A woman’s place is in the kitchen?

The Rise of the Chef: The Skill of Cooking Becomes More Complicated

by Mary Farrell.

Women have always been involved with food: gathering food; growing food; processing food; cooking food; presenting food; feeding their families. This is something that is true across the world and throughout history. Yet in many societies, indeed most, women have tended to be poorly represented at higher-status activities associated with food. Think of the Michelin chefs, famous chefs, head chefs – do we automatically think of men? It is fascinating that, even in societies in which women are considered “liberated” from the restraints of traditional gender mores, and protected at work from the most egregious cases of gender discrimination, women are significantly under-represented as top chefs, and women’s writing about food has been typically relegated to the areas of domestic and family life. Even now, it seems that men’s involvement with food, whether in preparing it or writing about it in the public realm is seen as having more gravitas; as being, almost by definition, higher status. The question is why this is the case? How did it all get so confused? After all, women remain the predominant cooks in the domestic setting. In order to understand the particularity of this phenomenon we must look back through history in order to understand the curious state of affairs we now find ourselves in.


Illustration by Rita Blair

The Creation of the ‘Le Chef’

It is during the 17th century we witness the emergence of the concept ‘The Chef’. Early chefs were members of the military and were exclusively men when, in the 17th century, the landed nobility began to rely on chefs to prepare food. The employment of a man in this capacity was seen as a sign of one’s status at that time[1]. As chefs began to take on more power in shaping the cultural and culinary world around them, they searched for ways to separate cuisine with a high social value, or haute cuisine, from the everyday, and little valued, cookery of women[2].

It is also at this time, the era of the Industrial Revolution, that we see the emergence of two distinct spheres, the domestic/private/feminine on the one hand, and the professional /public/masculine on the other. Prior to this, most women and men’s lives overlapped. Most work was carried out around the home where women were the primary food providers and caretakers while also taking part in home-based manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution relegated women to the private realm of household management, child rearing and religious education, as factories split the family unit. Working-class men worked in the mines, mills, and workshops and women remained in the home with the farm and family, creating the concept of “homemaker”. This division reinforced an already gendered world by identifying separate spheres, unequally weighted in favour of the masculine and the public. This dichotomy prevails to this day and continues to underpin our understanding of the public/private realms and the concepts of masculine and feminine.

This gendered division of the skill of cooking, aided by the rise of separate spheres for men and women, prevented women from participating in the growing restaurant industry in Europe (Ferguson 2004). Men controlled the means of professional legitimation such as authoring cookbooks, teaching at culinary schools, and exhibiting at culinary expositions thereby juxtaposing men in the role of ‘‘educator’’, and their women audience members as ‘‘students’’, helping to institutionalise the exclusion of women from professional cooking (Ferguson 2004).

The terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are directly related to the separation of the public and the private sphere. The chef means “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen” and related directly to the métier of food preparation in the professional public sphere. The term cook is understood more as much more working class, understood as being a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, a cog in a wheel. The chef is a professional who goes through proper training and rises in the ranks of a military system, a term historically associated with men, whereas the cook is self-taught, home-schooled, working by instinct and has historically been associated with women and the private sphere. A chef is granted higher public status and the freedom to be creative and imaginative with their food; a cook may only be responsible for following the chef’s recipes and produce food. In Ratatouille, Revel believes that the raw edible materials in the hands of “mothers” can lead to some fine “craftsmanship” but not great art, whereas the chefs have to transcend everyday methods to realise a grand cuisine which should be restricted only to professionals, who are undoubtedly men. When Colette asks Linguini “How many women do you see in this kitchen?” her response is illuminating,

“Because Haute Cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world…” People think haute cuisine is snooty, so the chef needs to be snooty”[3].

Colette reveals that cuisine is associated with high culture and the world of the professional man whereas cooking is associated with working class people and women’s work. This hierarchical stance creates binaries – art/craft, cultivated or educated professional cuisines /local cooking, and male chefs/female cooks. This dichotomous relationship is played out in the world of the professional chef, where women and men are judged according to their gendered understanding of the skill of cooking within our culture, to women’s disadvantage[4]. The most recent academic work researching women chefs found that females are overly represented at the cook level and underrepresented at the head chef level, questioning whether the gendered understanding of chef and cooks reveal a bias against women based on their gender and historic hierarchical structures[5].


Illustration by Rita Blair

With the emergence of modern feminism, the predominant representations of the domestic are of oppression, entrapment, tyranny, enslavement; “captive wives and housebound mothers”. Women are portrayed as victims, subjects of male action and female biology, removing women’s agency and dismissing the domestic and the myriad of important actions that take place within this space. Betty Freidman argued in The Feminine Mystique that the domestic was contrary to the aims of feminism.  As a result, the relationship between the female, food and the domestic has long been identified as oppressive; a representation of powerlessness.  This has excluded the female in the domestic space from telling her story, who, while working within this private sphere was able to carve out her own area of power and independence. The greater intimacy, the very domesticity that is often seen to relegate women’s involvement with food to a “lower” level, also means that their cooking, writing and talk of food are rich with social context in the way that more formal involvement often is not, giving us abundant insight not just into their own and their family’s lives, but to social mores and historical context.

In recent years, food studies and third wave feminists have helped to open up the domestic space to further investigation, allowing us to recognise the significant lives of women in the domestic spheres. By conceptualising the kitchen as a space as opposed to a place, we can represent a site of multiple changing levels and degrees of freedom, self-awareness, subjectivity and agency.  Here, food studies uncover a relationship with food and the domestic that reveals “opportunities” to demonstrate creativity and skill, and accruing value within families and communities and increasing opportunities to express resistance and power; it permits a revision of the text to allow for more a “more nuanced, culturally inclusive consideration”, suggesting that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom and power for women even as it constrained them in other ways[6].

