What are the odds?

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland

Image by Acumen Fund via Flickr

With only 6 women out of 67 candidates running throughout Cork, the odds are certainly not stacking up at 50-50.

As Áine Kerr wrote in yesterday’s Irish Times, Mná na hÉireann are losing ground. But that’s all set to change, if a new group set up in Cork before Christmas has its way.

The 50 50 Group has been set up to campaign for equal representation for women in politicsm and they’re not going to go away. We’ve been promised that. At the group’s media briefing with Cork’s seven female candidates yesterday morning, member Mary Roche said determinedly “We’re going to see this through to the very end”.

Founded late last year, the group has not had time to get properly to grips with this election, and that is being acknowledged from the off. But they are determined to be in this for the long haul, and are seeking members, money and ideas to ensure that women can be seen in political life.

The target – suggested by both elected female TDs in Cork, Deirdre Clune and Kathleen Lynch – should be the local elections in 2014.

‘It would be more in my line to be at home minding my children’

Attended by a range of journalists (including a few men), the group met for a Q&A with media and the female candidates.Some of the answers made grim listening.

Cork North West Fine Gael candidate Áine Collins, who has never held any elected office, and has two young children, said she is finding women toughest to deal with on the doors. “I’ve been told it would be more in my line to be at home minding my children”.

Deirdre Clune, also Fine Gael, and a TD since 2007, agreed: “I get that all the time”.

Difficulties for women, including the five Cs identified by the 2009 Oireachtas report into Women’s Participation in Politics (cash, culture, confidence, childcare and candidate selection procedures) were discussed, with Labour TD Kathleen Lynch suggesting that confidence really was the bottom line among both women voters and women politicians. As a reporter, I have shadowed a number of candidates in Cork (all men) this election and have been rather startled by the difference in responses of men and women.

I asked the panel whether they had found women were more likely, even in this election, to say “what will you do for me”?

In my unscientific straw poll, they were, almost uniformly so.

The men we met knew party policies, knew party ideologies, and had largely thought about the possibilities of their votes contributing to a government, and how that government would stack up. Women were influenced by direct personal contact with the candidate, whether they knew them personally, what they were like as a person and as a worker, as well as whether they would do a job they were personally asked to do.

Kathleen Lynch’s answer was insightful.

“It’s a confidence issue. Women are managers in their world and confident in that world. Women manage their families, their children, their elderly parents, their lives.”

It’s a long-term project to extend this confidence, she said, but pointed out that it proved how differently women think, and how crucial it is that the thinking of 50 per cent of the population is reflected in its representation.

“Historians have mostly been men, and they report on big events. The women have been at home trying frantically to make the bread, while he was off saving the world. We have no record of that lived experience in history. Women’s concerns are more immediate but that doesn’t mean they’re not worried about the future.”

‘Girls believe that politics is what boys do’

She said that a Minister for Education with this mindset, and the teaching of politics in schools, would change things.

“Girls believe that politics is what boys do,” she added.

She and Deirdre Clune TD had been in a local secondary school recently, and it had clearly been an eye opener for girls to see women on the podium.

“When the two of us walked in, there was a lift in the room,” added Deirdre Clune.

Both acknowledged that there was far less “what will you do for me” in this election than in any previous election.

Notably, there is no female Fianna Fáil candidate throughout the five constituencies in Cork. Fine Gael has two – Deirdre Clune in Cork South Central, and Aine Collins in Cork North West. The Greens had one, Jennifer Sleeman in Cork South West, who was found to be ineligible due to British citizenship (at the age of 81, she was a self-acknowledged paper candidate and was rather horrified at the prospect she might get elected), but she has been replaced on the ticket by a man. People before Profit has one, Áine Foley in Cork North West. She said at yesterday’s meeting that gender is a key focus for People before Profit, and four out of their nine candidates are women (a fifth had to drop out to look after her elderly mother). Sinn Féin has one, Youghal Town Councillor Sandra McLellan, in Cork East, and there is one Independent, Claire Cullinane, in Cork East, who is running under the banner of new democratic movement CPPC. Labour has two – Kathleen Lynch in Cork North Central and Paula Desmond in Cork South Central.

‘It’s tough going, but it is doable’

Paula has been a councillor for 25 years and her mother was a much-respected Labour TD in Cork. Her outlook on women in politics is clearly heartfelt and borne of long experience within her own life.

“We can’t let society tell us that politics is too hard for women. It’s harder, but it’s doable. We have to have a vision of the kind of Ireland we want to live in, a vision of how it should be as a woman living in Ireland. It’s tough going, but it is doable.”

There were more women on Cork City Council in 1985, the year she became a councillor, than there are now.

I was born in 1985, and my first political memory is one that was evoked by Kathleen Lynch yesterday; Mary Robinson wearing a purple suit in a sea of black-clad men. But that first hopeful political memory has not been borne out by many women of Mary Robinson’s generation, or of my own. Yet.

This post also appears on The Antiroom Blog

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