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There’s an interesting new interview with Kathleen Lynch over on Mediabite, in which the UCD Professor of Equality Studies

Professor Kathleen Lynch

discusses inequality in Ireland, her treatment on Tonight with Vincent Browne, and why some female politicians are so scared of feminism. Here’s a taster:

What do you think are the main obstacles to gender equality in Ireland and would you agree that Ireland still has a deeply chauvinist culture and that this too is a major factor underpinning the meek acceptance of gross injustice as a solution to what is essentially a crisis of and by the richest people?

KL: Ireland has an extremely chauvinist culture. I travel abroad a lot – in Northern Europe and have a lot of contacts outside the country. I have been a Visiting Professor and I work with many people in Germany and in France – which isn’t exactly devoid of sexism either. I also work in Brussels. I would say that we are going backwards because in terms of political representation it is self evident. We have only 16%. The two main parties have only 15% each and it’s almost nothing. The smaller parties have more. I think there are so many factors at play. Women are too polite. We have been socialised not to offend as women – don’t be too strident, don’t be too this or that. I suppose the backlash that you mention when I raised things that people don’t want to hear is one of the reasons that women will not put themselves forward because they are abused in a different way than men are abused. Men are abused for their ideas but they are not abused in terms of their appearance in the media if they dissent. Women are subjected to sexualised abuse. I think the political class in our society has no interest in this issue and women have not been resistant. We have been too conciliatory and accepting. My view is we should have marches on the Dáil – we should sit down in the middle of Dublin and stay there until something changes. We have no proper childcare, we have no infrastructure. Quebec in Canada has a very successful, non-profit childcare system because the women went out there and organised it. The Irish Women’s Council has no money, for example. There is no-one to organise it here. There have been all kinds of backlashes in the media against women who have dissented. The have actually been called nazis – or ‘feminazis’. A lot of women are afraid of that kind of abuse and it’s a form of violence against women that is accepted in Ireland.

MC: Lucinda Creighton recently felt the necessity to preface something she said with the qualifier “I’m no crazed feminist but…” – as if it would be a terrible thing to be thought of as a feminist.

KL: There are lots of sociological reasons that can explain that but if you have a young woman going into politics who is so fearful of that, what will she ever do? If she can’t defend herself as a woman, I’d be worried about what she will ever defend. You have to stand up for what you believe in and women are not equal to men in this country. For many, many years we have had second class citizenship. I’m not saying that I want a whole group of middle class women coming into politics. I’ve always said this – if we want gender balance we want it of men and women from different backgrounds which I think is as big an issue as gender. There is research from Norway and from a number of countries where they have gender balance, relatively speaking i.e. 40% and which shows that even women from conservative parties actually promote health, education and social welfare. It’s because they are closer to the vulnerable in society. It isn’t because women are morally superior to men – I would never say that, I think that’s nonsense. Or that men can’t care for children as well as women – of course they can. But because of the way our society is, women are the primary carers and a lot of the vulnerable people in society are cared for by women most of the time. Therefore policies that affect the vulnerable are more visible to women and they are more likely to vote for policies that are supportive of childcare, disability, healthcare and education. That is a simple empirical fact – observable from countries that have large numbers of women in their parliaments. I believe we will never get women in politics in sufficient numbers in this country without some sort of a quota system.

MC: I’ve argued before that in any other circumstance where you have such an obvious imbalance or social lack it’s only natural for some sort of remedial action to be taken to restore the situation to health.

KL: We need only have it for a period of time to overcome the problem, otherwise it’s not going to happen.

MC: And yet very disappointingly women in the Dáil – over half of them – are saying they are against gender quotas.

KL: Well you only have to look at who they are, a lot of them. Many of the women who succeed in politics in this country have family associations in politics and they get selected on the basis of their family connections – and that in my view is a form of a quota. They have already benefited from the family quota and they should remember that. And many of the others have benefited from their money. I’m sorry, but there are some women with wealthy backgrounds and that has greatly helped them. You’ve probably been to privileged schools and enjoyed all the privileges of your class and therefore of course you don’t need a quota because you belong to the privileged upper middle class. So bully for you! The vast majority of women do not. Any woman from a poor community down the country hasn’t a hope.

You can read the whole interview here.

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With 6 out of 67 candidates female running throughout Cork, the odds are certainly not stacking up at 50-50. As Mary Minihan wrote in yesterday’s Irish Times, Mná na hÉireann are losing ground.

But that’s all set to change, if a new group set up in Cork before Christmas has its way. The 50 50 Group has been set up to campaign for equal representation for women in politics and they’re not going to go away. We’ve been promised that. At the group’s media briefing with Cork’s seven female candidates yesterday morning, member Mary Roche said determinedly “We’re going to see this through to the very end”.