My PhD key factors for the gender disparity in head chef positions in the  restaurant industry in Ireland. It has always fascinated me as to why, when women carry out cooking in the domestic setting, it is men who consistently feature as the top chefs in my industry. The rise of the chef has resulted in a complicated and misunderstood relationship for women and their relationship with the skill of cooking.  The rise of the chef, married with the separation of the two spheres – the public and private – seems to me a good place to begin the story for women chefs and the many challenges they may face through their careers.  Many challenges remain for women in this industry but by looking back at how it all began it helps me frame my research and develop it through the lens of feminist discourse.



[1] Trubek, A. (2000), Haute Cuisine: How the French Created the Culinary Profession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[3] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[4] Swinbank, V. A. (2002). The Sexual Politics of Cooking: A Feminist Analysis of Culinary Hierarchy in Western Culture, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 15, pp.464–494.

[5] Harris Deborah A. & Patti Giuffre, Patti A, (2015), Taking the Heat , Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen , Rutgers University Press

[6] Abarca, Meredith E. (2008), Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. U.S.A: Library of Congress.


Women, Shakespeare, and Ireland: what ish my nation?

by Emer McHugh

Let’s begin with Henry V. It’s the scene where Captains Gower and Fluellen meet with their Irish and Scottish counterparts, Macmorris and Jamy, to discuss the siege of Harfleur. Macmorris and Fluellen have a particularly agitated conversation:

Fluellen. Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation.

Macmorris. Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal? What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? (3.3.61-65)

Even though he is a relatively minor character, Macmorris’ response there – ‘what ish my nation?’ – has been taken up as the starting-point for approaching issues of national identity in Irish literature and drama, and also as the linchpin for Shakespeare and Ireland studies as well. Of course, Macmorris’ predominance in such criticism does not come without its problems: Stephen O’Neill has drawn attention to how

‘[s]uch privileging [of Macmorris] has as much to do with Shakespeare’s centrality to the canon – stage Irish characters in other plays from the period have not been analysed to the same extent – as it does with the centrality of MacMorris’s questions to a play about conquest, cultural difference and national identity.’[1]

O’Neill is right to advise caution here, but I think that ‘what ish my nation?’ still carries meaning in Shakespeare and Ireland studies, and in 21st century Ireland too. I don’t have far to look: I look at my country’s treatment of its women.


Druid Theatre Company’s ‘DruidShakespeare’

Women and Ireland 

This year alone, I think of the unveiling and removal of the Maser Art mural at the Project Arts Centre. The establishment of the Repeal Project clothing company. #TwoWomenTravel, unflinching in its depiction of what Irish pregnant people are put through should they want to make choices for their own bodies. Brianna Parkins talking about wanting to see the Eighth Amendment repealed on the Rose of Tralee, an unlikely (but nevertheless, welcome) topic to be discussed on everyone’s favourite Lovely Girl competition. ‘We Face This Land’, a two-minute visualisation of Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem that dared to assert ‘The laws of the church have no place on your flesh […] Witches or women – these are our bodies which shall not be given up’.[2] However, Enda Kenny’s words still ring in my ears: ‘The T-shirts may be black and white writing on them but this is about people and people have different views.’ ‘This is about people’: but am I not a person? Are the twelve people who travel to the UK every single day not people as well? If my country does not recognise me as a person, then what ish my nation? (It’s also worth pointing out that his year also marks twenty years since the closure of the last Magdalene laundry in Ireland. I could go on about this country’s treatment of its women over decades.)

This is also a nation where its own national theatre omits – bar one playwright – women from its 1916 commemorative programme: leading to the birth of the #WakingTheFeminists movement, which, over the last year, has tirelessly worked to create change, equality, and equity in Irish theatre. Its work is far from over, but it is incredible to see how it has invigorated the theatrical landscape both in terms of scholarship and practice. (It’s certainly been a huge influence on my own research, as well as leading to the creation of Feminist Theatre Squadron, a podcast which I co-host with my colleagues.) When the movement was in its beginning stages, out of interest I decided to read up on the Abbey Theatre’s stats in performing Shakespeare. How many women have directed Shakespeare for the national theatre? I wanted to find out. And it turned out that, in the theatre’s 110+ years’ history, there had been only one woman who had done so. And she happens to be the incumbent artistic director of the Gate Theatre. (It was Selina Cartmell, by the way: King Lear in 2013.) I understand that Shakespeare may not be an immediate choice for Irish theatre practitioners: yet, as Mark Thornton Burnett cautions, ‘[a]lthough Shakespeare’s work can be seen as an imperial export, it also belongs to a broader dialogue – a system of negotiations, manipulations and imaginative reinscriptions.’[3] Shakespeare performance in an Irish context, then, can be a fascinating site for exploring issues of national identity. I also believe that it can be a fascinating site for exploring gender – for writing women back into the narrative.

Women & Shakespeare

As an intersectional feminist, I find myself grappling with the fact that I work on the most famous dead white man in all of Western literature. Shakespeare’s plays are not inherently feminist. But, the performance of his plays can be feminist. As Kim Solga writes, ‘feminist resistance to the gaze is both visual and structural; it’s a matter of both what is presented on stage, lifted up to audience view, and how that material is presented, the narrative that shapes its presentation.’[4] I also emphasise Sarah Werner’s idea that ‘all performances of Shakespeare engage in localized production of meaning’[5]: which has implications not only for the creative team’s approach to the play, but also audience members’ reception of the production: what I took away from it may not be the same as someone else in the audience that night. Margaret Jane Kidnie suggests that ‘a play, for all that it carries the rhetorical and ideological force of enduring stability, is not an object at all, but rather a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users.’[6] In line with Kidnie’s argument, I’d contend that any given Shakespeare production is one out of many products of an evolving process, that being the chosen play as it has been shaped by shifting cultural attitudes over time. So, in light of that, what I want to offer in this short piece are some examples of Irish Shakespeare performance that explore gender and feminism in interesting ways.

