Confidence, culture and childcare – The challenges for women in politics

The Cabinet Women: Minister Heather Humphreys (left) pictured with An Tánaiste Joan Burton, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan
The Cabinet Women: Minister Heather Humphreys (left) pictured with An Tánaiste Joan Burton, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan

“I am proud to be one of four women serving at the Cabinet table – that’s the most number of senior female ministers we’ve ever had. Having a female perspective at the decision making table is essential.”

Heather Humphreys is one Irish woman who has been very successful in her political career. The Fine Gael TD for Cavan Monaghan was appointed Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht earlier this year, taking the number of women who sit around the cabinet table to four.

“I don’t think I suffered as a result of my gender, but the challenge of balancing home and political life is definitely a considerable difficulty for female politicians.  I have two daughters in their early 20s, but if my children were younger, I’m not sure how I would manage my current workload.

“I juggled a full time job with being a county councillor when my children were young, which was tricky. I consider myself lucky, however, to have gotten involved in local politics when my children were young and by the time I got into national politics, the girls were that bit older. Timing was on my side,” she said.

The 2014 local elections saw a historic number of women elected in Irish politics. Female representation in Local Government is now at 21 per cent, an increase of 5 per cent since 2009, and two newly elected TDs have brought the number of women in the Dáil to 27, the highest ever number. Despite this, the gender gap remains substantial, and women are still inadequately represented in politics.

Minister Humphreys, who is a former mayor of Monaghan, believes that confidence has a big part to play when it comes to women putting themselves forward.

“I think often women don’t have the confidence. They certainly have the ability, but confidence can be an issue. The long hours, the level of travel if you are a rural TD, and the notion that politics is an old boys club would also have put women off entering politics in the past.

“However, while the hours involved will probably always be pretty intensive, I think the culture within politics is changing. Politics is a professional endeavour these days, the game has entirely changed, thankfully,” she said.

The Irish Government has introduced gender quotas for the next general election, which will ensure at least 30 percent of candidates on ballot papers are female. Minister Humphreys says that she is in favour of this move.

“Fine Gael has been specifically targeting female candidates and has professionalised its approach to recruiting women to run for the council or for the Dáil.

“While I have always believed in the best person getting the job, regardless of gender, I am in favour of the gender quotas because they will help to give voters a better choice,” she said.

Fine Gael TD Marcella Corcoran Kennedy 2
Fine Gael TD Marcella Corcoran Kennedy

Fine Gael TD for Laois Offaly Marcella Corcoran Kennedy came from a political family, so she was familiar with the work involved when she set out on her political career as councillor.

“My father and grandfather were councillors on Offaly County Council. When my father announced his retirement in 1999 the local party organisation asked me to consider seeking the nomination. I had been active in my father’s campaigns over the years and so it was not a big step for me to consider,” she said.

Despite her political background, Marcella said that she faced “all the usual challenges” as a female candidate.

“Organising the campaign, the financial side and childcare, was challenging. Also, overcoming prejudices from some people who were of a generation that saw politics as a male preserve.

“There are comparatively few Irish female role models available to women due to a traditionally male dominated political culture. The anti-social and anti-family working hours, and the sometimes confrontational aspect of the role may not appeal to women,” she said.

Marcella offers her advice to women who may be interested in becoming involved in politics.

“Join a political party, take on officership positions, consider running as a candidate, help out other people in their campaigns, connect with groups such as ‘Women for Election’. Political parties are under pressure to find female candidates for the next General Election as a result of gender quota legislation,” she said.

Independent TD Clare Daly
Independent TD Clare Daly

Clare Daly, an Independent TD for Dublin North, became politically active as student in DCU, when she became president of the students union. She then joined the Labour Party, where she became actively involved in the campaign for the Divorce Referendum in 1986. Clare believes that fewer women are involved in politics than men because they “have more sense”.

“The manner in which politics is structured in this country means that very little is achieved, certainly at local level, with the decisions being very much top heavy and top down, rather than bottom up.

“I think women feel that they achieve greater results by being organised on the ground in their communities. Also, with very few role models of woman in politics, it isn’t seen as a natural path, although that is obviously changing,” she said.

This is why everyone hates feminists

In a recent article entitled  ‘Sigh: So Kill Me’ in the University Times, Leanna Byrne commented on the popular Irish fashion and beauty blog So Sue Me, decrying it as a mark of shallow consumerism and an affront to womankind. Says she:

What the So Sue Me blog is giving us is a woman who eats, breathes and lives as a consumer. She is nothing more than the value her clothes or her beauty regime holds. A Barbie doll that is quite content living in the isolated confinement of the Dream House. With so few women as opinion leaders in the media, it is disappointing to see that one of the most influential female bloggers is one who conforms to a predetermined concept of ‘female’.”

The writer is, of course, completely entitled to dislike beauty blogs and even entitled to write an article about it. The problems begin when she starts linking her opinion to a feminist perspective. A single blog can’t define the boundaries of what it means to be a woman, regardless of its popularity. So Sue Me is designed to cater to the needs of people who are interested in fashion and beauty, the same way Gibbon’s Stamp Monthly is designed to cater to the interests of stamp collectors.

The hateful language in which Byrne describes the blog, its creator and its readers betrays a writer with a serious axe to grind and little of value to say. It serves only to fuel the stereotype that all feminists are bitter, angry and childish and it forces women who identify with feminist values to distance themselves from the word itself for fear of being linked to these qualities.

The real question is why the writer felt the need to direct her anger at an innocuous fashion blog, when there are countless other examples of insidious sexism in Irish society and the media. Unfortunately few people are willing to speak up about it. This is why it’s so disappointing to see a strong female voice go to waste on an issue that shouldn’t even be an issue.

By attacking the lifestyle that Suzanne Jackson champions on her site, the author is (ironically) setting boundaries for what is ‘acceptable’ for women to be interested in. Suzanne Jackson doesn’t (at least publicly) shame other women for not caring about makeup and clothes, where Byrne openly slates women who are. I’m a woman and a feminist and I also like reading makeup reviews, but by Byrne’s standards, that simply isn’t possible. Gender equality should be about opening doors, not closing them.