The unexpected announcements by Olwyn Enright and Liz McManus of their intention not to seek re-election in 2011 have sparked national discussion about the under-representation of women in Irish politics. Their leaving is all the more significant given the recent, failed attempt to introduce a quota system to ensure more women candidates. Merit and merit alone, we are told, should be the sole deciding factor for selecting candidates for the Dáil. Of the 23 women TDs in the Dáil, 14 of them were opposed to quotas on the grounds, not that women elected by a quota system would actually be less capable but that they would be viewed as token women TDs. In the words of Maureen O’ Sullivan TD – quoted during a special report on the matter on last night’s Prime Time:
“they would ‘be crucified at every turn’ about their status in hostile, male-dominated parliamentary debate.”
This logic implies, ironically, that it is actually fear of how the men would behave rather than the merits of gender quotas per se that is determining what a majority of our women TDs are saying about the matter.
If that is really the prevailing attitude among male TDs toward gender quotas then it is hogwash, cant and hypocrisy. For a very long time, to be the owner of the wrong set of gender signifiers was an automatic bar to entry into politics – a state of affairs that did lasting injury to women and one moreover which manifestly has not yet been put right. Besides, are we seriously being asked to believe that the network of interlinking family dynasties of which the Dail and Seanad are substantially made up has anything to do with merit? Does the incompetence with which the country has been run into the ground over the last decade suggest that merit was ever even a consideration? Didn’t Bertie Ahern reassure the nation that he only appointed certain people to positions of power because they were his friends?
As Ivana Bacik said on Prime Time, there are all sorts of informal quotas in operation already that involve list systems of one kind or another – all of which continue to favour men. She also pointed to the two most impenetrable factors preventing women from entering politics: the culture of Irish politics and candidate selection. Miriam O’ Callaghan reported on last night’s programme that the National Women’s Council of Ireland have calculated that at the present rate at which women are entering the Dáil, it will take us 370 years to have equal representation. Meanwhile over 100 countries are using gender quotas in a serious effort to counter the prejudicial antipathy towards women in political culture and candidate selection.
A few years ago over lunch with a hospital consultant, he mentioned to a somewhat taken aback group of friends that measures were being taken to ‘do something’ about the higher numbers of women entering the medical profession. He complained about the effect on working life in hospitals of maternity leave in particular. Though this sort of rationale for it has been officially denied, the subsequent introduction of the HPAT test – a new IQ test which purports to be about identifying ability in ways other than by Leaving Certificate results (which young women were excelling in) – has indeed resulted in higher numbers of men entering the profession, though in many cases they will not have scored as many points as women in their Leaving Certificate exams. The euphemism for justifying this exercise has been that it is a necessary ‘re-balancing of the gender quota’.
While it has certainly attracted its fair share of criticism I don’t recall anything like the stubborn resistance to this measure among politicians – male or female – as has been evident when the subject of gender quotas for themselves comes up. It also says something about how far feminism has really succeeded in Ireland that no sooner than do women, on the basis of true merit alone, begin to surpass men in any influential walk of life than the general feeling is that something urgently needs to be done to call a halt to it. There are plans afoot to extend the requirement to sit this test into other professions as well.
“Are we comfortable with a system that actively discriminates against females attaining medical places? Is the medical establishment supporting the change in the admissions system because it fears the feminisation of the medical profession will somehow reduce its status, and thus its financial rewards as it is reputed to have done in teaching and other professions? Are there those within the medical establishment who consider it a waste investing huge resources in training females as doctors if, after a number of years in practice, they decide to leave the active labour force or decide to work on a part-time basis to give time to care for their children? Where are the voices of those who would normally speak out in protection of equality of opportunity for women in the workplace?”
And riddle me this: if there is a concern to ensure a 50/50 gender balance in the medical profession, why is there no corresponding concern to ensure the same balance at the top of that or any other profession – still almost all massively biased towards men?
It seems we can proactively discriminate in favour of men but not women. But this is of course nothing new – only a new way of reviving and redefining the common-or-garden, old-fashioned chauvinism that continues to discriminate against women in any case – albeit generally less obviously so than before.
Media commentary in recent weeks has been depressing – at least for this feminist it has anyway. Of all that I have read and heard, John Drennan in The Independent takes the prize. I blush for him to quote from it here, since it would be best for John himself if it were just quietly forgotten but it surely goes to the heart of what Bacik means when she talks about the prevailing political culture. In an article ostensibly lamenting the loss of Olwyn Enright from politics he manages to say the following:
“THE day I first saw Olwyn Enright, she was draped seductively across what appeared to be a row of Toyota Corolla cars.”
“When Olwyn entered the Dail, even the driest political hacks immediately knew how Thomas Hardy felt when Tess of the D’Urbervilles first entered his imagination.”
as well as:
“Instead, in what was — to put it mildly — a bit of a shock, Charlie Flanagan lost his seat and breathless, naive, happy little Olwyn scooped the pot.”
