physical and sexual harassment, women’s access to assets (including land), and gender and the environment – lack comparable methodologies for reguar monitoring. Closing these gender data gaps is essential for achieving gender-related SDG commitments in Ireland.

Interview with Melanie Lynch

This interview was organized and conducted by Ava Davis and Dylan Kay. Hanna Buford, Gracie Wohlford, Jessica Tran, Ella Fridrich, Molly Corriere, Christiauna Martin, and Jack Lokensgard contributed with their insightful questions. All of them were members of the Honors College and attended the “Cultural Contact Zones: Europe” class, which was offered by the John V. Roach Honors College in the Spring 2024 semester.

Hannah Buford:

What are the most prevalent stereotypes concerning women in Ireland?

Melanie Lynch:

Irish women, including myself, frequently apologize. Instead of saying "pardon" or "excuse me," we often say "sorry". Perhaps this is a result of the 800 years of colonialism that has made us too humble and often apologetic for our existence. This aspect of the Irish psyche is in need of healing.

The stereotype of the Irish mammy as formidable and adored is common. Irish mammies tend to overly protect their sons, allowing them to escape responsibility and avoid doing their share of household chores and childrearing duties. This behavior is often excused and needs to be challenged.

Angry feminism is a stereotype that is not confined to Ireland but is seen internationally. However, the feminist movement in Ireland is strong, with many women identifying as feminists. I see myself as a compassionate feminist, allowing myself to be an "angry feminist" just one day a week!

It's important to find a healthy outlet for that anger, and that's why I turn to creativity and the arts. This allows me to channel that powerful and potentially volatile energy into something positive, uplifting, and empowering. This approach has also been beneficial for my mental and physical health too.

While there is a lot of anger in the world, it's important to note that anger can be justified. However, what we choose to do with that anger is crucial.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Have these stereotypes changed over the last few decades?

Melanie Lynch:

One evolving stereotype centers around career roles and women's roles in the home. The Irish Constitution, since 1937, has stated that an Irish woman's place is in the home. This clause was instituted by Éamon de Valera, our first Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), influenced by his complicated relationship with his mother, effectively confining Irish women to domestic roles.

“If women stopped doing all their work in the informal economy then the formal economy and society would collapse.” - Hilary Clinton

Now we are reevaluating care and the role of the mother. We must respect and honor our mothers for their essential societal role, while also recognizing the value of care and unpaid labor. Why aren't we supporting careers more? The proposed new wording for the Constitution includes men, women, and everyone else, marking a shift in this stereotype.

The referendum has become more divisive, reflecting the evolving role of the Irish career woman and the need to support her not just with service, but with funding, government policy, and fair pay. Dr. Riane Eisler, a pioneering Austrian-American academic, has made significant contributions in this area. Her creation, the Social Wealth Index (SWI), challenges the capitalist GDP model and advocates for a proper valuation of care. Riane says that the SWI is “a new tool under development, that documents the enormous economic value of the work of care, its key role in a nation’s human capacity development, and what investments are needed for a better quality of life and a strong economy. The unaccounted value of the ‘invisible economy’ is estimated at $10.8 trillion globally. When accurately accounted for, care emerges as both a prime mover of economic growth and a reliable indicator of a nation’s current and future social well-being and economic vitality.” This economic restructuring from a more feminist perspective benefits everyone.

Gracie Wohlford:

Who is Brigid, and what is the significance of Ireland's first national holiday named after her?

Melanie Lynch:

Saint Brigid lived 1,500 years ago. This year marks the anniversary of her passing. Records show that she was an exceptional leader, far more progressive in many ways than the modern Catholic Church. As the founder of an abbey, her influence extended across Europe, not just within Ireland.

Saint Brigid was an environmentalist long before the environmental crisis and a staunch advocate for human rights. Before the Saint, the Celtic Goddess Brigid was celebrated across Europe from Turkey to Spain. While she is an archetype rather than a real person, her significance can't be overlooked. Mythological stories have a profound influence on our culture.

Consider the mythology of Roman and Greek civilizations or the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The narrative of Eve has been used to subordinate women for the past two millennia. Stories hold great power. Therefore, reawakening the stories of Brigid – Goddess and Saint - is crucial as it serves as empowering feminist storytelling, and challenges the regressive, patriarchal narratives such as Adam and Eve.

Jessica Tran:

What is the prevalent attitude toward domestic abuse in Ireland? Does the majority overlook this issue? Do men, women, or both consider violence in relationships as normal? Are specific demographics, like lower economic groups, more prone to being victims or perpetrators? Is there a decrease in reported domestic violence among younger generations?

