Sunday 26 May 2019

The six presidential candidates talk feminism - Which one says they are not a feminist?

From inspirational mammies to redefining the role of the president's life partner

2018 has been a pivotal year for women’s equality in Ireland and globally. It is 100 years since women were first allowed to vote here and the 8th Amendment was removed following a campaign by women and women’s organisations throughout the country. Globally the #MeToo movement has highlighted the experiences of discrimination and harassment faced by women and girls. Building on this renewed interest and energy, the National Women’s Council of Ireland asked the presidential candidates to share their views on women’s equality in Ireland


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Joan Freeman. Picture: Steve Humphreys

What action have you taken to advance women’s equality that you are most proud of?

When I founded Pieta House and Solace House in New York, I actively chose to appoint women to positions of authority. In my experience women make great leaders. What I have realised, particularly in the private sector, is that we need to help each other. However, probably what I’m most proud of is that I’ve always taught my daughters to be fearless and that though they may experience fear in tasks ahead of them to go for it anyway.

How would you advance women’s rights in the role of president?

One initiative I would like to promote through schools is the encouragement of young women to get involved in politics, particularly by encouraging public speaking in the latter stages of primary education and the early stages of secondary education.

Since being appointed to the Seanad, I have become acutely aware that we need far more elected women in politics. While gender quotas are an excellent policy idea, I think the president could encourage schools to promote public speaking initiatives for schoolgirls to find their voice on public issues. In particular, I like the idea of rolling out a competition for young women to present on issues of public importance with a view to encouraging and recognising the most successful speakers. It would also be important that subsections of young women who may face extra societal disadvantages are equally encouraged to take part in these initiatives.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, I am a feminist. I’ve always believed in parity between men and women. We need to be advocating for women as I believe women’s voices should be represented in all aspects of society. Women not only bring skill, talent and leadership, but they also bring empathy to all situations. It makes sense for women and men to work together as it results in a more balanced and fair society.

What woman, past or present, inspires you and why?

I’m always inspired by Angela Merkel. She is an extraordinary, strong female figure; she is unflappable, and resilient in a male-dominated environment. She’s quite possibly the backbone of the EU.



Peter Casey speaking at EPIC centre in Dublin at the official launch of his presidential campaign. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA. Friday October 5, 2018.

What action have you taken to advance women’s equality that you are most proud of?

In my career to date, I have always supported women in leadership roles. I believe men and women are equal and I have never had to actively advance women’s equality. In my companies, I have always had a woman acting as my COO. For the last 10 years at Claddagh Resources the COO was a woman and she did a fantastic job. I hire whoever is best for the role and never discriminate against women or men.

How would you advance women’s rights in the role of president?

I would create a council of advisers to ensure full advancement of women’s rights. My council of state would be made up equally of men and women, entirely 50/50. My first lady would work on initiatives to promote women in the workplace. My wife would promote causes that support women nationwide, the same way that men’s rights are promoted. Thankfully, women’s rights are well enshrined and protected in the law and I would work to ensure it stays this way.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

No, I’m not a feminist and I don’t discriminate by favouring males or females. I would like to think we’re past this as a society and women are treated equally in Ireland. But I am open to exploring the matter further and would happily engage with the Women’s Council of Ireland on suitable means to address inequality or advance the aim of equality for everyone in our society.

What woman inspires you and why?

My mother. She combined a successful career with being a successful mother and I always admired her for this. She was a very giving woman and taught me how to believe in myself and the importance of standing by a commitment.



Presidential candidate Seán Gallagher. Picture: Kinlan Photography.

What action have you taken to advance women’s equality that you are most proud of?

I have had the honour to mentor and coach many businesswomen. I have ardently supported these truly inspirational women to achieve their ambitions. I have delivered talks at workshops and briefings the length and breadth of the country, sharing my advice and expertise to help them achieve their goals.

I have always held a fundamental belief that equality for women isn’t simply a women’s issue. The onus is on each one of us, as men, as brothers, as fathers, as husbands, as uncles, as businessmen to ensure women’s equality. For too long we have simply paid lip service to women’s equality without actually delivering any notable changes.  

I’ve worked hard in business as an entrepreneur and job creator and I know many fantastic businesswomen who have done likewise. I have followed them on their road to success and I can say with certainty that their journey has been a lot more challenging than mine. I recently addressed the ‘Women Mean Business’ conference in the Shelbourne Hotel where I spoke of how 80pc of venture capital funding went to male-led businesses in the last year. We know this does not reflect the balance of talents and we must work together to bring an end to this archaic attitude.                                                                                                                  

How would you advance women’s rights in the role of president?

The onus is on each one of us to create a more equal society, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because when we don’t, we deprive our society of the drive and talents that represents over half our population.

This is why, if honoured to be elected president, I am committed to launching a number of special initiatives to promote female participation across all areas of society. The first of these initiatives will focus on female participation in politics, not because it’s the politically correct thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do for our country.

