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Meet the women who learned to fight for equal rights at their determined mothers' knees

Published 07/10/2016

The visual artist: Sarah Maple
The visual artist: Sarah Maple
The politician: Claire Bailey
Pulitzer winner: Margo Jefferson
Role model: Mo Mowlam, admired by Claire Bailey
The activist: Caroline Criado-Perez
The academic: Catriona Crowe

Ahead of the Belfast Festival which begins on Tuesday, Grania McFadden talks to female artists, campaigners and a Northern Ireland politician about inspirational women and why the abortion law here needs to change.

Behind every great woman is - another woman. As this year's Belfast International Arts Festival marks 100 years of Emancipation of Women with a series of talks and events, we've been speaking to some of those taking part about who and what have shaped their lives. In many cases their mothers come top of the list of those who've inspired them to paint, write or campaign.

These are some of the women who are making a difference today - jostling their way to the front line of gender politics.

As we wait to see whether America will elect its first female president and, with the leaders of three of the four regions in the UK women, it's an exciting time to be a feminist. For now, the question isn't 'who is going to let me?' It's 'who is going to stop me?'

One of festival's biggest draws this year is Caroline Criado-Perez, the spirited journalist and feminist activist who made the headlines with her campaign to see a woman depicted on our banknotes (which she won - Jane Austen is coming our way on £10 notes next year).

That campaign led to a ferocious Twitter campaign against her, which eventually resulted in Twitter announcing plans to improve its complaints procedure.

She'll be here discussing her book - Do It Like A Woman - which has been described as 'an inspiration to change the world'.

And she may make mention of the woman who has inspired her throughout her own life.

"It's my mum Alison," she says. "She is an aid worker and is simply incredible."

Away from the home, Caroline credits Deborah Cameron, author of the book Feminism in Linguistic Theory, as the person who completely changed her way of thinking and how she experienced it as a woman.

Other females to win her badge of honour are writer Margaret Atwood and Millicent Fawcett, head of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and one of the leaders of the suffragette campaign.

While Caroline has already been making waves in the world of women, if given the power she wouldn't stop there.

"I would introduce gender mainstreaming in all aspects of government policy. It needs to be done at the beginning of the decision making process, rather than just having a gender tick box at the end," she says.

She's bemused at the thought of speaking at an event in a country where abortion is still illegal - something she's likely to touch on during her visit.

"Women should be trusted to make decisions about their own body," she says. "Forcing women to go through the process illegally is extremely dangerous. Feminism is an issue all around the world - but particularly in countries which abortion is still illegal."

Another woman with plenty to say - and show - for herself at this year's festival is Sarah Maple, a visual artist who was born to an Iranian Muslim mother and English father.

Winner of the '4 New Sensations' competition to find the most exciting and imaginative artistic talent from the UK in 2007, her work challenges traditional notions of religion, identity and the role of women in society.

She too credits her mother for her success, adding: "She always encourages me to push myself. I think we all need that." She's also been inspired by other artists like Sarah Lucas and Frida Kahlo.

Sarah is one of the artists whose show, Maybe She's Born With It, will be featured in the Naughton Gallery during the festival. The show explores the wave of feminism currently running through society, using huge impact, humorous (and occasionally controversial) work.

But this is the artist who has donned Disney outfits to photograph herself hard at work in traditionally male environments.

She's given us Sleeping Beauty performing open-heart surgery in a pink tiara.

And the Little Mermaid running a boardroom meeting in tangerine wig and glistening fishtail, plus Belle (Beauty And The Beast) as a football manager, screaming at the referee from the dugout while wearing a gold, ruffled ball gown.

Not all the strong women at festival have come from outside Northern Ireland. Our own Claire Bailey, deputy leader of the Green Party, will be taking part in a panel discussion about 110 years of emancipation for women.

Claire's mother tops her list as the most influential woman in her life, alongside members of the Women's Coalition and former Secretary of State Mo Mowlam.

"Together they proved to me that women, and their experiences, were desperately needed in the pursuit to establish our new institutions," she says.

As an active feminist, Claire is a supporter of the 1967 Abortion Act being extended to Northern Ireland, she is a voluntary escort at Marie Stopes, and was recently one of the signatories to an open letter admitting she'd illegally bought abortion pills online or helped others procure them.

"Speaking about abortion in Northern Ireland is no longer the taboo it once was," says Claire.

"The lack of knowledge from our political representatives on the impact upholding the current legislation has on women's lives is often brutal. We need more people to speak out and start trusting women."

She'll be joined on the discussion panel by academic activist Catriona Crowe - a woman who uses history as her ammunition. Today she's head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland and manager of the Irish Census Online Project.

One of her early victories for women was heading the battle for the rights of mothers who had given up their children for adoption.

While she was studying papers from the Irish embassy in Washington, she spotted a file dealing with Irish children adopted in America.

She then unearthed 1,800 individual case files and urged the Department of Foreign Affairs to make them public, transforming the lives of many families across Ireland.

She has since overseen the online launch of the Bureau of Military History, the oral history of the Irish revolution. Her advice to young women today? "Pay attention."

That's something Pulitzer prize winner Margo Jefferson has been doing for most of her life.

She grew up as part of an elite community of black people - the 'black bourgeois'. Her book Negroland charts this privileged upbringing, and how privilege is provisional. "It can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn," she says.

Margo's socialite mother was an inspirational woman. She instilled in her daughter that with a privileged upbringing came a social responsibility to act with etiquette. She, along with artists like Virginia Woolf and Ella Fitzgerald, shaped the young Margo for her future.

She'll be talking about her book, about women, black people and her hopes for the future, at the festival.

She may have advice for younger women in the audience.

"Pursue your talents without shame. Don't fear being unpopular," she says.

And she may even reveal a few surprising secrets. "If I was fleeing my home, the one thing that I would save would be my collection of dolls," she says.

Whatever she, and the many other women who feature at this year's Belfast Festival choose to discuss, it will be pithy, pertinent and possibly inspirational to a whole new audience.

For more details on the Belfast Festival, which begins on Tuesday until October 29, visit belfast

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