Melanie Lynch:

No, not at all. I want to clarify that I'm not an expert in domestic violence. I recommend visiting the Safe Ireland website, our national domestic violence charity service. The former chair of the Herstory Education Trust Board served as the CEO of Safe Ireland for 20 years.

We often discussed domestic violence and the challenges it poses in Ireland and internationally.

The Covid-19 pandemic made the scale of domestic violence starkly evident, as incidents dramatically increased. The extended periods of time people spent at home, often in close contact with their abusers, significantly exacerbated the problem.

We're fortunate in Ireland to have a relatively new and dynamic Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee. Having held the position for nearly 2 years, she is making impressive strides in changing laws on domestic violence, sexual abuse, and coercive control. She's introduced a new government policy of zero tolerance for domestic violence.

A lot of research is being conducted, and a strong case is being assembled to combat domestic violence. However long-term solutions are difficult due to the pervasive normalization of violence in Hollywood, popular culture and the gaming industry. These powerful forces extend beyond Ireland's borders.

I believe that the media and popular culture have a significant role in this issue, especially in how they often romanticize violence and war, be it towards women, the environment, or other cultures. The current situation in Gaza is absolutely horrific and it’s shocking that this situation has been allowed to escalate and continue. Some elements of gaming culture make violence appear 'cool' and even 'sexy,' which is horrendous. Challenging these influences is a daunting task.

Ella Fridrich:

Why do you believe there is a correlation between the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in domestic violence?

Melanie Lynch:

As previously stated, research has indicated that people are spending significantly more time at home. During the Covid pandemic, this resulted in prolonged and more frequent contact with their abusers. The pandemic also led to a mental health crisis, creating a high-pressure environment conducive to violence and abuse. Domestic violence is the silent pandemic of our times.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

What actions is your government taking to address this issue?

Melanie Lynch:

Ireland has been led by two exceptional female Presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, who preceded Michael de Higgins. While the President's role in Ireland is largely ceremonial, it serves as a moral compass for the country. Despite constitutional restrictions on their speeches, these leaders have managed to voice their truths and serve as remarkable leaders.

Mary Robinson later became the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations. Mary McAleese, an expert in canon law, regularly challenges the Catholic Church while being a proud Catholic herself.

I'd like to see more outspoken male feminists in our government, similar to President Higgins. While we do have some, we certainly need more. We're fortunate to have numerous male allies for feminism in Ireland. In fact, I've received as much, if not more, support from men for Herstory than women.

It's essential that we acknowledge and involve men in the process towards equality. That's why Herstory is envisioned as a compassionate feminist movement. We aim to foster an inclusive, empowering space that doesn't resort to excessive anger, thereby avoiding division and alienation.

Hannah Buford:

How would you compare the issue of violence towards women in Europe to other parts of the world?

Melanie Lynch:

Frances Fitzgerald MEP is a former Minister for Justice, former Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister). Currently as a Member of the European Parliament, she is leading the charge to enact new legislation to protect women from domestic violence across the EU.

From what I understand, many European countries have legislation in place to combat domestic violence with real consequences. However, in some countries, particularly in the developing world, there often aren't any repercussions. In fact, reporting domestic violence can sometimes backfire on women.

It would be incredible if we could look back 100 years from now and consider domestic violence a thing of the past. However, we are up against powerful industries such as gaming and Hollywood, which often normalize and romanticize violence. Whether it's war or domestic violence, it's toxic and far from normal.

There should be legislation against the production of abusive, horrific movies. Such content does more harm than good.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Does Ireland's school curriculum include gender equality education? Do you think it should? If so, how would you recommend incorporating it?

Melanie Lynch:

I consulted Freda Wilkinson, a teacher at my former school, and she confirmed that gender equality is part of the curriculum in Ireland under the SPHE (Social, Political, and Health Education). You can find the details online. A new junior cycle course is now available, and a new senior curriculum is on its way, which I believe includes a module on gender equality. This topic is also being incorporated into Physical Education (PE) classes. It's encouraging to see the rate of change in this area.

Herstory serves as a platform for storytelling, with less involvement in policy-changing work. I've campaigned for more representation of women in the curriculum, though not specifically for gender equality studies.

Gracie Wohlford:

How would you compare the progress of women's rights and equality in London and Paris with that in Ireland?

