This piece was originally published in Siren. It’s somewhat out of date, but with the debate about gender quotas swirling in Ireland again I thought I’d give it another run out.
Women are grossly disadvantaged in Irish politics, both in the houses of government and on ballot
papers. Fact. Although we can observe a surge in the strength and popularity of grassroots feminism,
as evidenced by the rise of activist and lobbying groups and publications, the change has not extended
to the Houses of Government. 15% of public representatives are female and the absence of progress on
certain issues reflects that shortfall. A social change has occured, but a political change has not.
Mary O’ Rourke is one of the most prominent anti-quotas voices in Ireland. A few years ago, in a debate on the issue, I asked her a question about the entrenched sexism in the constitution. Her response: “The constitution?? Sure, no one heeds that!”
Finally, with the Labour-backed quotas legislation, this issue is getting some attention in the Oireachtas.
However, the proposal for a gender quota of 30% has been received critically by both men and women.
Some are, to put in bluntly, disgusting sexists. However, many are on the side of the angels; they agree
with the end but have doubts about the means. They believe that introducing a quota demeans the
achievement of women who succeed to political office. Furthermore, they hold the reasonable view
that representation shouldn’t be dependent on sameness. Women shouldn’t only represent women, men
shouldn’t only represent men, gays shouldn’t only represent gays, black people shouldn’t only represent
This method of representation, by someone like yourself, is known as “descriptive representation” and is
key to the positive discrimination debate. Is it a good thing? All other things being equal, probably not. In
a gender, race, sexuality, age, and class blind world we would vote purely based on policy, be represented
by those who held our views and trust in their ability to understand our experience. We’re all opposed to
quotas on a universal level, in that we wish they were redundant.
However, equality has not been achieved, and we shouldn’t let our discussion of representation be
derailed by an unrealistic vision of a gender-blind world.Women do not have the same opportunities as
men in Irish politics. They are less likely to get nominated, they are less likely to get elected, they are
less likely to rise to high ministries once they are elected. Those are demeaning and offensive truths, but
they are truths nonetheless. While it wounds my pride as a woman to acknowledge them, my pride is
less important than meaningful change in our political system and so, like many feminists, I grudgingly
support the quotas legislation.
How significant is the change to the political system? Voting for women is not just symbolic gestures
and quotas do far more than enhance opportunity for a small proportion of women. Greater female
representation will transform the nature of our political system. The overwhelming masculine bias
facilitates group-think, it perpetuates old-boy politics, it undermines progress on issues which primarily
affect women and it harms the body politic overall.
This magazine will be published on the twenty-year anniversary of the infamous X-Case. Twenty years
on, we are still waiting for legislation on the court’s ruling that a threat of suicide is justification for
abortion. This is an affront to the woman we know only as X who was attacked by the Irish state in
1992, and continues to be betrayed by the same state. It’s an affront to all of us. Whatever our stances
on abortion, we must agree that an issue of such vast moral and social importance deserves discussion.
Furthermore, when our courts establish something as a right, in a functioning state the legislature would
accept the accruing responsibilty. Instead, for twenty years we have seen overwhelming legislative apathy
and reliance on Irish solutions to Irish problems. The cost to twenty years worth of vulnerable women is
It’s also been twenty years since legislation was introduced on human trafficking and prostitution.
The current legislation is intended to protect the plain people of Ireland from the evils of iniquity, so
it prohibits the solicitation or sale of sex outdoors. Of course, in 1992 there was no popular use of the
internet. In twenty years we have seen a vast growth in the sex industry. Women are trafficked, coerced
into prostitution and horrifically abused. They are kept in apartments while their bodies are sold online. In
the unlikely event of a garda raid, the women are arrested while the buyers are sent quietly on their way.
New legislation is vital, as has been highlighted by the Turn off the Red Light movement. Why hasn’t it
been introduced? Once again, apathy, ignorance and the absence of strong female voices.
Despite the horrifying proportion of women affected by sexual assault, we have yet to introduce
meaningful and effective processes to reduce its occurrence – providing better sexual education to young
men, reducing the stigma surrounding rape so that victims can come forward and, crucially, facilitating
greater prosecution and conviction rates in the courts. In the DPP’s annual report this year it was found
that in the vast majority of rape allegations brought forward, a decision was made not to prosecute. This
systemic failing essentially grants impunity to rapists, and negates the ability of the law to deter sexual
assault. Instead, women pay a tax to try to avoid rape. We shouldn’t wear short skirts, we shouldn’t drink
too much, we shouldn’t walk alone at night. These restrictions of freedom are acts of oppression against
the female population, and it’s time that legislators recognised them as such.
Descriptive representation is important because these are lived experiences. Nominal equality has, more
or less, been achieved in the West. The inequality that persists is insidious, it’s invisible unless you look
closely, and you can only fully know it when you live with it day in day out, and are worn down by it
over time. The majority of the Dáil is white, male and middle-class and can’t reasonably be expected to
look outside that bracket without a diversity of voices and experiences to promote more sensitive and
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. In the
U.S., a liberal woman can’t reasonably be expected to vote for the virulent intolerance of a Bachmann
or Palin just because they’re women. Closer to home, we’re lucky to get more than one woman on
a constituency’s ballot paper and so many Irish women must choose between candidates who don’t
represent their ideals and ones who don’t understand their experience, or at least haven’t done anything to
suggest that they do.
Ultimately, policy has to decide our votes, identity politics can’t overwhelm general representation. I
can’t bring myself to give first preference to a right-wing, homophobic, non-secular woman. Quotas
will give women the option of voting for both the party they want and for a woman, which is a dramatic
increase in democratic choice.
There is a collective responsibility for change through quotas, but also an individual responsibility to
support female candidates as legitimate, whatever their political beliefs. To resist our cruel inclination to
undermine female candidates not through reasonable debate, but through attacks on their hair, clothes,
and voices. Dana and Mary Davis weren’t less intelligent than all the other presidential candidates,
they were just treated like they were. When women and men consistently slur and undervalue female
candidates, when we allow female candidates to consistently hover around the bottom of polls we give
parties an incentive to maintain their patriarchal nomination practices.
The voting method I try to uphold is that when their policies are of equal value, I prioritise female
candidates over male. Essentially, a Labour woman comes ahead of a Labour man, a Fine Gael woman
comes ahead of a Fianna Fail man, Dana comes ahead of Gay Mitchell.
One voter giving a slightly higher preference won’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, the insults and the dismissal with which female
candidates are so often met. And maybe that will change something.