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Column Sexism in Leinster House is alive and well

Two male politicians showed how sexism can come in many forms – post-modern with an ironic twist and just plain old-fashioned, writes Maura Adshead.

DID YOU HEAR the one about the Pun, the Paradox and the Politics? It’s about two elected politicians and Irish political reform. One of them is a new boy, describes himself as a bit naive and inexperienced, though he’s married with three children, and has given the Taoiseach unwavering support in his moves against the Seanad.

The other is the complete opposite, he’s been around for quite a while and is much morSte experienced, he’s Ireland’s first openly gay elected politician and is completely against the Taoiseach’s plans for the Seanad. The paradox is that they’re both the same!

To explain why, let me give you some context. The Vagina Monologues was (and still is) a controversial stage play written by long-time feminist activist Even Ensler and first performed in 1996. It is an eclectic mix of vignettes, each representing a different female voice speaking about a different female experience. These include talk of sex, love, masturbation, menstruation, genital mutilation, rape, birth and orgasm.


Although originally performed as a ‘one-man show’ (Har Har), it is now typical for several actresses to read different parts. Susan Sarandon has done it. Oprah Winfrey has. Jane Fonda, Cyndi Lauper and many more. In fact, it has now been performed in 48 languages in over 100 countries and has even ‘given birth’ to an international social movement – ‘V Day’, where each year benefit performances are given around the world to raise money for rape crisis centres and women’s shelters.

Essentially, the Vagina Monologues is a feminist assertion of female identity. Performing it, watching it, or just being completely comfortable discussing it says a lot about your politics already. The way that you feel about The Vagina Monologues is a short-hand way of identifying many of your values and attitudes about women, sex and female experience.

Regina Monologues

So when the second of our two politicians referred to the Regina Monologues, he was inadvertently identifying something about himself. He may even have been saying something about the celebration of Irish womanhood in the Seanad, though his subsequent remarks suggest otherwise. He was, at the very least, sending extremely mixed messages. But was he being sexist?

Sexism refers to prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex. The spectrum of sexism ranges from inappropriate gendered remarks, to misjudgements and stereotypes about gender roles, to feelings of humiliation when people look, talk or refer to parts of a body inappropriately, to more deliberate acts of sexual innuendo and harassment, and ultimately to sexual violence and rape.

Accordingly David Norris’ remarks to Regina Doherty were definitely sexist, but his use of references suggests that it was not the traditional kind of sexism. For an example of that, we should look to Tom Barry’s behaviour towards Aine Collins when recalled into the Dail late at night to vote on the Government’s proposed Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. Barry, who acknowledged that he had been drinking before the session, grabbed Collins and sat her on his lap, whereupon she got up as quick as she could and found another seat out of his reach.

Which was of greater offence?

Whilst we cannot really judge which of the two men’s behaviour caused the greater offence to their female colleague, we can make a preliminary assessment of what these incidences tell us about the prospects for meaningful political reform in Ireland. David Norris offers sexism with a post-modern and ironic twist, whereas Tom Barry offers a more old-fashioned and traditional sort of sexism. In relation to Seanad Reform, with their different political affiliations and orientations, David Norris and Tom Barry also offer different perspectives – one the ‘progressive reformer’ and the other a more ‘radical conservative’.

So much for the paradox and the politics.

But if in Irish politics the difference between a ‘progressive reformer’ and a ‘radical conservative’ is verbal vaginal theatrix versus old-school horseplay and lap tricks – you’d be forgiven for asking, where’s the pun in that?

Maura Adshead is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick. To read more articles by Maura for, click here.

Video: David Norris accuses Fine Gael TD of ‘speaking out of her f***y’>

Watch: Norris says he’s happy to withdraw words that caused offence>

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