Melanie Lynch:

I don’t have the statistics, but my perception would be that, historically, France and the UK were ahead of Ireland, with France often pioneering advancements towards equality. However, Ireland is catching up quickly. That’s a gift of being a small country. When there’s progress, it can happen fast. I have great respect for the French, who are often trailblazers and aren't afraid to protest.

During my year and a half in Paris, I observed their protests to be non-violent, highly civil and effective. This was unlike anything I had seen in Ireland. I didn't participate in my first march until my twenties, while in France, people of all ages were involved, from young children to grandparents.

Early in my work on Herstory, a French producer told me that she believed Irish women were more empowered and formidable than French women. I found this interesting, especially coming from a French woman.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Do young women participate more actively in politics than their mothers?

Melanie Lynch:

I believe that this generation is profoundly influenced by environmental issues and social media access to global events and politics. This situation presents its own set of challenges. At times, being aware of everything happening can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of powerlessness, depression, anxiety and apathy. However, it's crucial to realize that your generation is the most influential young generation in history. Greta Thunberg’s #Fridays4Future movement is the biggest youth movement in history and it’s working, influencing international policies and climate action.

When studying the stories of the women involved in the 1916 rising, it's fascinating to see how influential they were in the revolution leading to Irish independence and how this experience inspired their lifelong activism. Energized by the victory of Irish Independence, they championed various causes, such as working-class rights within the Trade Unions.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Do you believe in the political purpose of quotas? Do you think this is the best way to achieve equal political participation?

Melanie Lynch:

Sometimes, it's necessary, much as I wish it weren't. It's proven effective, even as an interim solution, until we reach a point where it's no longer needed. I'm pro quotas because they can accelerate change, otherwise, the process can be painfully slow.

Molly Corriere:

How might the lives of women in Ireland change if the vote to amend the Irish constitution is passed? Are there any recent events or reasons that initiated this vote, given that a significant amount of time has passed since the Irish constitution was written?

Melanie Lynch:

In Ireland, revising our constitution can be a slow process. One highly contentious clause in the Irish Constitution states that a woman's place is in the home.

Campaigns to amend this clause have been ongoing for decades, particularly intensifying in the last 10 years. However, hesitation exists due to the desire to conduct a civic forum to discuss potential new wording. The goal is not merely to remove the clause, but to replace it with a more progressive, gender-neutral version that enshrines the role of the carer – male or female – in our constitution.

The recent referendum on this issue has been surprisingly divisive. Yet, it has prompted important conversations about the value of care, women, and motherhood. As Hilary Clinton once noted, if women ceased their work in the informal economy, the entire economy would collapse.

A powerful example of this occurred in Iceland in 1975 when, for one day, women refused to lift a finger in the home or the workplace. The nation came to a standstill. This single day of inaction and activism led to a series of laws and reforms. That’s why Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index for several years.

Christiauna Martin:

What, in your opinion, is the most significant problem facing women in Ireland today? Do you envision a solution in the near future?

Melanie Lynch:

I think we should stop apologizing and assert ourselves more when asking for equal pay. However, there's already significant change occurring. On the other hand, you could argue that Irish women are quite confident, with many Irish men asserting that women practically run the country behind the scenes. Typically, women control how money is spent within families. Moreover, many senior roles in Ireland are currently held by women. For example, our Minister for Justice, Minister for Culture, Minister for Education, the CEOs of top funding foundations, and the Director of the Arts Council are all l women. We just need to remember the positive changes happening and use this to energise more activism and transformation.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Do men in Ireland support gender equality? Are there any differences across generations?

Melanie Lynch:

Yes, many men are outspoken feminists, and we need more. Some men don’t feel comfortable calling themselves feminists however they believe in equality and will vote for it. In Ireland, we don't have a macho male culture, so aggressive feminism can intimidate our men. That’s why Herstory takes a softer, more inclusive approach. We can only do this thanks to the pioneering first two waves of feminism that paved the way. The early feminists had a much tougher battle and faced shocking misogyny. There’s an opportunity to change the dynamic in the third wave of feminism. Now I believe we can turn the war of the sexes into a dance to equality.

We need to include men in feminist conversations and make them feel part of it. Progress is already being made. The referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment (Ireland’s reproductive rights referendum) was crucial for men's support.

I recall my brother, during a weekend in London, spent the entire night explaining to his male friends why they should vote for women's reproductive rights. Regarding the second part of the question, younger generations are generally more progressive. Referendums have profoundly influenced this, like the gay marriage referendum, which sparked important and healing discussions around gender. Men are indeed vital to these conversations.