April 2, 2019, will mark 100 years to the day Countess Markievicz was appointed Ireland’s first female minister. On this day, I will convene an all-island gathering of past and present female elected representatives to mark the contribution of Countess Markievicz and celebrate the unique contributions of all female leaders from community organisations, activist groups and wider society who have impacted our country for the better. 

If elected president, I will also request that all new initiatives which I undertake, have an inclusive focus, and that in as far as applicable there will be a full gender balance.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, absolutely and it’s a badge I wear with pride. For me, feminism is not only about believing that women should have equal rights and opportunities. It’s also about standing up when we don’t see this happening, whether it’s in politics, a playground or a boardroom. As much as I want my daughter Lucy to grow up with all the opportunities she and every girl deserves, I also want my son Bobby to grow up knowing that being a feminist is a strength because it means that you stand for others and are committed to shaping a future where everyone is equal.

What woman, past or present, inspires you and why?

My life has been shaped by countless inspirational women — my mother Ann, my wife Trish and my daughter Lucy among others. But I have always admired Mary McAleese greatly. As president, she led in a way that allowed others to step forward and take responsibility, particularly in her work building bridges in Northern Ireland. Her approach was courageous in the context of how fragile peace was back then but her impact was immeasurable. If elected president, her approach to working with communities, leading by example and being future focused would certainly guide me every day in my role.



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Gavin Duffy

What action have you taken to advance women’s equality that you are most proud of?

“Proud” is not a word I would use, but as an entrepreneur with a public profile, the most significant action I have taken to advance women’s equality is being a regular, outspoken advocate for quotas for women on boards, in senior management and in politics. I believe my advocacy has actually persuaded quite a few who had reservations about quotas to consider setting them in their organisations. I am passionate about quotas, believing if we really want to achieve true gender equality in our communities and in the world of work we have to set targets and continuously monitor and measure if we are achieving them.

We are in a golden age currently of women as CEOs leading many of the country’s largest companies and I have worked closely as a mentor and business adviser with many of them. The challenge now is to change their corporations and achieve true diversity, inclusion and parity of pay and conditions for all.

Finally let it be noted that the office and role of the president was only redefined and expanded when we had two women presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

How would you advance women’s rights in the role of president?

If elected president I would set about changing the role of the president’s life partner. In my case, my partner, Orlaith Carmody, has had a long involvement working with Women for Election. She is a professional communicator and author of the best-seller book Perform as a Leader. Not only is Orlaith my best friend, wife of 25 years, and mother of our four adult children, she is also my life-long business partner. We work as a team and if elected president we intend to redefine the role of the president’s partner.

In 2022 on the centenary of the founding of our State, Orlaith and I would jointly host the Ireland’s Daughters’ Assembly where we will debate what we actually mean and how do we achieve full equality for women at the commencement of the second century of our independence. Just a point here, sadly our political system and the corporate world are still led by a male majority so when I am trying to convince people, especially men, to embrace true diversity and inclusion, I talk about what would we want for our daughters and I find I get a much more positive response and changes do occur. That’s why I am proposing an assembly to discuss daughters as opposed to women.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, I am a committed feminist in that I believe in full gender equality in every aspect of life. I believe one comes to true feminism only after having suffered discrimination on the grounds of being a woman.  As a man I have never felt discriminated against or passed over for a promotion because of my gender, and so can only empathise with women who are discriminated against and do everything to condemn and fix it. And I know women are discriminated against because I have worked with men who have blind spots to women’s potential or, sadly feel more comfortable in majority male teams. Of course I challenged those men but many suffer unconscious bias. I have always been different in that regard and have always worked closely and successfully with women. By the way my election boss is a woman, Kate Acheson.

What woman, past or present, inspires you and why?

It is a group of women that I admire. My mother and my aunties. I grew up in an extended family where everyone was involved in business. My mother Anne and Aunty Teresa were restaurateurs, my Aunty Mae owned a bakery and confectionery shop, my Aunty Peg a petrol station, Aunty Pearl a gift shop and newsagents, my Aunty Maureen owned and ran laundromats in Flushing, New York. Today they might be called entrepreneurs but back then they were happy to be just “shopkeepers”. They were all independent of their husbands and were most definitely feminists and growing up with them formed in me an admiration and respect for strong women.



Liadh Ni Riada

What action have you taken to advance women’s equality that you are most proud of?

I have been consistent in ensuring equality for women and girls is included in every aspect of my work as a member of the European Parliament, whether through inclusion of gender equality provisions in relations between the EU with non-EU countries, or introducing the concept of gender equality-proofing to EU funding instruments on the budgets committee.

What I take great pride in, however, is the encouragement and support I give to young women who wish to affect positive social change. I try to be the best role-model I can be for girls and young women, and to show them that they can be leaders, influencers and change-makers.

How would you advance women’s rights in the role of president?

