Break­ing through

The trail­blaz­ing women who breached the male- dom­i­nated world of Ir­ish pol­i­tics en­coun­tered sex­ism and prej­u­dice – from both sexes, writes Martina Fitzger­ald, in this edited ex­tract from her new book

The Irish Times Magazine - - POLITICS -

In July 2016, 14 women from dif­fer­ent back­grounds at­tended a din­ner party in Co Sligo. The women were mem­bers of one of Ire­land’s most ex­clu­sive clubs. What did they all have in com­mon? The 14 rep­re­sent the ma­jor­ity of women who have served as se­nior min­is­ters in Ir­ish gov­ern­ments. The an­swer is not a punch­line, it is a stark po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. A pho­to­graph of the din­ner party cap­tures the jovial and cel­e­bra­tory mood of the evening. The 14 women are sit­ting around a ta­ble, while three oth­ers ( two are de­ceased and an­other was un­able to at­tend) are miss­ing from the pho­to­graph, one of many taken that night to cap­ture the his­toric oc­ca­sion. Their ab­sence, how­ever, could not mit­i­gate the strik­ing sym­bol­ism as din­ner was served – all the Ir­ish women who have been se­nior min­is­ters since the first woman was ap­pointed to gov­ern­ment in 1919 could be seated around a sin­gle din­ing room ta­ble.

Since that evening in July 2016, two more women have been pro­moted to se­nior min­is­te­rial rank. But the num­bers re­main mea­gre, sig­ni­fy­ing miss­ing fe­male min­is­ters and decades of missed op­por­tu­ni­ties.

When Count­ess Con­stance Markievicz was ap­pointed min­is­ter for labour in 1919, Ire­land – then on the verge of achiev­ing in­de­pen­dence – could have been at the fore­front in ad­vanc­ing women’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion in po­lit­i­cal life. In the ini­tial two decades of the 20th cen­tury, a woman’s right to vote was taken se­ri­ously in many coun­tries.

In the UK, af­ter a long and of­ten fraught cam­paign, leg­is­la­tion was in­tro­duced in 1918 start­ing the process of women’s suf­frage. Ir­ish women ben­e­fit­ted from these changes and in elec­tions in the same year to the House of Com­mons, Markievicz be­came the first woman elected as a mem­ber of par­lia­ment at West­min­ster. At the time of her elec­tion, Markievicz was in prison in Eng­land. Hav­ing stood on an ab­sten­tion­ist plat­form, she and her Sinn Féin col­leagues never took their seats in the House of Com­mons. In- stead, the first Dáil was formed in Dublin.

In April 1919, Markievicz was ap­pointed a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, be­com­ing the first Ir­ish woman to hold a cab­i­net po­si­tion. Re­mark­ably, it was 60 years be­fore an­other woman was ap­pointed to se­nior min­is­te­rial of­fice in Ire­land. In 1979, Máire Geoghe­gan- Quinn of Fianna Fáil was ap­pointed min­is­ter for the Gaeltacht, be­com­ing the sole woman among her 14 min­is­te­rial col­leagues.

This was an ex­pe­ri­ence shared by sev­eral sub­se­quent fe­male min­is­ters – Eileen Des­mond ( Labour, 1981-’ 82), Gemma Hussey ( Fine Gael, 1982-’ 87), Mary O’Rourke ( Fianna Fáil, 1987-’ 92) and Geoghe­gan- Quinn her­self again ( 1992-’ 93).

The of­fi­cial pho­tographs of these gov­ern­ments – most of which are in black and white – not only record the his­tor­i­cal oc­ca­sions, but freeze- frame pe­ri­ods in Ir­ish so­ci­ety where men to­tally dom­i­nated po­si­tions of power.

It was not un­til the Fianna Fáil- Labour coali­tion was formed in Jan­uary 1993 that two women sat around the cab­i­net ta­ble at the same time ( Geoghe­gan- Quinn and Ni­amh Bhreath­nach). More than 20 years af­ter that un­der­whelm­ing achieve­ment, the fig­ure dou­bled to four fe­male min­is­ters in 2014 – the high­est level of fe­male cab­i­net par­tic­i­pa­tion since the foun­da­tion of the State. The same num­ber of fe­male min­is­ters was in­cluded in the gov­ern­ments formed by Enda Kenny in 2016 and Leo Varad­kar in 2017.

