In the first of two articles speaking to former Tánaiste Joan Burton, Gemma Kavanagh speaks to the current deputy about women in politics.
This year we saw more women elected to Dáil Eireann than ever before, and more women choosing to study politics at third level. So what can this be attributed to? Are prominent women in politics inspiring a younger generation of women to take an interest or has it been the introduction of the gender quota?
In the 2011 general election, only 86 of the 566 candidates running were women and they won 25 of the 166 Dáil seats. Last May we saw this increase by 40% as 35 women were elected to Dáil Éireann. Nineteen of the women elected were entering the Dáil for the first time, and fourteen were first-time candidates.
Many observers have attributed this to the introduction of gender quotas, however the numbers suggest that despite the increase in female candidates, parties subject to gender quotas only elected four extra women.
UCD has one of the biggest politics courses in the country, and in 2014, of the 370 students that registered for Politics and International relations, 165 of them were female. In 2016, 452 students registered and 219 of them were female, showing the gap between the genders is closing.
So I asked what can we attribute this to? Did Hilary Clinton have an effect on inspiring more women to go into politics? “To all of the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
That speech would have resonated with a lot of women, so has she been inspiring even in defeat?
As I walked through the blue carpeted halls of Leinster House, I couldn’t help but notice it was mainly men passing me in the corridors. It was my first time in Leinster House and I was meeting Deputy Joan Burton to discuss her life in politics and the work of women in the government.
Deputy Joan Burton recalls a very proud day when she stepped into the Dáil for the first time in 1992. With Mary Robinson having taken Presidential office two years earlier it was a great time for women in politics. “Like every newbie on their first day at a new job it was
a mixture of excitement and apprehension, will I be able to do this job and will I like it?
“It’s an enormous honour to be elected as a politician by your fellow citizens to be entrusted with an involvement with the running of the country.” With a predominately male government I asked Joan Burton why more women don’t go into politics. We spoke about the 5 C’s; cash, childcare, candidate selection, culture and confidence.
“The very nature of politics is confrontational which can be off-putting for some women. Nobody in politics minds if you’re an average man, but they will get upset if you’re an average woman. Women like myself have to make a conscious decision not to feel daunted and remember that you are there to do the best you can for your area and community.”
Joan believes men and women take different approaches to politics. Women work well with the discussion aspect of politics; they like to work out solutions. Men are very confident and very leader orientated, men in politics are more debate orientated and it’s about winning or losing. “To enjoy politics, to get the most out of it and to contribute the best as you can to it, you have to be very resilient.” Describing politics as the perfect blend of vision and ideas with realism and communication, Joan emphasises the importance of having both men and women involved in discussing the topics of the country.
The world almost saw Hilary Clinton become the first female president of America. I asked Joan Burton about what she thought about her and her tough campaign for the White House. She spoke about how Hilary Clinton has been a great advocate for women in politics.
“She is someone who has grown enormously while seeking office,” Joan said. “Politics offer a lot of opportunities for growth because you can develop both your ideas and resilience. Inevitably politics it can be very aggressive and adversarial which puts a lot of women off, but if you can stick with your vision, be resilient and deal with difficulties and fight every day you will succeed.
“She says to young girls and women everywhere that you can do it too. If that’s your dream you can pursue it and that’s really important. When Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese became Presidents it was unheard of and it gave women inspiration.”