Kate O'Connell TD: 'I'm not one of those people who would want to be singing nursery rhymes all day... I'd go off my rocker'
John Meagher talks to mothers who won't give up their political careers
Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30
John Howard has a reputation for speaking his mind, irrespective of how outdated his views may be deemed, and the ex-prime minister of Australia was in typically combative mood this week.
He claimed there would never be an equal representation of women and men in parliament, because "women play a significantly greater part of fulfilling the caring role… which inevitably places some limits on their capacity.
"It's not a terrible thing to say, it just happens to be the truth, and occasionally you've just got to recognise that and say it."
His comments came in the wake of an admission from Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that she may not have attained the position she enjoys today had she been a mother. She suffered from a miscarriage in 2010 aged 40.
"If the miscarriage hadn't happened, would I be sitting here as first minister right now? It's an unanswerable question. I just don't know. I've thought about it, but I don't know the answer. I'd like to think yes, because I could have shown that having a child wasn't a barrier to all of this, but in truth I don't know."
Margaret Thatcher proved it was possible to be a mother and hold the highest office, but the two most powerful women in Europe - British PM Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel - don't have children.
For Nora Owen, the former Fine Gael TD and minister, having children should not be a deterrent for women when it comes to aspiring to the top in politics, but admits that unattached people can devote more time to certain aspects of political life. "I'm talking about both men and women here but those who don't have children can stay out at residents' meetings and so on in a way that's more difficult for people with children."
She says having young children did not discourage her from pursuing a career in politics. "When I entered the Dáil in 1981, my three children were all under the age of 10. We had to get a child-minder and housekeeper and that took a huge chunk of the salary because TDs weren't paid as well then. Without her - whom the children loved - and the support of my husband, I couldn't have done it."
When Owen first entered Leinster House, aged 36, only 11 out of 166 TDs were female - then a record proportion. Today, the figure is much healthier, albeit still wildly imbalanced: 35 out of 158.
One of those new members is Fine Gael's Kate O'Connell, a mother-of-three. "I don't think having children should be a deterrent," she says, "although I say that as a TD who lives in Dublin. It would be much more difficult if I was in Cork, say.
"It helps, too, that I'm married to a man who deals with virtually all the child-related stuff, the birthday parties, everything. You have to have that sort of support structure, but that might well be the case for male politicians too."
O'Connell gave birth to her third child in October. She had decided she would seek election during her pregnancy, and was relieved that rumours about the election being called in November didn't materialise. As it was, she was on the hustings four weeks after giving birth. "I'd had a Caesarean section, so I had to be careful not to take on a schedule that was too strenuous."
She believes that today's generation of young women don't suffer from the sort of societal obstacles that held her mother back. "She was a nurse and basically had to give up her job when we were born," she says. "She went back to it years later and only retired last year. There is far greater equality today, despite the gender pay gap that still exists, but I think more women can go further in all walks of life, politics included, and being a parent doesn't change that."
It's fighting talk and yet other Irish female TDs tipped for the big time in politics opted for motherhood over the Dáil. Olwyn Enright chose to quit politics after the birth of her third child, and yet her husband, Joe McHugh, continues to be a TD in his Donegal constituency.
Writing at the time of her departure, the Dáil journalist and former Renua spokesman John Drennan noted: "The current way Leinster House is organised is not just inimical to women. It is also structured to exclude most families with young children, the young and talented outsiders who are not part of some parochial dynasty and might sometimes dare to speak their minds."
Nora Owen, who works as a broadcaster today, says she never once regretted following her political ambitions, although that, in truth, meant less time than she would have liked with her children. "It sounds harsh to say it in a way, but I don't look back with regrets. Of course there were moments where you'd miss out on a sports day or a teacher-meeting but that is by no means confined to politicians - lots of people with busy working lives outside the home can relate to that, especially nowadays."
For her part, Kate O'Connell says she does not pine after lazy afternoons with her children.
"I'm not one of those people who would want to be making papier-mâché objects or singing nursery rhymes all day," she says. "I'd go off my rocker.
"But I try to make the time with my children count, when I'm with them in the mornings and on Fridays which I try to keep clear for them. When you work hard in politics and the day job (she's a pharmacist), something has to give and I make personal sacrifices to be with the children, like not going to the gym."