Some past and present female members of the Oireachtas on the 90th anniversary (in 2008) of women's right to vote in Ireland James Horan/Photocall Ireland
Women in Politics

Gender quotas welcome - but 'token' women candidates won't work

Female politicians relate their personal experiences of running for office in a male-dominated political world at Dublin Castle conference.

A CONFERENCE HELD yesterday in Dublin called How To Elect More Women? heard that proposed gender quotas in general elections are not enough to get women into power.

Senator Averil Power told the conference that while the proposal to fine any party which doesn’t ensure at least 30 per cent of its general election candidates is welcome, there is a danger that “token” female candidates could be put forward in areas in which they have no chance of winning. She said:

I think we could all be worse off it it is not taken seriously and women are put forward who don’t have a chance of winning (because of the constituencies in which they are run).

The Fianna Fáil senator spoke in a section of the conference in which a number of female politicians from across several parties related their experience of coming to power – and some of the difficulties they had getting there. Power also referred to a remark made by Labour’s Pat Rabbitte about a photograph taken of Fianna Fáil’s new frontbench ahead of the general election last year.

At the time, Rabbitte said that Michéal Martin had pulled a “stunt for photographic purposes” by having several women at the front of the photograph. Rabbitte had said: “You might as well wander down Grafton Street and see if you can meet a couple of good-looking women and say, would you ever mind coming up for the photograph, it’s only for four weeks”.

Power said yesterday that while she hadn’t experienced “overt discrimination – for the most part” during her time in Irish politics, she did remember that quote from Rabbitte (although she did not name him yesterday). She said that while she didn’t believe he was “inherently sexist”, it was disappointing that the comment has been his “first instinct”.

All of the speakers in the segment said that support from family, friends and partners was vital for women to have the time and space to canvass and retain political posts. Catherine Byrne, the Fine Gael former Lord Mayor of Dublin and TD for Dublin South Central, said that she remembered a teacher had once told her mother before Byrne finished school: “She said, ‘She’ll make a grand housewife if she meets a nice fella and have a couple of kids’.”

Byrne said that she had been encouraged by the late Jim Mitchell to run for local elections. Her husband had been very supportive but she still remembers rushing home between mayoral appointments to “throw an apple tart into the oven”.

The difficult balance of domestic life and political life was also highlighted by Sinn Féin TD for Cork East, Sandra McLellan, who said that she did all of her work from her sitting room when she was Mayor of Youghal: “Some people might say that was very intimate but some would probably come in and say, there’s paperwork everywhere!” She travels up from home on Tuesday morning and back down on Thursday or Friday evening, with her days in Cork “taken up with constituency work”. She said:

It’s a demanding job, you’re on call 24/7, and when I started anyway there was no provision for childcare, no job security and as a rural TD you spend most of the week away from your family. If you didn’t have support at home, you couldn’t do it.

Labour councillor for Dun Laoghaire Jane Dillon Byrne recalled canvassing for council elections in 1968:

I was married 10 months, 9 months pregnant. I met a lady at a door in Booterstown who said: You are a bloody disgrace, you should be at home doing your knitting.

In 1975, Dillon Byrne became the first female Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire (equivalent to a mayor) and said that above all, female would-be politicians needed people to support them. When she arrived at the Dun Laoghaire town clerk’s office in 1974, “in Indian skirt, beads and cheesecloth shirt”, and an 11-month-old son in tow, she said the men there were “not happy”.

However, the female politicians at yesterday’s conference said that they believed some things were changing on the political scene. Averil Power said it was heartening to realise that more women candidates were not coming from political dynasties and were putting themselves forward because they wanted “to change things instead of writing angry letters”. Power herself said she comes from a council estate in Dublin, and a family who still think she’s “nuts” to be involved in politics. Catherine Byrne said she wanted to be in politics simply because she liked working with people, and Sandra McLellan said she had been a “floating voter” before she got involved in her community and trade union and that had inspired her to run.

Independent TD for Kildare North, Catherine Murphy, said that local government had to be undergo major reform for women to feel they had a place there. She was first elected in 1988 to Leixlip Town Council and is now the whip for the Technical Group of TDs in the Dáil. However, she said, women are not attracted to getting into politics at a local level because “they want to see a return on their time” and they don’t see that in local government sections bogged down by red tape and committee meetings. She said:

That’s why there are so many women at the volunteer and community level – they see a direct result for the time they invest… There are some very talented people and we need to introduce a proper local government system. Imagine if you could capture the energy and the imagination available at voluntary and community level and harness that for (district level)?

Most of the speakers mentioned that they had run for national level politics because they had been asked to go forward by others. Cllr Jane Dillon Byrne said that it was important that women pushed themselves forward:

Be sure to sit in the front of the bus and we will achieve equality.

In a Q&A session following the segment, Averil Power said that Fianna Fáil would be seeking an amendment to the upcoming legislation to have the 30 per cent gender quota applied to the local elections in two years’ time. It has not been clear that the quota would apply to anything other than general elections.

Read: Irish system has failed to provide higher number of women TDs – Taoiseach>

Read: Leinster House is ‘unnatural’ – Gilmore>

Column: There ARE barriers to women participating in politics>

Column: Gender quotas do women no favours – and undermine democracy>

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