“It is totally inappropriate that a man should be the person to speak on this occasion,” Mayor David Fitzgerald said in kicking off the Dáil Na mBan women’s parliament in the Parade Tower of Kilkenny Castle on Friday morning, “but I am the son of a liberated woman.”
Of liberated women there were plenty for the occasion as the venue was filled to capacity with women of various ages and backgrounds, including numerous secondary-school students.
Central to the three-hour event marking with International Women’s Day were questions of how to increase women’s involvement in politics, and several local female councillors spoke about how they got involved and the work they set out to achieve.
Far from a male-unfriendly occasion, several speakers mentioned the support they had received from their husbands and families and male colleagues, and questions were even raised about the level of support that women receive, or don’t receive, from one another.
Although there wasn’t universal agreement, many spoke in favour of the Government’s up-coming plans to introduce a 30% gender quota for General Election candidates.
“I was never a fan of quotas, but in the last number of years we are performing so badly – we are even worse than Afghanistan at present,” said Deputy Ann Phelan. “I think in 2012 that is unbelievable.
Among the keynote speakers was PhD student Claire McGing, whose area of research includes the effectiveness of gender quotas.
She highlighted the past milestones of having two successive female presidents, two female tánaistí plus the top legal positions of attorney general, director of public prosecutions and chief justice all currently being held by women – despite the fact that only 91 women have been elected as TDs in the history of the state.
“From a research point of view, we make up 51% of the population,” she said. “I think we are entitled to a certain proportion of seats.”
She said research had shown that different priorities are emphasised, for instance, when a parliament is made up at least 30% or 40% of women.
There was agreement, however, that the current scheduling of the Dáil does not lend itself to women trying to raise a family too. Former minister of state Mary White, who was the first female TD ever elected to represent the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, recalled meetings being scheduled at 10.30pm, for example, and attempts to hold meetings in a pub.
She encouraged all of the young women to get involved in politics, however, despite being told by one of the students that politics was “so boring.”
“It is the most exhilarating, probably also the most exhausting, but also more fulfilling thing I have ever done except marrying my husband and raising a family,” she said.
“We need to get out the message that women from any background can get involved in politics,” Cllr Kathleen Funchion said. “There is a role for young women in politics. People often say to me, ‘You have two small children; it must be very hard.’ It is very difficult ... but women do find a way.”
And Siobhan Talbot, Glanbia’s group finance director, offered this piece of advice the students in attendance: “Aim high, try for something that you enjoy, be true to yourself and the rest will follow.”