Wednesday 28 September 2016

Momentum swings in favour of female candidates

Niamh Gallagher

Published 24/02/2016 | 02:30

Niamh Gallagher: 'We should recognise the unique opportunity this election presents and seize it by giving serious and thoughtful consideration to the women on our ballot paper next week.' Photo: Tom Burke
Niamh Gallagher: 'We should recognise the unique opportunity this election presents and seize it by giving serious and thoughtful consideration to the women on our ballot paper next week.' Photo: Tom Burke

In 2006, the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the US held a luncheon with the theme 'Celebrating Inspiration'. At the event, they named their all-decade team to mark the organisation's 10th anniversary and draw attention to its most influential players over the previous 10 years. The keynote speaker on the day was Madeleine Albright, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and, later, Secretary of State under the Clinton administration. In her remarks, she said "there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women". The quote was picked up, grabbed onto, and has since become a staple go-to for women advocating for women's rights and empowerment around the world.

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Last week, when introducing Hillary Clinton to a rally in New Hampshire, Albright dusted off her old notes and used the quote again, this time with reference to Clinton's campaign.

The suggestion was - though not stated explicitly - that there is a special place in hell for women who don't vote for Clinton. Unsurprisingly, this went down badly, not least among women.

In using the quote in this way, Albright diminished women rather than empowered them. She suggested that women should see the world through only one lens - gender - and that their decisions should be guided by that alone. That is nonsense.

Women, like men, should make political decisions based on their values and beliefs. They should evaluate each candidate against their own views and preferences and make their choice accordingly. In a race like a US presidential election, where there are two candidates with differing positions on key issues, whether they are male or female should not come into play.

However, where candidates' positions are broadly aligned, the question of gender can arise.

At all elections, some voters choose their preferred candidate based on an overall picture of what the candidate stands for, while others are guided by one or two key issues that matter to them.

In Clinton vs Sanders, those who feel strongly about healthcare may plump for Hillary based on her commitment to Obamacare, rather than Sanders' intention to dismantle it and replace it with a single-payer healthcare system. For those who want tighter regulation on Wall Street bankers or the end of US intervention in the Middle East, their preference will be for Sanders, based on his harder line on these issues.

But for a voter who feels passionate about women's rights, about education or about immigration - where both candidates' positions are similar - the choice is more complex and the question of a candidates' gender may come into play.

Take Ireland for example. We know there are too few women in Irish politics; the most recent (now dissolved) Dáil had 26 of 166 TDs, or 16pc.

That was the highest number ever. We know too that diversity among our elected officials brings benefits to both the process of politics, and the outcomes achieved.

There are those who dispute that - as David Quinn did in this newspaper last week - but the international evidence is clear: more diverse political representation leads to better outcomes for societies and the citizens in them, just ask anyone in Scandinavia.

Given this - the low level of female political representation to date and the knowledge that more women elected would make a positive difference - it makes sense to ask whether we should consider candidates' gender when making our choices on February 26. Add to that the policy similarities among some of our political parties and groupings, and the question becomes even more relevant.

If a voter, for example, would like to see the current Government re-elected, they will have a choice of two, three or even more candidates fielded by Fine Gael and Labour.

If that same voter believes that more balanced political representation is important and that the next Dáil should have more women in it, then shouldn't he or she review the candidates fielded by those two parties and, if there is one, choose the female candidate? By doing that our voter achieves two things: he votes to return the Government and seeks to increase the number of women elected to the Dáil. Similarly, on the left of the spectrum, where a large number of parties, groupings and independents hold broadly similar positions, shouldn't a voter who wants the current Government out and also feels strongly about getting more women into positions of power, select the female candidate at the top of her list of preferences? This is the beauty of our system of proportional representation; it allows us to make nuanced choices based on more than a single dimension.

The reality is, if we want to get more women elected we have to vote for them. Now, following the introduction of quota legislation combined with passionate and focused momentum behind this issue, 30pc of all candidates in the field are women. Across the country, half of all 40 constituencies have more than one-third women on the ballot, and there is an average of four women running per constituency.

So, for the first time, voters have choice, not just between parties and groupings but within them. We should recognise the unique opportunity this election presents and seize it by giving serious and thoughtful consideration to the women on our ballot paper next week.

We won't go to hell if we don't, but then again, maybe we shouldn't risk it.

Irish Independent

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