Druid Theatre Company’s DruidShakespeare premiered in May 2015. This was a seven-hour adaptation of the first Henriad into one continuous narrative, and in the three principle roles of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, the Henrys were played by women. Particularly in the case of Aisling O’Sullivan’s performance as Henry V, DruidShakespeare used the performance of gender to subvert conventional ideas and patterns in Shakespeare performance – quite pertinent given the cultural signifiers that Henry V as a character and as an icon of English patriotism produces. O’Sullivan spoke with a guttural County Kerry accent, not only recalling her previous roles for Druid but also throwing into sharp contrast the ghosts of previous Henrys, the majority of these male and having performed at British theatrical institutions that Worthen would describe as ‘institutionalized Shakespeare’: examples such as Hassell at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kenneth Branagh at the same theatre and on film, Jude Law for the Michael Grandage Company, Adrian Lester for the National Theatre, and Jamie Parker for Shakespeare’s Globe.[7]

Many of the theatres housing these performances are associated with institutionalised ideas of verse-speaking: indeed, some of them ‘have been extremely influential in the establishment of principles of Shakespearean verse speaking on the modern British stage.’[8] Not only that, O’Sullivan’s physical presence cut a distinctive presence. Considering the likes of Hassell, Branagh, Parker, Law, and Lester – all of whom played athletic, muscular, conventionally masculine Henrys – upon her first entrance, O’Sullivan’s Hal was lithe, wiry, and prone to posturing and slouching. Her chief uniform, too, was a large black leather jacket and jeans: contrasting with the royal livery with which we commonly associate Henry: not only a crown and a suit of armour, but the colours of red and blue, the three lions, and the fleur-de-lis (Hassell, Branagh, Law, and Parker all sported variations on this, harking back to Laurence Olivier’s take on the role). O’Sullivan is not the only female Henry in the current theatrical landscape: Lazarus Theatre Company produced an all-female version last year, and Michelle Terry played the role this year for Open Air Theatre.[9] Genderblind Shakespeare may not be innovative, but it is clear that O’Sullivan’s performance in itself is a response to conventions, traditions, and iconographies in Irish and Shakespeare performance practice – conventions that are predominantly quite male.

A feminist approach to Shakespeare

If we return to 2016, the most unexpected place to find an alternative response to this 1916 centenary year – a response which was certainly inspired by #WakingTheFeminists’ efforts – was in a reconstructed Elizabethan theatre on the Bankside in London. Caroline Byrne’s production of The Taming of the Shrew was announced as part of Emma Rice’s first season as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe earlier this year. In a press release announcing its final casting, the production was billed as marking ‘the centenary of the Easter Rising by revisiting 1916 Ireland and remembering the role of women in the fight for independence.’[10]

To be sure (perhaps because of where it was performed), this Shrew deals in commoditised Irishness – on the night I saw the production, the musicians played their jigs and reels on the bodhrán, tin whistle, fiddle, and guitar for the crowd’s pleasure. The production’s Irish Catholic context was brought to the fore: during her wedding, Katherina (Aoife Duffin) sat on top of two staircases that folded together to display a neon-light cross, whereas Petruchio’s (Edward Mac Liam) admission to Gremio (Raymond Keane) that ‘me father dead’ was met with numerous members of the cast blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. The text, too, was edited to add elements of Hiberno-English and Irish, such as ‘Jaysus’, ‘mo chara’, and ‘go raibh mile maith agaibh’.

But more pertinent in relation to the production’s feminist approach was the inclusion of additional songs, with lyrics written by the production’s dramaturg Morna Regan. A most notable example is the song ‘Numbered in the Song’ which, in Byrne’s words, ‘[remembers] all the women unsung by Irish history’, and was ‘in part inspired’ by Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, ‘where only the men are “numbered in the song”.’[11] This song, sung by Aoife Duffin as Katherina in a thick Dublin brogue, acted as an ongoing theme throughout the production: as Byrne simply states in an interview, ‘[i]t is a motif in the production, to be numbered in the song.’[12] The production also dispensed with Christopher Sly and the Induction in favour of Duffin performing the song after the musicians had left at the beginning, and Katherina’s singing closed the first half and also concluded the show. Again, this is part of this Shrew placing women – more specifically Katherina and her story – at its heart, and it is interesting that it did so through an appropriation of a male Irish writer’s words. With lyrics such as ‘The nation promised equality’, the song also threw into sharp relief the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in Ireland over the last hundred years.

From the get-go, the production was sympathetic to Katherina’s plight, and suggested that her taming by Petruchio was unnecessary and cruel. From Katherina’s spoken-word songs, to her newspaper being ripped out of her hand by her own father, to the production refusing to shy away from the psychological and emotional abuse Petruchio subjected her to (she spent the second half in her torn wedding dress, sleeping on a bed with only Petruchio’s cowskin cape as a duvet) – this Shrew emphasised the implications of a patriarchal Irish Catholic society on the lives of women. In doing so, it did not provide easy answers: Katherina delivered her final speech in resignation, anger, and frustration at the world she was forced to inhabit, and her relationship with a troubled-looking Petruchio was left up in the air.

