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'Downton Abbey and tea cups' We’ve a fairly dreadful record of sexism in Irish politics

Joan Burton got lots of criticism for her body language during last Monday’s leaders’ debate – but why, asks Lorraine Courtney.

JOAN BURTON IS getting lots of criticism for her body language during last Monday’s leaders’ debate and she’s putting it all down to sexism. Now she didn’t say the word “sexism” aloud, but responded that female politicians are analysed to “an extraordinarily detailed degree.”

“People would say that to a woman who’s running for very senior office,” she said. “Lots of male colleagues have peculiarities, foibles, mannerisms that not everybody cares for. But, clearly, when women are involved in politics they’re properly scrutinised to an extraordinarily detailed degree.”

‘Downton Abbey and tea cups’

She added that people can feel “there is something inappropriate in a woman not standing back and sitting down and you know, doing a bit of Downton Abbey and the tea cups.”


On last week’s Irish Times Women’s Podcast Former Fianna Fáil minister Mary O’Rourke talked about the behaviour of some of the party’s male election candidates towards the new female hopefuls as approaching “semi-bullying … territorial with a bit of sexism.”

O’Rourke has been mentoring eleven of Fianna Fáil’s female candidates ahead of the election.

“Nothing prepares the new woman on the block, where there is an incumbent … nothing prepares her for this kind of semi-bullying, territorial behaviour,” she said.

“Have you bought any new dresses?” 

O’Rourke has also admitted in the past that after cabinet meetings Haughey would often attempt levity with her, asking: “Well, how are things with you, Mary? Have you been shopping lately? Have you bought any new dresses?”

27/4/2013. Fianna Fail Ard Fheis Mary O'Rourke and Avril Power in 2013. Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

We’ve a fairly dreadful record on sexism in the politics front. We’ve had lapgate when Fine Gael TD Tom Barry pulled fellow Fine Gaeler Aine Collins onto his knee during a late night Dáil sitting in July 2013.

We’ve had David Norris tell Regina Doherty she was “speaking out of her fanny.” Norris’ outburst came in the run up to the Seanad abolition referendum. He later withdrew the comments.

At a Mayo County Council meeting last year Councillor Blackie Gavin told the new Cathaoirleach, “I know Mae [his wife] will have all the shirts ready for you.” Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds once infamously said, “that’s women for you.”

We’ve had former Taoiseach Brian Cowen suggest that Joan Burton needed to be “reined in.” Cowen asked Eamon Gilmore to “try to rein her in now and again.” Mary Davis was accused of airbrushing her election posters during the presidential campaign.

lapgate-2-390x285 The infamous 'Lapgate' incident involving Fine Gael TDs Aine Collins and Tom Barry Oireachtas TV Oireachtas TV

Women in power

Of course, the entire world loves a reductive visual take on women in power. Remember Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street for the final time “in tears”? No? Probably because it didn’t actually happen, even though media coverage talked about floods of tears.

With Hillary Clinton, some put her success in the 2008 New Hampshire primaries down to her showing her “feminine” side and there was lots of rejoicing that here was the “real Hillary”.

That’s so strange, because I’d have sworn that the real Hillary was not some teary-eyed softie but the political fireball who wasn’t going to let being a woman, and being married to a cheater, get in the way of her long-held ambitions.

DEM 2016 Clinton AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

When Condoleezza Rice refused to lose self-control in front of the cameras, she was branded a frigid robot. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather an attempt to show how hard it can be for all politicians, especially female ones, when visual images race out of their control.

So, why do we have such a hard time discussing female politicians? After all, it shouldn’t be that complicated. All you have to do is talk about the stuff that the politician did without bringing their gender presentation into it. This isn’t even an unusual concept—barring sex scandals, the media does it effortlessly, pretty much one hundred percent of the time, with male politicians.

The media plays a crucial part so don’t write entire articles about their haircuts, the length of their skirt or their shoe collection. If you find yourself itching to mention a female politician’s outfit, stop. Don’t fixate on it as though it has genuine political significance, don’t treat it like an admission of weakness and don’t pretend like it bears any relevance to her job performance.

Don’t focus on trivia when what’s really important is the policies they stand for. Don’t do that to male politicians, either, while you’re at it.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @lorrainecath.

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