Wednesday 17 July 2019

Jobs for the girls: sexism in politics

Politics

Madam Politician

Martina Fitzgerald

Gill Books, €19.99

At the launch last night (from left): Josepha Madigan, Síle de Valera, Heather Humphreys, Nora Owen, Niamh Breathnach, Mary Coughlan, Gemma Hussey, Joan Burton, Catherine McGuinness, Martina Fitzgerald, Mary O’Rourke, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Jan O’Sullivan, Mary Hanafin, Regina Doherty and Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Damien Eagers
At the launch last night (from left): Josepha Madigan, Síle de Valera, Heather Humphreys, Nora Owen, Niamh Breathnach, Mary Coughlan, Gemma Hussey, Joan Burton, Catherine McGuinness, Martina Fitzgerald, Mary O’Rourke, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Jan O’Sullivan, Mary Hanafin, Regina Doherty and Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Damien Eagers
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

'You should be at home and not be taking a job from a man," one woman told Gemma Hussey as she canvassed for election in 1981.

Martina Fitzgerald's interviews with the living 17 out of 19 female cabinet ministers in 99 years, is a painful reminder of how women are disdained in the workplace, not just in politics, and how they are intimidated by men, who are neither as qualified or skilled as many of the elected females.

Despite the fact that Countess Markiewicz was the first Irish woman to hold a cabinet position in 1919, it took 60 years before another female, Maire Geoghegan Quinn, was appointed to cabinet; the first woman since the foundation of the state in 1922. From 1918 to 2018 we have had 114 female TDs (9 per cent) serving in Dáil Eireann compared to 1,179 male TDs (91 per cent).

The negativity of the various comments and the journeys these cabinet ministers underwent should not impact on women today to run for election.

Rather than individual chronological stories, the chapters focus on aspects of election campaigns, attitudes in Leinster House, getting into cabinet, the presidency, sexism, #politicianstoo and, as if the derision in the Dail was not bad enough, there is reference to media commentary on appearance, weight, hairstyles.

The final chapter is the common denominator that these ultimately successful women relied upon; family and friends.

Condescension goes back to the 1970s when former President Mary Robinson started canvassing. She stood for Dail election twice and was not elected. As a young mother, she was told several times that she should be at home minding the baby. During her presidential campaign she was called a 'Marxist lesbian bitch' by a member of the Catholic clergy.

Her presidential candidacy was opposed by the current president Michael D Higgins. During a campaign visit to Higgins's base in Galway she says, "He didn't warm to me… he was one of those who regretted that I had got the nomination and not Noel Browne."

Mary McAleese exposes utterly rude and disrespectful comments by Pope John Paul II to the office of President of Ireland. There is only one woman, with multiple family involvement in politics who has no desire for gender quota; Mary O'Rourke is totally against it. Needless to say, we know that merit counts but so does gender.

The current leader of Fianna Fail is an example of how the party is changing, and it would be beneficial if they prioritised gender quotas. Mary Hanafin says that Fianna Fail remains 'very male', that the party is 'not respectful enough of women' and has 'no supportive mechanism for women at all'.

Hanafin was one of three women in cabinet in 2004 and did not believe there was a particular camaraderie, "I don't think there was collegiality between the women".

Joan Burton argues that women have to be "quite resilient and pushy enough" to show that they are not "some kind of add-on or decoration". Mary Mitchell O'Connor describes political life as "laddy. The behaviour is macho. It's aggressive. It's very off-putting... women are able to do business in a quiet way. That's their modus operandi".

Frances Fitzgerald describes the atmosphere in the Dail chamber when she was first elected as "so gladiatorial and so hierarchical".

As you can tell, the 'macho culture' dominated up to recently, though Bertie Ahern is described by Mary O'Rourke as "full of equality. He didn't realise it, but he was".

Many women were pregnant or breastfeeding while campaigning, and their voices affirm a resilience that women don't realise they possess.

Whether you have no interest in politics or are fully engaged, this is an essential read. The book gives an insight into the route women take to gain votes and get what they want.

Sunday Independent

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