Additionally, it emphasises these women’s voices: instead of Petruchio, Katherina was given the production’s final words through song, telling Petruchio that ‘I will not go to war with thee | Dulce et decorum est’ – the melody following the traditional tune ‘The Parting Glass’.[13] In addition, Amy Conroy’s Widow had an expanded role to play in this production: hovering in the background, quietly horrified at the misogyny unfolding on stage, providing quiet counsel to Katherina throughout. This relationship between the Widow and Katherina was built to the point where the final scene appears to be a battle between the former and Petruchio for the latter’s soul. (A Pyrrhic victory for Petruchio is implied here.) As Byrne comments, ‘[i]t’s not a play about the Easter Rising, but it attempts to chime with the experience of Irish women. The promises made in the [1916] Proclamation were not kept in the decades that followed and Irish women are still seeking equality to this day – much in the same way that Katherina is in Shrew’.[14] However, I am not sure if all of this was in the mind of Globe audiences throughout the production’s run. This is judging by the ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ chant Petruchio encouraged the crowd to partake in very early on in the evening, as well as the cheering and whooping that greeted a later kiss between the two. Both times, Duffin’s Katherina was uncomfortable and unwilling to participate. This is perhaps illustrative of Werner’s idea of ‘a performance of Shakespeare that reflects the individual viewer’s perceptions and desires as much as it does those of Shakespeare or the director’[15]: indeed, performance reception is always a composite of individual and collective responses.

Writing last year for the Irish Times and reflecting on the very first #WakingTheFeminists public meeting, Lian Bell commented that ‘[d]uring the past weeks, through the voices of a multitude of women and men speaking up as feminists, this word came to life for me. I realise how important exposure to a spectrum of stories is – next year more than ever.’[16] Bell’s idea of ‘exposure to a spectrum of stories’ is crucial here: not only in our commemoration of 1916, but also in the year of commemorating Shakespeare’s death and the constant reinforcing of his dominance in world culture. (I’d also argue that it’s crucial in the context of recent world events, as well.) Feminist Shakespeare performance should not be the only intervention to make, but at least it should be one of many: specifically in the case of Irish women as we attempt to rewrite what ish our nation indeed.

[1] Stephen O’Neill, ‘Beyond MacMorris: Shakespeare, Ireland and Critical Contexts’, in Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers, ed. by Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp.245-57 (p.247).

[2] ‘We Face This Land’, YouTube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=571vnkdrWC0 [accessed 27 November 2016].

[3] Mark Thornton Burnett, ‘Introduction’, in Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, ed. by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp.1-5 (p.4).

[4] Kim Solga, Theatre & Feminism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p.30.

[5] Sarah Werner, Shakespeare and Feminist Performance: Ideology on Stage (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p.19.

[6] Margaret Jane Kidnie, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p.1.

[7] Worthen, p.41.

[8] Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Shakespearean Verse-Speaking: Text and Theatre Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), p.1.

[9] See <https://openairtheatre.com/production/henry-v> and <http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Theater/production/stage/3410/> for more information on these two productions.

[10] ‘Globe Theatre Press Release – Shakespeare’s Globe announces full cast for Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew’, shakespearesglobe.com, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/uploads/files/2016/04/12.04.16_shrew_casting_release_final.pdf [accessed 18 October 2016].

[11] Caroline Byrne and Danielle Pearson, ‘Confronting the Shrew’, programme for The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2016), p.9.

[12] Byrne and Pearson, p.9.

[13] ‘Adopt An Actor: Katherine Played By Aoife Duffin: Performances 2’, shakespearesglobe.com, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/discovery-space/adopt-an-actor/archive/katherine-played-by-aoife-duffin/performances-2 [accessed 18 October 2016].

[14] Byrne and Pearson, p.8.

[15] Werner, p.102.

[16] Lian Bell, ‘Lian Bell: #WakingTheFeminists still waiting for the Abbey’, Irish Times, 16 December 2015, http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/lian-bell-wakingthefeminists-still-waiting-for-the-abbey-1.2467408 [accessed 3 October 2016].

Society & the female voice: Shakespeare’s Singing Madwomen

‘Enter Ophelia distracted’: Shakespeare’s Singing Madwomen


Ophelia, singing before she drowns in a river, by Sir John Everett Millais.

by Florence Hazrat.

She is noisy and uncontrollable, a nightmare at polite dinner evenings. She annoys everyone with her stories, it’s only always about doom and gloom! She is the embarrassing sister, the unmarried daughter, the taker, the trickster. She is the woman who withheld sex, she is Cassandra.

Cassandra, a princess of Troy, who predicts the city’s fall, but no-one believes her. Cassandra, favourite of Apollo, given the gift of prophecy in exchange for her body. Cassandra who accepts the one, but refuses the other. Cassandra the seer, punished by Apollo with the curse of disbelief — you may speak the truth, but if no-one trusts you, it sounds like babbling, like nonsense. It sounds like madness.

This classical myth of the prophetess who was never believed is described by Homer in his famous poem on the war of Troy, and it puts its finger on a knot of issues pervading culture then, as much as in the Renaissance, and perhaps even today: there’s something about women who speak – sing even – that makes people nervous, that slips through barriers of (male) control, and that has a privileged access to truths, and uncomfortable ones, too. Shakespeare taps into these perceived connections when he stages Cassandra in his play on the Troy story. It’s something he returns to throughout his dramatic career, exploring singing women on the stage, mad perhaps, but with a powerful instrument: their voice.

Society and the female voice

Apart from Cassandra there were other female prophets among the Greeks, notably the Sybils and the Pythia at the Delphian oracle, infamous for the puzzling nature of her pronouncements which the askers needed to interpret, and did, though catastrophically wrong most of the time. Being an oracle, etymologically, means to speak. How can one speak, though, in societies that prize silence and reservation as female virtue? From Socrates to Shakespeare, a voice ‘soft/ Gentle and low’ was seen as ‘an excellent thing in woman’ (King Lear, 5.3). My research investigates the link between female singing on (and off) stage, as well as women’s use of song to fashion and assert their identities in the sixteenth century. I’m excited about the implications of this for what we think about women speaking in public and private today, from me and you to Lady Gaga and Hilary Clinton. Might our own concepts of talkative or loud or simply outspoken women be coloured by the past more than we might be aware of, and like to admit?

