AS International Women’s Day was marked around the world last week, some questioned whether the day was still necessary and whether it was patronising to think that such a large sector of society should be singled out for such an occasion.
And yet as events were held across Co Kilkenny, it was an inspiring opportunity to take stock of the progress made in women’s rights over the past century since the day was first celebrated and the progress that has yet to be made.
In particular, a Dáil na mBan (Women’s Parliament), hosted by Kilkenny County Council chairwoman Catherine Connery in County Hall, raised questions about women’s representation in local and national politics, and what could be done to achieve more equality in this regard.
The council chamber was full of local women who have made their mark in various sectors of society, including many of the female members of Kilkenny County and Borough Council.
The councillors present included the chairwoman and Cllrs Marie Fitzpatrick, Anne-Maria Irish, Cora Long, Betty Manning and Fidelis Doherty.
Apologies were sent from three other female members – a reflection in itself of both women’s progress in politics and the continuing challenge of juggling the role with working and family life. Cllr Ann Phelan – who is now Deputy Ann Phelan – could not attend due to responsibilities leading up to the convening of the 31st Dáil, while Cllrs Mary Hilda Cavanagh and Kathleen Funchion had other commitments.
And as the need for equality was highlighted, it was interesting to note that Kilkenny County Council’s Piltown electoral area has already achieved gender balance with three female and three male councillors.
Impact on family
Asked how they managed their family life and political life, the members agreed that it was essential to have support from family and others.
It also helps that many of their children are now older – although that doesn’t explain how the councillors who have served for a decade or two managed during that time. Perhaps it’s because – as Cllr Long said, prompting a round of applause – “women are better at multi-tasking”.
“My family is now three-quarters reared,” said Cllr Fitzpatrick, who is a member of both local councils. “I work part-time as well, and I have a balance between the two. I have a lot of freedom now that I would not have had when my children were smaller.”
Cllr Irish, who is in full-time employment, said she finds that political life does have an effect on her professional duties. “It’s the day meetings that really cause me problems. I find myself taking home work that I never did before,” she said. “Sometimes you have to stand back, recharge your batteries and refocus. ... You have to remind yourself that your family comes first.”
The increasing success of women in local politics was noted, but the representatives were asked what could be done to boost their numbers at national level.
Cllr Irish said she was a “strong proponent” of a quota system that would force all political parties to nominate women to stand in elections. Otherwise things are unlikely to change any time soon, she said.
“In our own party, Fine Gael, we have not one single female in any constituency in the South East,” Cllr Irish pointed out. “The National Women’s Council has said that it would take 360 years to reach equality if we keep going at the same pace. I don’t have time to wait around for that.”
“There is a certain element at the top that don’t want to see women getting in, and we can’t be codding ourselves about that. You have to be twice as strong as the men,” Cllr Long said, with former councillor Carmel Boyd later adding: “To get into national politics, you would want to have the stamina of Maggie Thatcher!”
There is also the matter of how much women support other women at the ballot box.
“Whatever it is within the female psyche – looking at the men adoringly and then giving a woman your number 3,” Cllr Fitzpatrick said. She urged women to vote for women and not to decide against a candidate “just because you don’t like her dress or her hairstyle”.
“We need more women at national level, and we have to start voting for them,” she said.
Teresa Mullen, who served as an independent councillor and chairwoman of Kilkenny County Council, said she couldn’t understand why more women’s groups and community groups didn’t put candidates forward. “Don’t make it so easy for them. If you are rejected, at least you are challenging the system,” she said.
Indeed, Cllr Irish said she had approached the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) about a possible nomination to run for the Seanad. “They said they don’t get involved in politics,” she said. “I was taken aback by that.”
In the end, Cllr Irish pointed out that the goal isn’t just the mathematics of having political representatives of 50% women and 50% men. Countries that have greater representation by women tend to be more economically and socially successful, tend to have better education facilities, better health care, more access to child care and lower crime rates, she said.
“I think we should make this an annual event,” Cora Long said in concluding the Dáil na mBan, prompting another round of applause.
Hopefully they will.