Ireland’s longest serving woman councillor has backed calls for a quota to increase women candidates in the next local elections.
Kilkenny has one of the lowest rates of women county councillors in Ireland, with just three out of 24 seats on Kilkenny County Council held by women - Cllr Deirdre Cullen, Cllr Fidelis Doherty and Cllr Mary Hilda Cavanagh.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) is calling for quotas to boost women’s participation in local politics. Mary Hilda Cavanagh, elected in the north of the county in every local election since 1974, is backing the call.
In a study, published last week, the NWCI set out the barriers faced by women in running and getting elected to office.
In the report they say “increasing women’s representation is essential to the quality of our democratic process.
“To truly reflect local communities and their needs, we must improve the gender balance in local government.”
The report makes many recommendations that would help increase the number of women in local politics, among them training programmes, maternity leave, and the use of technology. Political parties are urged to implement a proactive approach to recruiting women candidates, and local government is urged to increase the visibility of elected women councillors.
First among the suggestions is to bring in a quota of women candidates that parties must present to local electorates.
Cllr Cavanagh, who was re-elected last May in the Castlecomer district, said there is nothing wrong with quotas for candidates. She said political parties would search for women candidates if there were incentives for them to do so.
However, she did add that quotas will not guarantee more women will be elected - “if people want to vote for you, they will vote for you.”
As an experienced councillor, who worked as a teacher and is also a wife and mother, Cllr Cavanagh has in many ways bucked the trends in being able to get elected and continue in her role for so many years, as is evident in the NWCI study.
She has made sacrifices along the way. Cllr Cavanagh was first elected in 1974, just before she qualified as a teacher. She eventually gave up teaching 14 years later, because she said she realised she couldn’t keep everything going. Being a councillor is very difficult for mothers of small children, she said. Councillors do not get maternity leave, there is no breastfeeding room for nursing mothers, no sick leave for men or women so if you miss a meeting you lose allowances. At least two good, young women councillors resigned their seats in Kilkenny after they became mothers, Cllr Cavanagh said.
She paid tribute to the tremendous support she has had from her husband and mother in law over the years, “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Despite all the hurdles she has faced, Cllr Cavanagh says she has enjoyed all her years as a councillor and sees it as an honour to be elected. “I’m not complaining. It has been a fulfilling life and I like to think I made a difference. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
But with the national average of 24% council seats held by women, and just 12% of seats in Kilkenny currently held by women, the recommendations of the NCWI are clearing calling for things to change to increase women’s representation.