I read this article in the Guardian this morning, arguing that despite her virulent intolerance, Michele Bachmann’s candidacy might still be good for women. It got me thinking about today’s Presidential election and the by-election in my constituency, Dublin West. Women are grossly disadvantaged in Irish politics, both in the houses of government and on ballot papers. Fact. That has significant negative impacts on the political system; it facilitates group-think, perpetuates Ireland’s old-boy politics, undermines progress on issues which primarily affect women and harms the body politic overall. Accordingly, I feel a responsibility to support female candidates and, even if only through increasing their vote-share, to tell parties that it’s worth their while to nominate female candidates.
I don’t just vote for women as a symbolic gesture, I think greater female representation will bring a substantive change, even in the big centrist and conservative parties. Voting for women puts people in the Dáil who know the experience of pregnancy, who know the fear that comes with walking alone at night, who have experienced the petty exclusions – not being invited for pints or a golf game and the severe exclusions – not having their family lives facilitated by their employers and not being paid as much as their male counterparts. If you’ve experienced these things it’s very difficult to shut them out of your consciousness, or to allow discussion of those issues to be shut out of the political system. A critical mass of female voices will change our political culture.
However, we’re currently faced with the infuriating dilemma of voting for women or policy (that is, in constituencies where any women make it on to the ballot). In the Dublin West by-election, for instance, there are two women Ruth Coppinger (Socialist) and Eithne Loftus (FG). As I’ve said, I want more women in office but I definitely don’t want more Fine Gaelers or Socialists (in the current climate, I’m generally quite socialist-friendly). Yet I have to decide between candidates who don’t represent my ideals, and candidates who don’t fully understand my experience, or certainly haven’t behaved in a manner that suggests they do.
So, what’s the responsible way to vote? Lest I be attacked, I do think that all other things being equal, policy should be the primary decider. So in this election I’d give priority to Labour and the wonderful Green candidate, although they’re both male. That said, in the General Election the order in which I ranked those parties was reversed, because policy and gender happily coalesce in Joan Burton (and as the constituency kindly confirmed, she was clearly the strongest candidate in the field.) If I agree with two candidates gender will tip the balance.
Further down the ballot when there’s a close call I prioritise based on gender. In that middle section of candidates I don’t agree with but don’t despise, a female Socialist comes ahead of a male independent, for instance. And down in the darkness of the double digit preferences where the centre right candidates go to die, a female Fine Gaeler will come ahead of a male Fianna Fáiler. Or, in the presidential race, Dana comes ahead of Gay Mitchell.
Women won’t necessarily get elected that way. But each vote, each transfer, is a statement of belief in the capability of female politicians. Because as I touched on here, in the course of this Presidential campaign Dana has been called stupid an awful lot more than the male candidates, undeservedly as far as I’m concerned. As for Mary Davis, I’ve heard far more about the fact that she wears red clothes than I have about her amazing work for those with intellectual disabilities.
For the last twenty one years two exceptional women have held the office of the President, and I cannot overestimate the impact they have had on me as a woman and an Irish citizen. But they are exceptions to the rule. They prove that to succeed as a woman you can’t simply be good, you have to be exceptional, you have to eclipse the field. The two female candidates in this election don’t have the vision, gravitas or intellectual force of the Marys McAleese and Robinson. That’s why they won’t win. But if you look at Paddy Power this morning they’re both at 300/1. The next candidate, Gay Mitchell, is at 66/1. As the votes are counted tomorrow they will almost certainly be the first two eliminated. Is it exclusively because they’re women? No. Is that a factor? Absolutely.
As I say, one voter giving a slightly higher preference doesn’t change the course of a national election. But each additional vote, each additional transfer is a statement of belief in female candidates. When we back the woman rather than the winner it strikes at the mockery and the insults and the dismissal with which female candidates are so often met. And maybe that’ll change something.