Friday 6 December 2019

Gender quotas are an important step in allowing women's voices to be heard

Former President Mary Robinson
Former President Mary Robinson

Liz O’Donnell

I have long been an advocate for the greater participation of women in public life. The dearth of women in politics was what propelled me into politics.

Gazing down on the Dail chamber when President-elect Mary Robinson addressed the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas all those years ago, I was stunned at the panorama of grey-suited men.

An occasional splash of peacock-like colour indicated the rare female deputy. The image was life-changing for me and for other women.

I had worked as a volunteer on the Mary Robinson election campaign with my colleagues in the Women's Political Association. When canvassing doors, typically the man would declare his allegiance to either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. Sometimes the woman of the house would say nothing or else quietly wink her support for the first woman candidate for the presidency from behind the hubby's back.

It was hilarious; we knew from the doorstep that she would win, even if everybody else thought that it was there for the Fianna Fail candidate, Brian Lenihan Snr. It was like a silent revolution, a phenomenon perfectly described by the President herself at her inauguration as "mna na hEireann rocking the system instead of rocking the cradle".

Those were heady days for those of us who were hesitating to cross the bridge from private life to public life in the forthcoming 1992 election.

That 1992 General Election was embroiled in the abortion debate and the X case decision which required referenda on the right to life of women in pregnancy and to travel and information. Whatever doubts I had about running for Dail Eireann were cast aside with the obligation I felt to contribute to the constitutional, medical and legal crisis that had emerged.

Frances Fitzgerald, now Minister for Justice, was elected in the same contest. Being a TD is not an easy life choice for a woman, but it is a meaningful job with a responsibility to represent other women, whose voices and perspectives have for too long been absent in decision making.

The next election, which is due to take place in 2016 if this Government runs its full term, will be historic, as gender quotas will ensure that more women will be on the ballot paper, offering choice and diversity to the electorate for the first time.

It will transform public life. I am not suggesting that public discourse will be more enlightened, more intelligent or more anything. But at least it will be more representative of society.

Some women will hesitate to make the break and run for office. They may feel they are achieving their full potential in their particular field, whether in the voluntary sector or in high-flying business or professional roles.

And of course, politics is not for everyone. Thousands of women work tirelessly in the voluntary sector, propping up much-needed public services for people with disabilities and the elderly.

Many other women are at the top of their game in business, banking and the professions, in that way influencing the governance of organisations and feminising them in ways that can only improve their performance.

Timing too is everything.

Many women will be honoured and content to devote their time and energy to their young children and their families as stay-at-home mothers.

Many others do not have the luxury of that choice to be homemakers. There are so many dilemmas facing women, but this is the greatest of them all. Childcare is the unfinished business of the women's movement.

Every now and then an individual woman breaks from private life into the public arena, fuelled by a matter that is wholly personal and emotionally charged.

Mairia Cahill did so some weeks ago, when she challenged Sinn Fein at the highest level and its response to her sexual abuse by an IRA man. It was a challenge that has reverberated through the political system and, as we saw this week, led to a full and contentious debate in Dail Eireann. The effect of Mairia Cahill's stand is still being felt at the highest level of politics, and will continue to be felt for some time to come.

The personal becomes political. This week too a young working mother in Cork just let fly in a letter to this newspaper, expressing her despair at "being slave to our bills and taxes" resulting in her children being "raised in childcare centres like hens".

Her plight touched a nerve for every working mother.

As I read it, I recalled the jaded faces of young couples in my constituency when we called at election times on the canvass. They were only in the door after long days working while their infant and toddler children were cared for from dawn to dusk in creches.

I was always touched and concerned by the frantic pace of their limited domestic lives as they endeavoured to enjoy a couple of hours with their children after work. It was always a tight fit for working parents to manage small children, but when taxes and bills increase as in recent years, it becomes unsustainable, as for Donna Hartnett.

Yet again a personal dilemma for a young mother becomes political when voiced.

In similar vein, young Joanne O'Riordan has become a powerful advocate for people with disabilities.

One does not have to be a politician to be a vital voice for women.

Irish Independent

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