Thursday 18 December 2014

It's tough being a woman TD in a Dail chamber run by the boys

Published 21/05/2013 | 17:00

WITH just 25 women TDs in the Dail, it's perhaps unfair to expect the debate on the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill to be more feminised than it has been to date. Fortunately, women are well represented in the medical professionals informing the committee hearings. But female TDs with liberal credentials appear reluctant to speak up. Conservative women have no such qualms.

Of course, the anti-abortion lobby is in top gear. Beleaguered deputies both male and female should take courage from recent polls which suggest steady public support for the legislation. All of which vindicates the Taoiseach's stance. But he could do with some female support on this divisive issue. The sad fact is that women are a minority grouping in the Dail – and it shows.

Since the foundation of the State, Dail Eireann has been overwhelmingly male. When I entered the Dail in 1992 there was a high of 22 women elected. In the 20 years since, the pace of progress has been glacial. So much so that the body politic has eventually come round to the need for positive action to increase the numbers of women elected.

I visited the House of Commons on several occasions. It is a very intimidating place, austere and cavernous. There are dozens of towering statues of male politicians. No one showed me but, apparently, there is a small broom cupboard somewhere in its dark recesses. Inside is a plaque which honours a militant suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, who locked herself in the cupboard on the night of the 1911 census so that she could record the House of Commons as her place of residence.

At that time women could not vote, let alone be elected to Parliament. Poor Emily died a martyr for the cause two years later under the hooves of George V's horse at the Epsom Derby. So the struggle for women's civil and political rights was hard won and slow; nothing happened by chance.

Thanks to positive action and gender quotas, the UK has a marginally better record than Ireland for women parliamentarians. Labour introduced quotas over 20 years ago resulting in the famously termed "Blair's Babes" in the 1990s. That progress has continued, culminating in a current female head count in the UK Labour party of 85.

In all now there are 146 female MPs, or 22pc of the House of Commons. Conservative Leader David Cameron adopted the "A" list whereby the party puts forward female and ethnic minority candidates for target seats. This positive action resulted in an increase from 17 to 48 Tory women in the 2010 Election. But in global terms, the 22pc figure is nothing to shout about for a modern European democracy.

Political theory suggests that it requires a critical mass of at least 30pc of women parliamentarians before the difference can actually be felt in terms of policy outcomes. And we are not just talking about what were traditionally called "women's' issues" such as childcare and education.

All issues are women's issues, from housing to finance, and criminal justice to the environment. What happens is that the whole policy agenda becomes feminised by the contribution of women in greater numbers. In so doing, women's life experience, perspective and priorities are addressed, heard and reflected in national policy. This has essentially been achieved in the Nordic countries for many years thanks to gender quotas.

IN my view, our democracy is "unfinished" while government and parliament remains so male dominated and male determined.

The next general election will be transformative in that for the first time political parties will be obliged to field at least 30pc of female candidates. This is because Government has legislated for gender quotas which require parties to include women as candidates or risk losing state funding.

It is important to stress that gender quotas will not force the electorate to vote for women. It just means that women will be nominated as candidates. They will be "on the ticket" and must take their chances in the contest, based on their policy platform, talent and party.

My fervent hope is that freeing up space for women to contest elections will result in a marked increase in female TDs in the next Dail.

The biggest obstacle facing women up to now has been getting a nomination to run for a winnable seat. Too often women were used as "sweepers" to garner party support which transferred to established male colleagues. It was a mug's game.

So right around the country, in all parties, aspiring women candidates are mobilising for this historic opportunity. Crossing the bridge from private life into public life is a tough call, but the prize is the privilege of finishing the job started by Emily Wilding Davison and others a century ago.

Irish Independent

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