To put these num­bers into per­spec­tive, of the 200 peo­ple ap­pointed as se­nior mi­nis- ters in Ir­ish gov­ern­ments from 1919 to Septem­ber 2018, only 19 have been women. In stark terms, about 90 per cent of all Ir­ish se­nior min­is­ters have been men. It has been a very long and painstak­ingly slow jour­ney from 1919.

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Mary Robin­son re­mem­bers get­ting “quite a lot of push­back” when she was seek­ing to win a Dáil seat in the 1970s and 1980s. Pol­i­tics aside, she got a lot of flak for be­ing a mother who was seek­ing elec­tion. “You should be at home mind­ing the child, not com­ing around,” she re­mem­bers some vot­ers bluntly re­mark­ing.

The po­lit­i­cal and so­cial cli­mate of the time is im­por­tant in un­der­stand­ing the chal­lenges she and other women faced on the cam­paign trail. In the early 1970s, Ir­ish women had to give up their jobs in the pub­lic ser­vice when they got mar­ried. They had to ac­cept lower pay for do­ing the same work as men. They could not buy con­tra­cep­tives. They could not refuse to have sex with their hus­bands.

The list of what to­day seem in­cred­i­bly anti- women poli­cies and at­ti­tudes went on and on. The po­si­tion of Ir­ish women was aptly cap­tured in a “job de­scrip­tion” printed on the cover of the magazine Bread and Roses, pro­duced by women i n UCD i n t he mid- 1970s. It de­picted a car­toon of a woman call­ing out “Girls! Look­ing for a ca­reer? Be­come a house­wife!!!”

Against this back­drop, fe­male politi­cians were, as Nora Owen, a for­mer Fine Gael min­is­ter for jus­tice, puts it, “a rare species”. In 1973, there were just four fe­male TDs in the Oireach­tas. To use Frances Fitzger­ald’s po­lit­i­cal barom­e­ter, the seven TDs named Michael in the Dáil at the time out­num­bered the fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the cham­ber.

Four years later, in 1977, the num­ber of fe­male TDs elected had risen to six – but the num­ber of TDs named Michael was dou­ble this. In­side and out­side Le­in­ster House, there were re­stric­tions on the role and in­flu­ence of women in Ir­ish so­ci­ety. The women who pounded the pave­ments seek­ing elec­tion in the 1970s and 1980s were trail­blaz­ers. Their ex­pe­ri­ences re­veal much about the chal­lenges and changes women faced in Ir­ish so­ci­ety and why so few women were ap­pointed to cab­i­net dur­ing this pe­riod.

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Mary Robin­son’s great­est tri­umph at the bal­lot box was in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 1990.

But when she ran for a Dáil seat in Dublin West in 1981, she was preg­nant with her third child: “I was at an early stage of preg­nancy. I didn’t know when the elec­tion would be called, but it was likely to be in May when my baby was due. And of course, this is what hap­pened. Aubrey was born on May 3rd, and the elec­tion was called on May 20th.”

Polling day was set for June 11th, 1981. Robin­son went on the cam­paign trail with a new­born baby and had to make prac­ti­cal ar­range­ments for breast­feed­ing. The main thing “was to find safe houses” to feed her son. She re­calls the jour­nal­ist Nell McCaf­ferty spend­ing a day with her out can­vass­ing: “. . . And I thought, ‘ oh my God, she’s go­ing to write about this’.”

Prac­ti­cal is­sues aside, Robin­son also faced so­cial judge­ments on her de­ci­sion to con­test the elec­tion. Knock­ing on doors in Bal­lyfer­mot and other ar­eas in the five- seat Dublin West con­stituency, Robin­son was con­fronted by vot­ers who were “pretty clear that the place of the woman was in the home”. Sur­pris­ingly, such com­ments were made by men and women.

Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 1990, she re­mem­bers one Catholic priest la­belling her a “Marx­ist, les­bian bitch”. Ru­mours about the state of her mar­riage, which had first cir­cu­lated when she was try­ing to win a Dáil seat, also resur­faced: “There were a lot of ru­mours [ . . . ] that Nick and I were di­vorc-


To use Frances Fitzger­ald’s po­lit­i­cal barom­e­ter, the seven TDs named Michael in the Dáil at the time out­num­bered the fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion

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