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
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