Founded late last year, the group has not had time to get properly to grips with this election, and that is being acknowledged from the off. But they are determined to be in this for the long haul, and are seeking members, money and ideas to ensure that women can be seen in political life.

The target – suggested by both elected female TDs in Cork, Deirdre Clune and Kathleen Lynch – should be the local elections in 2014.

‘It would be more in my line to be at home minding my children’

Attended by a range of journalists (including a few men), the group met for a Q&A with media and the female candidates. Some of the answers made grim listening.

Cork North West Fine Gael candidate Áine Collins, who has never held any elected office, and has two young children, said she is finding women toughest to deal with on the doors. “I’ve been told it would be more in my line to be at home minding my children”.  Deirdre Clune, also Fine Gael, and a TD since 2007, agreed: “I get that all the time”.

Difficulties for women, including the five Cs identified by the 2009 Oireachtas report into Women’s Participation in Politics (cash, culture, confidence, childcare and candidate selection procedures) were discussed, with Labour TD Kathleen Lynch suggesting that confidence really was the bottom line among both women voters and women politicians.

As a reporter, I have shadowed a number of candidates in Cork (all men) this election and have been rather startled by the difference in responses of men and women. I asked the panel whether they had found women were more likely, even in this election, to say “what will you do for me”?

Cork TD Kathleen LynchIn my unscientific straw poll, they were, almost uniformly so. The men we met knew party policies, knew party ideologies, and had largely thought about the possibilities of their votes contributing to a government, and how that government would stack up. Women were influenced by direct personal contact with the candidate, whether they knew them personally, what they were like as a person and as a worker, as well as whether they would do a job they were personally asked to do.

Kathleen Lynch’s answer was insightful.

“It’s a confidence issue. Women are managers in their world and confident in that world. Women manage their families, their children, their elderly parents, their lives.”

It’s a long-term project to extend this confidence, she said, but pointed out that it proved how differently women think, and how crucial it is that the thinking of 50 per cent of the population is reflected in its representation. “Historians have mostly been men, and they report on big events. The women have been at home trying frantically to make the bread, while he was off saving the world. We have no record of that lived experience in history. Women’s concerns are more immediate but that doesn’t mean they’re not worried about the future.”

‘Girls believe that politics is what boys do’

Lynch also said that a Minister for Education with this mindset, and the teaching of politics in schools,  would change things. “Girls believe that politics is what boys do,” she added. She and Deirdre Clune TD had been in a local secondary school recently, and it had clearly been an eye opener for girls to see women on the podium. “When the two of us walked in, there was a lift in the room,” added Deirdre Clune. Both acknowledged that there was far less “what will you do for me” in this election than in any previous election.

Notably, there is no female Fianna Fáil candidate throughout the five constituencies in Cork. Fine Gael has two – Deirdre Clune in Cork South Central, and Aine Collins in Cork North West. The Greens had one, Jennifer Sleeman in Cork South West, who was found to be ineligible due to British citizenship (at the age of 81, she was a self-acknowledged paper candidate and was rather horrified at the prospect she might get elected), but she has been replaced on the ticket by a man.

People before Profit has one, Áine Foley in Cork North West. She said at yesterday’s meeting that gender is a key focus for People before Profit, and four out of their nine candidates are women (a fifth had to drop out to look after her elderly mother).

Sinn Féin has one, Youghal Town Councillor Sandra McLellan, in Cork East, and there is one Independent, Claire Cullinane, in Cork East, who is running under the banner of new democratic movement CPPC.

Labour has two – Kathleen Lynch in Cork North Central and Paula Desmond in Cork South Central.

‘It’s tough going, but it is doable’

Desmond has been a councillor for 25 years and her mother was a much-respected Labour TD in Cork. Her outlook on women in politics is clearly heartfelt and borne of long experience within her own life. “We can’t let society tell us that politics is too hard for women. It’s harder, but it’s doable. We have to have a vision of the kind of Ireland we want to live in, a vision of how it should be as a woman living in Ireland. It’s tough going, but it is doable.” There were more women on Cork City Council in 1985, the year she became a councillor, than there are now.

I was born in 1985, and my first political memory is one that was evoked by Kathleen Lynch yesterday; Mary Robinson wearing a purple suit in a sea of black-clad men.

But that first hopeful political memory has not been borne out by many women of Mary Robinson’s generation, or of my own. Yet.

For more, see 50: 50 or find them on Facebook.

Deirdre O’Shaughnessy is editor of the Cork Independent newspaper, Cork’s largest circulating free weekly newspaper and a regular contributor to Newstalk 106-108fm. She blogs about society, politics, and media at http://www.deshocks.wordpress.com and makes up for a very short attention span with youthful exuberance, sometimes. @deshocks

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