By Joanna Lancashire
This morning of International Women’s Day 2017, I found myself reading about Stalin’s Daughter.
It should be considered formidably ironic that thoughts about liberation came in the context of reading about what is considered to be one of the most oppressive societies in the last century. The New Yorker article talked of Svetlana Alliluyeva (ne. Stalin) , the youngest and most treasured of the Soviet dictator’s children, who defected to the United States in 1967, leaving behind her two children and her old life. Svetlana’s two bestselling books were conflicted reflections of the father that she knew, not a political leader responsible for the slaughter of millions, but a comforting presence and a protector from an emotionally, and ultimately physically, absent mother. Svetlana, however, would live out the remainder of what was at times an unhappy life, even following name changes and efforts of escape, forever chased by her long-dead father’s shadow.
It is generally a privilege (though not, I think, in the case of Svetlana Stalin) to find ourselves in the company of those men that history or circumstance have considered of importance or strength. Notwithstanding however, it is ultimately and continually a struggle for great women to separate themselves – to show our own accomplishments and strength of character as standalone attributes, not as the consequences of another’s assistance. As in the case of the “everyone is somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s mother,” defence (shoutout to the defensive United States Congressional members for that gem) we can so often be defined by the weight of those around us. Escaping the prism-esque view of the men to whom we are linked is a sensitive but important task.
The difficulty ultimately lies in toeing the line between independence and separation, and it is one I myself have yet to reconcile completely. I am after all, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sibling, and possibly one day (though hopefully not any time in the remotely near future), I may be somebody’s wife, or somebody’s mother. Finding myself now in a country that criminalises abortion; one that values the role of the mother as one more important than that of a woman’s choice, it is a paradox that is hard to ignore. I hope and work for circumstances that appreciates me for those roles, but do not define me by them.
The narrative of feminism today is one that so often hinges on the struggles women must overcome, and walking around downtown Dublin today amongst REPEAL sweatshirts and lightening strikes with #repealthe8th on the sidewalks, it is certainly a narrative that cannot – and should not – be forgotten. The enduring Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “ a woman is like a tea bag, you don’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water,” is a permeating reminder of the fact that women (and particularly women of intersectional categories) are often in situations where we are at an automatic disadvantage. In what is increasingly a divisive political atmosphere, it can sometimes seem like the collective experience of a struggle is all that can unite us if we are to remove ourselves from the undertones of familial life, undertones that for many women, are a key part of their existence.
However, it is such a narrative that can overlook the accomplishments of the everyday, both through the lens of the roles that we fill in society, in our individual (badass) volitions and the incredible accomplishments of those women that rise to top in the spheres of politics, community, athletics, business, and beyond. Perhaps then, the third way is in recognising that our accomplishments, no matter how small, deserve respect from our peers as well as the men in our lives.
Let’s not get too presumptuous, though. We still have a long way to go.
The saying goes that behind every great man, there is a great woman. Well maybe beside great women, there are also great men. But today, for me, doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to a celebration of the amazing women in whose company we find ourselves, and who continue to inspire me personally every day. Tomorrow perhaps, I’ll go back quietly to my place, proud in the knowledge that I am far too big to be contained by it, and proud of the men who continue to support me.
Today though, and for the days to come, I am also somebody’s sister.