Much like us, Renaissance playwrights inherited a mixed bag of attitudes towards, and explorations of, gender. Women who did not conform to a role subservient to men needed to be controlled, which meant imposing silence, a restricting and disciplining of speech by husbands, brothers, fathers. This process is documented in Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew which sets our teeth on edge today (and perhaps also those of some Elizabethan Londoners? Who knows.) It seems women had little chance of expressing themselves in more than prescribed and pre-scripted ways, but there appears to be one way, albeit a risky and tragic one, to claim independence of words, and that was madness. Not any kind of mad behaviour, but one whose symptom (or cause?) is music, a wild eruption into song, violent, disturbing, and disruptive.

Ophelia: Shakespeare’s first singing madwoman

Shakespeare’s first singing madwoman, perhaps even initiating a trend for such types and their representation in the theatre, is Ophelia, a young gentlewoman at the Danish court, and Hamlet’s sometime lover. Owing to his unaccountable rejection of her, as well as (more grievously) his murder of her father, she loses her mind, bursting onto the scene ‘distracted’, the stage directions tell us. More precisely, as one of the text versions from 1603 specifies, she is ‘playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing.‘ Public performance of music, even just within the story’s own court setting, was an inconceivably forward attention-seeking gesture for a gentlelady, clearly labelling Ophelia as out of her wits. She then launches into a cascade of fragments from songs popular at the time, some bawdy, some mournful, and sacred even, and it is precisely this mixed nature of her songs, which is problematic for the Renaissance playgoer: Ophelia’s songs are broken up into snippets, and randomly stitched together, a seemingly disconnected medley whose meaning we can only guess at — but therein lies exactly her powerful threat against the authorities. Interpretation. Ophelia’s songs make us interpret, and consciously so, as suggested by a nervous courtier who prepares the audience for her first entry in another version of the play text a year later:

Gentleman. She speaks much of her father, says she hears

There’s tricks in the world, and hems, and beats her heart,

Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt

That carry but half sense, her speech is nothing,

Yet the unshaped use of it doth move

 The hearers to collection, they yawn at it,

 And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,

Which as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them,

Indeed would make one think there might be thought

Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.

Horatio. It were good she were spoken with, for she may strew

Dangerous conjectures in ill breeding minds.   (Hamlet, 4.5).

‘Her speech is nothing’…Yet it is something enough to engage her listeners, to encourage them to figure out less which songs she is pasting together but why. Primed by the courtier to read deeper meaning into her supposedly random associations, we become complicit in Ophelia’s possibly political public music. Is she suggesting her father’s killing was murder? Does she mean there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark? Are we, perhaps, those ‘ill breeding minds’ in the end…?

Music: at the heart of the issue

By claiming the right to speak, Ophelia transgresses limits of aural female presence, more even, by lifting her speech into song, she offends twice, but it is precisely music which both enables and attenuates charges against her crime of song: are these truly her words, or are they just lyrics belonging to everyone? Or no-one? We have all sung these songs at one time or another; does that make us culpable of inciting rebellion against the king and queen? Does Ophelia, perhaps, become the avenger that Hamlet ought to be whose father was also murdered? And does music mean anything anyway? It’s just sound after all! Music, it seems, is both a screen and at the heart of the issue of the female voice, ambiguously “there” and self-effacing at the same time.

More singing madwomen were to follow Ophelia and Cassandra, such as the Jailor’s Daughter in Shakespeare’s late play Two Noble Kinsmen, but also in works by other playwrights. The Renaissance stage was a network of players and writers who knew each other intimately, and cooperated more often than not, circulating and recycling ideas from each other. In the pieces of these dramatists, madwomen use pre-existing words to speak about their own situations, like oracles to speak truths which their environment tries to suppress as well as interpret. Being forbidden a voice of their own, they make the voice of everyone theirs, turning collective into individual identity. Music, almost beyond good and evil, offers women a means to carve out an independent, a noisy self. In a tragedy, that outspoken (outsung?) self often perishes, either by her own or at others’ hands, and yet: the claim to presence and acknowledgement of female personhood has been made. The silence has been broken, and phenomenally so, when Cassandra, rocked by a vision, bursts out like a vocal volcano:

                             Cry, Trojans, cry! practise your eyes with tears!

                        Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilion stand;

                         Our firebrand brother, Paris, burns us all.

                             Cry, Trojans, cry!

She is greeted by her brothers as ‘our mad sister’, but… every single one of these brothers will be dead soon, as much as the fortress city will have crumbled into dust and ashes. Then we will mingle our voice with Cassandra’s, having nothing else to do but mourn and cry.


Cassandra, by Frederick Sandys.

#WakingTheFeminists: ringing the alarm for gender equality in theatre

by Women Are Boring.


Image via Broadsheet.ie

This month, we’ve decided to dedicate a feature to women in theatre, and what better way to do that than by talking about #WakingTheFeminists? Many of you in Ireland will likely be familiar with the movement already, but for those of you abroad, here’s a short explainer from the movement itself: Waking The Feminists is ‘a grassroots movement calling for equality for women across the Irish theatre sector.’ It started in response to the fact that, when Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey theatre, launched its programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, only one of the ten plays programmed was written by a woman, and only three were directed by women. In May 2016, the movement became the first organisation or person outside the U.S. to be presented with a Lilly Award, and has garnered support from people like Meryl Streep.

This feature brings together the voices of three women working in different aspects of theatre in Ireland – Áine Ní Laoghaire, an actor; Dr. Brenda Donohue, a researcher and dramaturg; and director Maeve Stone, who coined #WakingTheFeminists. We also have a video by young dramaturg Katie Poushpom on her ten favourite female theatre-makers from Ireland and abroad. Enjoy, be inspired, and do some waking of your own.

‘This campaign makes revolutionaries of us all’

by Áine Ní Laoghaire.

Aine Ni Laoghaire headshot 2015

Factory Girls, Frank McGuinness’s debut play, was inspired by the strong, difficult women he was raised by. Women who were capable. Women who could shift from aggressive to jovial, to heartbreakingly vulnerable in nothing more than an intake of breath. Revolutionary women, who refused to be walked on when the system worked against them.