“It was understandable, for Enright allowed them to say, “Look we have women, they are young and pretty, Fine Gael is not the latterday equivalent of some dying Welsh coal-mining village.”
“Some of us even suggested she might make a perfect leader, but we should not be criticised too harshly, since the only alternative was another pretty doe-eyed blonde.”
And where to begin with this:
“Sadly, in spite of this fine beginning, we tired of Olwyn remarkably quickly. She was, like any well-brought-up convent girl, hard-working, quiet and diligent. But the Dail is a cruel judge, and she did not distinguish herself sufficiently to retain our attention.
Too often the breathless schoolgirlish style of delivery spoke of someone who was feeling the effects of a steep learning curve. And there were other brighter comets, such as John Deasy, who were far more capable of attracting our interest.
You could not blame us for our lofty sighs about how it was simply not enough to be a lovely girl, for there was more than enough of old Tom in Olwyn to render her cautious.”
It’s an indictment of the state of our collective attitude that it is still possible for a journalist even to think of penning sexist bilge like this in the pages of a national newspaper. Yet Drennan moves comfortably about the political scene with little or no notice evidently being taken either by male or female TDs when he reinforces such an atrocious stereotype. The effect on young women thinking about a career in politics can only be damaging and discouraging – even if (as most will) they recognise this stuff for what it is.
In last Saturday’s Irish Times, Garrett Fitzgerald pondered the same imponderable: how to get more women into politics. Without a shred of self-consciousness he described how he stormed The Late Late Show studio one evening years ago during a programme dedicated to women. Twenty women had been invited along to discuss women in politics among other issues and they were not amused by his arrogant intrusion. He was infuriated by the effrontery of Mary Kenny who had dared to suggest that grassroots networking and seeking to influence change from the bottom up would be more effective than trying to break into the club to bring about change from within. Garrett, roused into action from his armchair at home, was single-handedly going to put the ladies straight on their mistaken notions. Never mind that Kenny has been proved completely right, Fitzgerald – despite the obvious failure of our political system to facilitate the entry of women into politics in equal numbers in the intervening years – still believes it is self-evident that trying to play the existing antipathetic political system is more likely to serve women better than any independent women-led initiative.
Mary Kenny was right in more ways than that too. Once in the door, women politicians drop the f-word from their vocabulary entirely, if they ever used it in the first place. Most are ashamed of it. There was a twitter moment in response to an interview with Lucinda Creighton on The John Murray Show this week when Creighton – who was there specifically to talk about being a woman in politics – felt it necessary to say that, while things could definitely be better for women, she was no ‘crazed feminist’ herself. Aaarrgh, Lucinda! Bad enough when men go reinforcing stereotypes but it is fatal when women do it to themselves. Nobody was accusing you of it – and anyway it’s OK to be a feminist! The ‘crazed feminist’ was always the fearful figment of uncomprehending male imaginations – a latter-day virtual witch to be held out for virtual ducking and burning. Don’t make out that she actually exists!
We live in what is still fundamentally a deeply chauvinistic society – both in the generic and specific sense of the word. Though we are lucky to have strong, capable feminists among us and though significant advances have been made, too many Irish women are to varying degrees still deferential to men – still consciously or subconsciously afraid to assert themselves reasonably for fear of alienating or irritating when interacting with men whether personally, socially or professionally. You can see it even in our body language when we are around them. And you can see it in the fear some women TDs have of gender quotas what is more.
It’s not just women who suffer from this fear affliction either. Deference is endemic in all aspects of Irish life. As Vincent Browne has written recently, we have even succeeded in being punished by the financial markets for excessive deference to them. We defer to corrupt and incompetent politicians. And despite the outpouring of anger against the abuses of the Catholic Church, the actual sanctions taken against its institutions have been pathetically deferential – if the term is even adequate to describe the legal indemnity they were granted. Hardly surprising, then, that in our society it has been that much harder for women to achieve equal status and representation in all walks of life. The potential is there for women to be the key to bringing this entire, decaying house of cards down to the benefit of all but, clearly, we will be a long time waiting if we don’t seize the initiative for doing so ourselves. Remedial action is regarded as a very ordinary, necessary requirement when righting a wrong in any other context. A hundred other countries have understood the point. If we don’t have gender quotas in Irish politics until we are equally represented and if we are not to lose the gains already made (and the signs are that this already happening) – then there will be no choice but for women to eschew politics and to build an alternative, powerful movement by and for themselves. Ideally, we need both.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Miriam Cotton has been an editor of the media-monitoring website MediaBite with David Manning for five years and has contributed to numerous national and international print and internet publications including Village magazine, The Irish Examiner, The Real News Network, Counterpunch, Znet.com, Indymedia Ireland and others.)