Our best presidents have been women. I think having a woman in this position provides a very significant role model for young women in particular. Championing the rights of women will be an important strand of my presidency. I will ensure more women than ever are on the Council of State, I will engage with women across Ireland about how they want to see their position transformed in a new Ireland and I will make speaking to young women and teenage girls in schools and colleges a priority. 

As a mother of three daughters between the ages of 10 and 17 I bring an important insight about the potential of the next generation of young women and the contribution they can make to Ireland’s future. 

Encouraging and promoting this potential of a generation of strong, confident and capable young Irish women is something which I would be very proud to do as president.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes I am a feminist. I am committed to equality and we cannot have equality until we have equality for women; ni saoirse go saoirse na mban. While much has been achieved in recent years, including the repeal of the 8th Amendment, there is a lot still to be achieved in Ireland and across the globe. As an MEP I have been active on a range of issues to improve equality for women and if elected president I will continue to advocate for women and girls in Irish society and internationally.

What woman, past or present, inspires you and why?

I am lucky that I have encountered many inspirational women from many walks of life, and each one of them has inspired me in a unique way, despite their common traits of courage, wisdom and resilience.

From the mother in Wexford town that set up a ground-breaking facility for children with ASD, while raising a family and holding down a job; to the young traveller woman in Co Clare who ensures her young siblings are safe and warm before bedding down for the night in sub-standard accommodation.

I am inspired by the women who have fought for reproductive rights since their teens and were out campaigning for repeal this summer with their teenage daughters. I am inspired by the young women in Limerick who experienced the dark side of depression, who lost friends to suicide, and who took action to stop the tide by setting up their own out-of-hours mental health service.

In a historical context I have always found Grainne Mhaol to be an inspirational woman. She was a strong, confident and dynamic leader who defied the conventions of her day. She defended her people in the face of aggression and took bold diplomatic initiatives when necessary. I enjoyed reading about her as a girl, and her example taught me at a young age that barriers put in our way can and must be overcome.



President Michael D Higgins canvases for votes on Dublin’s Grafton Street (Niall Carson/PA)

What action have you taken to advance women’s equality that you are most proud of?

Throughout my life, I’ve been an advocate for the rights and equality of women.

As TD and Senator, I advocated on housing, education, minimum wage and a social floor, highlighting the often-unequal ways these issues affected women. As Minister, I brought talented women to decision-making tables.

Sabina and I were part of early progressive political and civil society movements on contraception, divorce and the status of illegitimacy and opposed introduction of the 8th Amendment in 1983.

As president, I found new ways to support gender equality at a local, national and international level. I have highlighted the achievements of women in every sphere of life including sports, science, business and the arts, encouraged greater recognition for care and community and emphasised the crucial role of women in peace and development. Violence against women must end. In 2015, I become one of 10 Champion World Leaders of the UN’s ‘HeForShe’ campaign.

I also met with women who had been in Magdalene institutions and apologised to them on behalf of our State.

My “Presidency of Ideas” has consistently highlighted the words, ideas and actions of women, who, nationally and internationally have shaped history, led contemporary debate and charted a shared future.

How would you advance women’s rights in the role of president?

If re-elected, I have proposed a presidential initiative on ‘Participation and Transformation’, inviting public discussion on participation — obstacles faced and supports needed. Achieving equality is not simply about opportunities for the individual, it is about changing our spaces and systems. I will also invite institutions to reflect on how they can better deliver inclusion and equality, including gender equality.

Advancing rights and equality for women will remain at the heart of my work and thinking. I believe none of the major challenges of the coming years, be it the right to shelter, climate change, or the future of work, can be fully understood without recognising and addressing gender inequality.

During recent commemorations, I highlighted the contribution of women in to the early trade union, revolutionary, cultural and suffrage movements. I will bring similar inclusion and respect to the more challenging anniversaries ahead.

As your president, I will place equality and rights for women on the agenda when I meet other world leaders. I will extend my work as a UN ‘HeforShe’ champion and, alongside Sabina, advocate for the empowerment of all women and girls as central to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I am proud to call myself a feminist. I believe global feminism has been a transformative source of new thinking, benefiting everyone.

I’m heartened to see a renewed, inclusive, confident, feminism within contemporary movements for a more equal Ireland.

I often quote Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who said: “We should all be feminists. A feminist is a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

“A feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better’.”

What woman, past or present, inspires you and why? 

In marking the centenary of women’s suffrage, I was inspired by the courageous words and work of Eva Gore-Booth. A poet, nationalist, trade unionist and socialist, she had huge influence in Britain and Ireland. In Manchester, she championed the rights of women and working people alongside her life-long partner Esther Roper, and she founded the suffrage movement in Sligo with her sister Constance.

She was exceptional in combining so many projects of egalitarianism in her work — trade union rights, gender equality, pacifism and spiritual freedom. In February, Sabina and I visited her gravestone in London.

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