In the year following the beginning of Waking The Feminists, a year of both centenary celebrations and calls to repeal the 8th amendment, it was a gift as an actor to represent women like this.In response to the #WakingTheFeminists campaign, Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre, Julie Kelleher, had programmed a rehearsed reading series featuring only female (and Cork related) playwrights. The decision to stage Factory Girls was a conscious continuation of that response.

 A single play by a male playwright, outside of a Dublin-centric theatre world might not appear to have the potential to have any real impact. But the 11 women (5 actors, 2 stage managers, a director, a producer, a costume designer, and a hair and make up artist) hired for Factory Girls, and the predominantly female audience of the show might beg to differ. Despite female actors being in the majority of theatre graduates, only 38% of those women are working professionally at any given time. Theatre going audiences are made up of 60-70% women.

This audience was filled with groups of women. They cheered every night, without fail, at one characters defiant “Fuck off yourself” to a bullying husband. They shared their recollections of factory life with us afterwards in the bar. And without fail, every night, someone would comment on how “mad it is to see women like us up there.” Before Waking The Feminists I was as unfamiliar with my own stories and with my own voice.

In the Abbey, on the 12th of November 2015, I was struck by the articulacy and conviction with which other people spoke. But I remained silent. I was in the habit of doing so. I’d gotten so used to fighting for my voice to be heard that I’d stopped bothering to raise it in the first place. I’d so often been the only girl (as I was always referred to in the rehearsal room) that in order to join the boys club, I’d had to let all sorts of comments slide. But on hearing my own experiences echoed back to me from that stage on that day, something shifted, imperceptibly.

I began to feel uneasy certain comments were going unchallenged, and then when I wasn’t the person who challenged them. I started asking for apologies when I was spoken to disrespectfully inside or outside of the rehearsal room. I refused to audition for roles that were unnecessarily sexualised.

Those actions were my own way of responding to the Waking The Feminists campaign. They are minor in comparison to the Trojan work of those at the very heart of the campaign. But when we choose to commit to the ethos of Waking The Feminists, personally and professionally, this campaign make revolutionaries of us all.

#WTF: Translating Lived Experience into Numbers

by Dr. Brenda Donohue

#WakingTheFeminists is a grassroots movement that came about in reaction to a programme commemorating 1916 that did not include women in a significant way. In November 2015, after the Abbey Theatre announced a commemoration line-up that featured only one woman writer and three female directors, reaction on social media was swift and impassioned. Spurred on by Lian Bell’s Facebook post, a new feminist movement was born. This organisation, #WakingTheFeminists, now actively campaigns for gender equality in theatre in Ireland. Since November, the movement has grown, first in the virtual space of social media, and then in the real world through a series of large, public meetings, and informal get-togethers. #WakingTheFeminists has inspired women in diverse sectors, not just theatre, to recount their experiences and to search out ways to address gender imbalance.

As part of the #WakingTheFeminists movement, I, along with a team of volunteer researchers, am conducting a study that examines gender balance in the Irish theatre industry over the last 10 years. The study examines key creative and technical roles in theatre in the top ten Arts Council-funded organisations that produce or present theatre in Ireland. The project is receiving institutional support from the Irish Theatre Institute, the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway, and from the Arts Council.

The impetus for this research came from a notable lack of statistical information on the issue in an Irish context. While the Irish Theatre Institute and Theatre Forum have recently published valuable studies on aspects of the Irish theatre industry, a comprehensive study of gender in Irish theatre has yet to be published. This was a particular challenge while researching and writing my doctoral thesis on contemporary female playwrights; although it was plain to see that there was a dearth of productions by women on the main Irish stages, there was no statistical evidence to back up anecdotal accounts.

In the context of such an informational vacuum, the real extent of the problem is currently not known. While we suspect that women playwrights and directors are underrepresented on the Irish stages, we simply can’t say for certain if this is true. A host of questions remain unanswered- Are women well represented in the roles of set and lighting designer? Are there more women in costume design than men?  Is the situation for women improving, or is it static?

If we do not understand the nature of the problem and its different facets, then it will be a challenge to find effective solutions to address the imbalance. Strategies and policies need to be written and implemented from a strong evidence base. This #WakingTheFeminists study, therefore, has two aims; firstly it will describe the problem of gender imbalance in Irish theatre in a nuanced way, and secondly it will create a baseline against which the effectiveness of proposed solutions can be measured.

The report emanating from this research will be published in November 2016. Until then, the team of volunteer researchers will be working at improbable hours to fill the identified informational gap!

‘#WakingTheFeminists has charged the air with new language’

by Maeve Stone.

Maeve Stone

My first response to the Abbey’s 2016 “Waking the Nation” programme launch last November was a tongue-in-cheek tweet: “Waking The Feminists”. Lian Bell began using it as a hashtag to centralise a wide conversation that had gathered unstoppable momentum online. And that, I guess, is how I accidentally named #WakingTheFeminists. Thing is, it’s pretty obvious and I know someone else would have thought of it if I hadn’t. I’m unendingly proud of my connection to this origin story for such a key moment in recent Irish theatre, but ultimately it feels like it was just looking for a mouth to come out of.

And I think that’s probably the single biggest asset of this whole movement. Nobody owns it, it belongs to us all. Asides from sounding incredibly idealist I think this perception has defined a few key qualities of the movement since its inception almost a year ago. People have taken ownership, using it as a platform to form networks and communities. This movement came into being because there was no public forum for discussion of feminist theatre in Ireland, or of the gender inequalities in policy and pay. In the months preceding it I had had several furtive chats – one even in the Abbey lobby – about the work of women in Ireland, bemoaning the absence of the word feminism in our cultural lexicon. It has also created a core #WTF team who have worked quietly and consistently with a set agenda.

