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'Deeply, deeply misogynistic': Women share their experiences of life in politics

Just 27 of Ireland’s 166 TDs are female, but are gender quotas the best way to increase this figure?

6/6/2009 Elections Results Cllr Rebecca Moynihan pictured shortly after being elected in 2009. Source: James Horan/Photocall

THE PROBLEM IS that the culture takes you in, chews you up, spits you out and expects you to bounce back up tomorrow morning in a pink frock and look wonderful.

That’s the view of Deputy Regina Doherty. The Fine Gael TD was one of a number of female politicians speaking at the SpunOut Women’s Academy in Dublin this week.

In a cross-party panel discussion, the speakers each shared their own experiences of working in politics and their thoughts on what could be done to increase the number of women on local councils and in Dáil Éireann.

During the talk, Labour Councillor Rebecca Moynihan described political parties as “deeply, deeply misogynistic organisations”.

Moynihan, who represents Dublin’s South West Inner City, had many stories to share about being asked to be the “token woman” or “window dressing” in photos with her male peers.

“Nine times out of ten I ignore it, but sometimes I do call people up on it,” she said.

Doherty doesn’t mince her words when it comes to sexist political photos, saying they are “pure, unadulterated bull”.

“Women should not be there for the token photograph,” she stated.

Funding cuts

In July 2012, the Government passed a Bill that means political parties are required to ensure at least 30% of their candidates in the 2016 General Election are women. Any party that fails to reach this target will have its State funding cut by 50%.

Under the legislation, parties will be required to have 40% or more female candidates after a further seven years.

Progress has been made in terms of the number of women being elected to public office here. May’s local election saw a 30% jump in female representation on local councils.

Following on from the election of Ruth Coppinger and Gabrielle McFadden in the Dublin West and Longford Westmeath by-elections respectively, Ireland’s lower house now has the most female TDs ever: 27 out of 166 (16%).

However, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Ireland sits about 90th in the global rankings of female political representation.

spunout women in pol panel L-R: Rebecca Moynihan; Regina Doherty; Christabelle Feeney; Éilis Ryan. Source: Screengrab/YouTube.com

Moynihan, who was elected in 2009, fully backs the move to introduce gender quotas.

“I’m really in favour of gender quotas because what having 30% of women will mean is that the dynamic changes and the culture will change and that is so important.”

It is a men’s club and it’s not broken down by political parties, it’s broken down by gender.

The former chair of Labour Youth added that there is a need for female politicians from different parties to support each other and ”show solidarity with each other”.

Not a perfect solution

Doherty was elected to the Dáil in 2011, having served as a county councillor in Meath from 2009-2011. She noted that while she agrees with the introduction of gender quotas, they must be time-limited, and suggested a period of ten years.

No female politician would like to think that she was chosen because of her gender. We all want to be selected because of our experience, because of our background, because of our acumen, our intelligence, our personality – a wide variety of reasons.

“The sad reality is that the culture that exists – not just at local level and not just in specific parties, but in politics in general – is very male-orientated and everything that evolves around it. From scheduling, time scales, from when meetings are at a local branch level, where they’re held. Everything has probably been built up over the years for men, by men.

You’ll ignore all of the bull and you’ll do your job but you can’t change a system without having that critical mass. I’d like to think that we could have a cut-off point.

Doherty said that balancing raising four children with a seat in the Dáil is challenging but rewarding.

“The women who are involved in politics love it. You are nearly addicted to it because it’s such a challenging career choice.”

She said that there are many reasons why women decide to refrain from entering politics, one being a lack of role models.

Christabelle Feeney, Fianna Fáil’s Youth and Equality Officer, agreed with this sentiment.

A huge part of the problem really is that we have a huge lack of role models in terms of female representation at every level.

She said that when Kate Feeney – who has since gone on to be elected as a councillor in Blackrock in Dublin - became the first-ever female president of Ógra Fianna Fáil in 2013, there was a surge in women joining the youth branch of the party.

“If you’re a woman and you walk into a room and 99% of the people standing in front of you are male, it can be a hugely intimidating experience.”

Two days of activism, information and ... SpunOut Women's Academy Participants. Source: Facebook

Societal change

Feeney acknowledged that many people have issues with gender quotas but said that, in order to increase the number of women in politics, society has to “create change”.

However, she too believes that quotas aren’t a long-term solution, rather “to get us started on the right foot”.

Quotas are implemented in terms of the candidates being put on the ticket. People aren’t being forced to vote for anybody, but if women are on the ticket they will get voted for and you can see that – that’s been proven.

Feeney said that women have a “huge tendency to see fault with ourselves”, something that leads to “a confidence deficit” when considering entering public life.

Newly-elected Independent Councillor Éilis Ryan noted that over the years some women chose to not enter politics because they thought they could “make more of a difference elsewhere”.

Ryan, who represents Dublin’s North Inner City, spent several years working abroad on human rights issues with overseas aid organisations in East Timor and Peru.

She recalled her mother telling her that she wasn’t in favour of gender quotas because women who chose to not get involved in politics were “making a really smart choice”.

They were recognising that it’s a broken system, not just because of how it excludes women, but because of how it excludes for example people from minority groups, people who are Travellers. The way it excludes the working class, people who are poor. It’s a very broken system.

Ryan said that gender quotas haven’t been in other countries long enough to see their long-term impact.

She noted that she was “very much in favour” of quotas a couple of years ago, but has now changed her view somewhat as the move doesn’t directly address flaws in Ireland’s political landscape.

“You shouldn’t be simply ignoring the broken system and pushing women into it on the assumption that that will fix the system.”

The panel debate on women in politics was one of several events taking place during the SpunOut Women’s Academy, a two-day event for young women covering topics such as equality, mental health and activism. 

Read: There are 6 ways to make the Oireachtas more women friendly, says NWCI

Column: I’ve been involved in politics since before I could vote – but it’s still a man’s world

Column: Until imbalance is deliberately corrected, women won’t be attracted into politics

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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