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'Boy' reflects on International Women's Day

Seona Smiles
Sunday, March 11, 2018

WHEN I was born, my mother Violet had decided she was having a boy. Violet was rather stressed out at the time — it was just at the end of World War II and my father had not made it home although Violet was not yet a widow. And she had decided my poor father wanted a son and that was what I was to be.

I don't think the Twilight Sleep helped. That was something the baby doctors were trying on stressed-out war veterans. Violet, like my father, had been in the Air Force and was now anxious about everything, especially giving birth.

Her own mother, my grandmother George (short for Georgina), flew to be with her. If you knew my grandmother you would know that was not the sort of thing to make you any less anxious.

The doctor gave Violet the Twilight Sleep and she knocked out for three days. I was basically removed by the doctor and looked after by the nurses until my grandmother lost patience with my continual crying — I was hungry, for goodness sake — and gave Violet a smack across the back of the head and told her to wake up.

The Twilight Sleep was ultimately considered quite dangerous and removed from obstetric practice.

My father's family decided I should be named and christened as quickly as possible, especially as Violet was an inexperienced mother and I could be at risk, to put it mildly. Effects of the Twilight Sleep may have lingered, because Violet insisted my name was Anthony. The rellies told her it wasn't a suitable name for a girl, and Violet said "well that's all right then".

This difference of opinion continued as far as the baptismal font, where Violet was heard to say "ok, call the baby Anne". Everyone breathed a sigh of relief except my godmother, who had seen the letter from my father after he was told he had a daughter.

He said I was to be named Seona. This is a basically unpronounceable Gaelic name with ridiculous spelling, but my godmother was determined to have a stab at it.

When the clergyman asked what the child was named, she said "Seona" and my mother said "no, it's Anne" and the bickering went on for some time until the clergyman said "I name this child Somethingmumble Anne" and tipped water on my head so I screamed and nobody heard anything else.

It was not an auspicious start for a girl. I quickly woke up to the different expectations and lives of girls and boys.

I made no bones about wanting to be a boy throughout my primary school years. I wanted to be a cub scout who did camping and lighting fires and not a brownie who danced around the toadstool in teams of imps and fairies. I was terrible at sewing and wanted to do woodwork like the boys.

My mother was in fact herself a tomboy. She persuaded my grandmother to sew her shorts like her brothers had and boldly wore them to ride her bicycle when she wasn't dressed in "slacks", which is what they called women's long pants. As a child she dressed me too in shorts and denims and I had a short haircut like mum and was consequently often told the boys' toilet was through the other door.

Violet was the breadwinner and went out to work while I was brought up by my grannies. This and her adventuresome spirit probably meant that I absorbed her ideas of independence and attitudes that have much to do with how I turned out although she never saw herself as a feminist.

As a teenager I became reconciled to being a girl when I began noticing boys as people other than playmates who owned the football.

I entered a profession that historically gave equal pay to both male and female journalists which is fine as far as it goes. But few women enter the management structure, sometimes through their own reticence or the tribulations of bringing up young families and being a wife while trying to hold down a fulltime career.

Of course I hit various brick walls because of my gender, but less often than you would think because back in the day we were not well enough informed to recognise gender discrimination at a point where we could stand up and try to change it. But we were learning.

I ultimately had two daughters. The elder one, encouraged by her father as much as her mother, was well aware that women had some real catching up to do and developed into a strongly independent eco-feminist and I couldn't be prouder.

Her younger sister had her suspicions that girls were still not getting a good deal. As a child she told visitors her name was Tommy and she wanted to be a boy when she grew up. But she too came to understand that girls can do anything, the same as boys can, and is now a lawyer who lives her life accordingly. And I couldn't be prouder of her, either.

I now have two grandchildren — a five-year-old girl and for the first time we have a little boy in the household. They appear to be equally rambunctious and demanding of life. It doesn't altogether surprise me to hear the big sister reassuring her two year old brother that it's all right, boys are as good as girls….it's just that he's too small to do some things yet.

It gives me the belief that things have changed for the better and wrinklies such as myself have contributed to making it possible for young people of today to continue the struggle for economic, social and gender justice for all - without needing to be boys.

I hope you all had a wonderful International Women's Day.

? The views expressed are the author's and not of this newspaper.

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