Two things are coming (apart from Winter); The anniversary of the November meeting that will mark the end of that team’s year long commitment, and new artistic directors at The Abbey and The Gate. It’s inevitable that people will begin a review of what has been achieved in the past year, and some will claim that a noisy beginning faded too quickly. But I’ve seen behind the curtain – so to speak – and would challenge that opinion. There’s a sense when you sit in a room with the #WTF team that very little ego is in play. What they have sought, and are winning, is policy change. It’s not glamorous or dramatic. Foundational negotiations that will affect everything herein, but lack the narrative appeal of a big explosive, short lived event. For example, if The Abbey had changed its programme this would have appeared to many as the ultimate victory. But “Waking The Nation” was never the problem, it was a symptom of the problem. Having the skills and patience to figure out the way to begin to fix the source of a very structural issue is an entirely different beast. People like Lian, Sarah Durcan, Dairne O’Sullivan, Anne Clarke, Lisa Tierney Keogh, Maria Flemming, Lynne Parker, Caroline Williams, Aisling O’Brien, Niamh Ní Chonchubhair and Kate Ferris have maintained a quiet and relentless grip on the wheel. They had long-lasting policy change in mind and they’re getting it done. Sarah Durcan is even now an Abbey board member!

As for the new boys in the big houses… They walked into a new scene. One that’s humming with women’s voices. I’m hopeful that we, who have found each other, who have acted in solidarity, can continue to work on the foundational shifts. I think #WakingTheFeminists has charged the air with new language. It has opened up the space for feminist thinking in a town where the big houses (The Gate and The Abbey) could sometimes feel heavy with the sound of old, rasping, Herculean masculinity. And it’s important that we have this because the movement will continue in the hands of us all, this network, this community. When Lian and the team step away, the change won’t stop.

(Side note:  I suspect we’re going to need strong feminist networks working together for change in the next couple of years… #RepealThe8th)

Follow the #WakingTheFeminists movement on Twitter at @WTFeminists, and visit their site here.

Want to know about more women in theatre from all over the world? Katie has got you covered! Have a look at her video and learn about her ten favourite female theatre-makers, including Lady Augusta Gregory, co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland; Lorraine Hansberry, the first African-American woman to write a play performed on Broadway; Teresa Deevy, an Irish dramatist and Cumann na mBan member from Waterford; and Pulitzer prize winner Suzan Lori-Parks.

“It puts you in a place like a bottle”: Stigma, shame, and gender based violence

By Carol Ballantine

I’m fascinated by stigma. It’s the way that social judgements, seemingly innocuous and even random in themselves, can determine the whole lives of individuals. Stigma increases HIV infections, it isolates people who need human support, it results in cruel discrimination. One Kenyan woman put it powerfully, in a conversation with researchers for the NGO Trócaire:

Stigma … it puts you in a place like in a bottle. You don’t know how you can get out of it… It’s like something that kills you slowly. It follows you everywhere you go ‘til it finishes you.”[1]

We all do it. We all stigmatise without even realising it. Identifying stigma is the first step to taking away its power.


Stigma refers to the social judgement that particular characteristics or attributes are undesirable. The first theorist of the subject, Erving Goffman, referred to stigma as a “spoiled social identity”. This captures the sense that, owing to public judgement, one’s entire identity can be devalued – in the eyes of others, and even in one’s own eyes.

Stigmas attach to all sorts of attributes: behaviours; conditions; diseases and beliefs. The subject most closely associated with stigma in the popular mind, particularly in countries like Ireland, is mental health and mental illness. Certain diseases are also heavily stigmatised, such as HIV, leprosy and TB.

My research is beginning to look at how we can understand the impact of gender based violence by understanding the stigma that goes along with it.

In recent decades, the importance of stigma has been well established in the field of public health. Epidemiologists aim to understand how human interactions and behaviours affect health and disease conditions. Stigma is a crucial piece of this puzzle. Stigma prevents people from accessing the medical and psycho-social services that they need to overcome their afflictions. For example, estimates indicate that nearly two thirds of all Americans with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek help. This is particularly problematic when it comes to infectious diseases. In the case of HIV, not only does pervasive stigma prevent people from seeking medical care, it also prevents people from disclosing their HIV status to others, or discussing HIV with others. This tendency to conceal and avoid mention of the virus enables new infections and confounds attempts to control transmission.


If we are ever to address large-scale public health issues like mental illness and HIV (among many others), the importance of tackling stigma is well established. But that’s not the only – nor even the most important – reason to address stigma. Because stigma has a corrosive effect on individual lives. It causes isolation and exclusion, the loss of family and friends at the very time when they’re most needed. It can cause self-doubt, self-blame, self-hatred. In the course of my work, I’ve spent time with lots of people who are (among other things) HIV positive, in Ireland and Honduras, Kenya and Ethiopia. When they’ve talked about their diagnosis, they’ve unfailingly talked about the stigma that goes with it. Sometimes it sounds like stigma is a symptom of the disease. Sometimes it sounds like stigma is worse than the disease.

Stigma and Gender Based Violence

I am working on a research project investigating the social impacts of gender based violence (GBV) against women. The term GBV refers to violence directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex[2]. While women, men, boys and girls can be the victims of gender-based violence, women and girls are the main victims. Like mental illness or HIV, violence against women is a global public health concern, since it is the cause of both morbidity and mortality in women of all ages. It’s also a global human rights concern: women worldwide can’t live their lives to the fullness of their potential because of physical, sexual, financial and emotional insecurity and trauma.


Stigma is relevant when it comes to understanding gender based violence: both how the violence continues to be perpetrated, and how it impacts people.

Recent analysis of data across thirty low income countries showed that on average, only 6% of women exposed to intimate partner violence approached formal services such as health care or police.