Jessica Tran:

From your experience, what has been the most significant or moving impact of Herstory so far? What changes would you like to see Herstory make in Ireland, or globally, in the next few years?

Melanie Lynch:

The most significant impact for me is receiving feedback from young people and the public about how stories influence them. A prime example is the Peace Heroines project we launched in 2022, which explores the pivotal role of women in Northern Ireland's peace process.

Addressing such a sensitive topic is challenging because it's tied to civil war history, which can be divisive. We must be careful not to re-traumatize people. We collaborated with a brilliant educational psychologist Dr. Emma Black and the National Museums Northern Ireland. This peace process is one of the most successful in the world, marking 26 years of peace in Northern Ireland, despite claims by politicians and experts that it would be impossible.

Women in Palestine and Israel frequently refer to the Irish story as an example of what's possible. This project has a special place in our hearts. We took the exhibition to the United Nations in New York and the U.S. Congress. We also shared their stories in local communities throughout Northern Ireland to keep the peace process thriving, as it's a lifelong journey. Our focus is inspiring the next generation of peacebuilders, especially amid threats like Brexit.

In my future work, I'm eager to transform the fear and anxiety about the climate crisis into inspired action and a joyful reconnection with nature. In Ireland, we once had an indigenous culture that was severely damaged by British colonization. Although many aspects of Irish culture are now flourishing, with music, dance, sport, and art thriving again; there are elements still struggling to heal. Only 1% of our original forests survive, and our language is still recovering.

A deep love and joyful connection to nature is an integral part of our Celtic philosophy and we share this with indigenous cultures worldwide. On the other hand, capitalist Western cultures have forgotten our symbiotic relationship with nature. If we are to resolve the climate crisis, we must reassess our entire philosophy and relationship with the land, recognizing that it's not merely a resource for extraction or exploitation or a means to make money.

I've noticed the same trend in the Amazon, and I'm truly horrified by the extent of development there. Psychologists suggest that fear can lead to apocalypse fatigue and apathy. Many people are overwhelmed by the climate crisis, especially younger generations. We need to rethink our entire strategy, and see the opportunities for building a new, healthier, and happier relationship with our planet.

Jack Lokensgard:

Does Herstory focus on showcasing role models specifically for Irish women, or does the platform cater to women worldwide? Could you provide some examples of the women featured in Herstory?

Melanie Lynch:

Initially, the platform focused on Irish women, but we have since expanded internationally. My thesis on Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign taught me strategies for deconstructing colonial ideologies and racial stereotyping. I sought a creative solution to promote a healthier, empowering representation of people of color and marginalized voices.

Our Movement project shares the parallel life stories of migrant women from 30 different countries. These individuals emigrated for love, work, adventure, education, or often to escape war. For example, we connect the stories of an Irish emigrant and an immigrant who now calls Ireland home, finding common threads in their humanity, whilst spotlighting the discrimination and double-standards in how they are treated.

This project includes international stories and 'New Irish' stories, a term we use in Ireland to welcome immigrants. These immigrants celebrate their original identity while also becoming part of the 'New Irish.' I love that Ireland has transformed into a progressive multi-cultural society in my lifetime.

I am particularly proud of this project as I finally put my thesis into action. Research should not be left gathering dust in the library.

Most of the modern section on the Herstory website focuses on international stories and activism. I believe this is where our future lies.

Jessica Tran:

How are modern, historical, and mythical women identified and selected for the Herstory platform? Are there historians or other social scientists involved in this process? Who has a say in how these women are represented?

Melanie Lynch:

We have collaborated with historians, academics, and experts. We also conduct open calls to the public because many stories are not formally documented by academics. For example, we co-curated the Peace Heroines exhibition with the National Museums Northern Ireland. While they had conducted extensive research on the Troubles, there was a lack of women’s representation so we worked together to rectify this and write herstory into history.

We adopted a grassroots approach, reaching out to local historians across Northern Ireland to uncover these stories. We engaged with community centers and heard from many women who were hesitant to share their stories due to safety concerns and the fear of threats. Some women didn't perceive their stories as valuable. It was our job to convince these women that their stories matter, that they are local role models, and that young girls in their communities need to hear these stories.

This project was particularly challenging, as there were virtually no recorded stories outside the two main cities in Northern Ireland. Yet, we were hearing diverse perspectives that challenged stereotypes and propaganda. The curation process and the presentation of these stories is an art in itself.

I'm always in search of stories that will change perceptions and open hearts and minds. That's why it's key to start with intention. We need to understand why we're doing what we're doing, how we're going to do it, and how we can stay true to that vision.

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