While there are many reasons for women to avoid formal services, one of these is definitely a sense of judgement, of blame, and anticipation of gossip and social rejection. In one study, twenty so-called battered women from Israel discussed their feelings of self-stigma. Here is one woman speaking:

“In fact, why doesn’t a woman complain? She is ashamed that people would find out that she is beaten. She is ashamed to go to the police. This shame is one of the reasons that she doesn’t complain.” [3]

And another woman who was assaulted, from the same Kenya study as before:

“I fear that I will tell them [neighbours and friends] and they will start talking about me and laughing. I do not like that because they will know what is happening in my home and they will go around telling everyone about it.”[4]

We are living in a moment where this stigma is beginning to be recognised and named: that’s why concepts like rape culture and victim blaming are becoming commonplace in some communities and spaces. But stigma is a sticky phenomenon, and shifting it means seeing its many differing dimensions.

Complicating the public stigma that attaches to GBV is the shame that is an almost constant state for many women. Shame is not the same thing as stigma: it is a painful emotion involving a negative self-judgement that affects the whole self. Stigma produces shame, and this can be the most insidious impact of stigma, as it turns a person against herself. And there is good evidence that shame affects women more than men, and differently to men. For Freud, shame was “the feminine emotion par excellence”. Sandra Bartky argues that for many women it may be “the pervasive affective taste of a life”. Triggered by stigmatising public attitudes and gendered emotional dispositions (that is, emotional dispositions that are patriarchally constructed and shaped), shame can take hold on women. It silences them. It makes them complicit in their own victimisation. It enables the abuse and the violence to continue.

As with all other stigmatised conditions, stigma related to GBV is important for at least two reasons. First, for the undeniable impact that it has on individuals: the limitations that it places on their own physical and mental health (through failing to seek help, and loss of self-esteem) and through the isolation and mistreatment it often provokes, the gossip, cruelty and exclusion. And second, for the insidious role that stigma plays in enabling violence to continue. Stigma keeps women in abusive situations, blaming themselves for the violence, or fearing the judgement of others if they leave. It tells perpetrators that they are less than fully responsible, that the victim bears at least some, if not all of the blame. Of course stigma is not the only thing that holds gender based violence in place – but it’s a powerful contributor.

Stigma is a profoundly conservative force, policing the norms that are open to discussion. Because it operates internally in the psyche of stigmatised individuals, it often militates against solidarity, organising and collective action. And yet it works the other way too.

At times, the best reaction to having a label applied to you without your consent is to embrace the label, claim it, and use it as the basis of new forms of solidarity. This has happened to good effect with HIV – though nobody could say that the stigma has evaporated as a result. Stigmatised identities are often reactive and defensive (who would choose to define themselves as a survivor of domestic violence unless they felt they had to?). The support that develops within the community can stand in marked contrast to the continuing derision outside it. The responsibility for shifting the norms, attitudes and beliefs that inform stigma can’t be left to the victims of stigma alone.

Researching GBV stigma

My PhD research is looking at the impacts of gender-based violence, and the role of stigma and shame in amplifying and multiplying these impacts. One element of stigma is that, while it attaches to GBV almost everywhere, the dynamic is very different depending on the norms that prevail, the ways that people interact, and people’s material conditions and values. In my research, I’m focusing on migrant women living in Ireland. They already confront stigma and shame related to their migrant status, and often their status as women in their own communities. I want to know about how gender based violence has affected their lives, and the role stigma has played in this.


In spite of a critical absence of comprehensive data on experiences of violence, small studies emerge and shed light on this situation, as I hope my research will. This year Wezesha, an African diaspora organisation, released a damning report on the experiences of migrant women affected by conflict living in Ireland. The report is full of disturbing detail about migrant lives in Ireland, and the layers of trauma, victimisation and strength that emerge don’t fit in any easy frameworks. Nonetheless, the ring of stigma and shame sounds clearly through the noise:

“Women have even expressed how they are fearful of speaking with their doctor about their past experience of trauma, depression and stress saying that once it is entered into hospital records it will impact on their possibility of accessing jobs in the future. They indicated that all they want is to move on with their lives.” The threat of social opprobrium, holding people down.

I plan to investigate lifetime experiences of GBV among a small group of migrants in Ireland. I want to examine the ways that GBV has affected their lives and their communities, and the part that stigma and shame have played.


Spending four years on a research study feels a bit like self- indulgence. Like any apprenticeship, the deepest implications are personal. I am meeting myself in new ways, and of course encountering the ways in which this line of enquiry was prompted by my own extreme proclivity to shame.

I see the insidious power of stigma everywhere – and the dazzling strength of shamelessness.

While activists have done an excellent job of popularising the idea of victim-blaming, using a public health model to understand the patterns and effects of stigma enables us to view it clearly as a policy issue. This study will contribute to an understanding of how violence is experienced by marginalised individuals and the interventions that can help promote prevention, protection and punishment. Here in Ireland, we don’t have detailed knowledge about gender based violence (who is most affected, where and when?) – largely because of savage cuts to all but frontline services (the last comprehensive study on sexual violence in Ireland, for example, was conducted in 2002, when levels of migration into Ireland were far lower than they currently are, and migrants were not even included among the marginalised groups identified). This qualitative study will give an insight into one largely under-served group in the population, their experiences and the barriers they face to seeking help.

Beyond my small study cohort, I hope to show that stigma has an impact of its own on people’s lives, an impact that is additional to and separate from the violence itself. In as much as violence prevents people from taking part in community life, I want to examine the role that stigma plays. This has implications for the priority that we give to eliminating gender based violence – and for the ways in which we do so. I’m hoping that I can also shed more light on the seemingly intractable persistence of gender based violence, in every society in the world.


[1] From an unpublished research study by Jessica Penwell Barnett and Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, 2013

[2] This definition is drawn from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

[3] Buchbinder and Eisikovits, 2003

[4] Barnett and Matcika-Tyndale, 2013