On International Women’s Day, Emma Hendrick argues while we certainly need more women in political office, it’s even more important to have women that put working class and marginalised women’s needs at the centre of their activity.
International Women’s Day was born from women’s demands for better pay, shorter working hours and voting rights.
Women’s equality has come a long way since 1908, but we still need feminism and a women’s movement to advance our progressive agenda. There is still a gender pay gap, the mass commodificaiton of women’s bodies, few women in leadership roles, and a host of other problems to be solved.
One of the loudest calls recently, from sections of the feminist movement, is the need for more women in politics. The type of women is never specified, not more working-class women, women of colour, Traveller women, Trans women or Disabled women, despite the fact that these are the women that have close-to-zero representation in our county councils and in the Oireachtas and Stormont.
Currently there are only 36 women elected to Dáil Éireann out of 160 deputies and 30 MLAs in the Northern Assembly out of 90 – so much for women’s liberation.
If certain NGO’s and the political chatter is to be believed, more women in politics, more women at the decision-making table, would mean women’s issues properly foregrounded and women’s lives significantly improving.
Unfortunately, history has shown us that it is not a politician’s gender that determines whether they fight for women, but their class perspective and the nature of their political agenda. Right-wing women have always put the boot into women with as much ease as their male counterparts – sometimes more so.
Margaret Thatcher made history as the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom while priding herself on not being a feminist. Thatcher’s free-market privatisation agenda decimated working class areas in Britain and took away many social supports that families relied on to stave off poverty.
North and South
If we look closer to home, both of the leading parties in the Northern Assembly are led by women. Yet this hasn’t stopped Sinn Fein and the DUP from implementing Tory austerity including penalising parents for having more than two children. Arlene Foster and Michelle O’ Neill might not have been party leaders at the time of the implementation of the Two Child Rule, but they haven’t reversed any of these cuts, made them red lines, or led mass campaigns against their impact on women and children.
Instead, they lead an Assembly that has not yet made it accessible for all women to have abortions in the North – with some still being forced to travel. Indeed, Foster is the leader of the most reactionary, right-wing party on the island, a party that has attacked women’s right to choose as vigorously as their right to live without poverty and inequality. Foster recently complained that “misogyny is rife in Stormont”, without a hint of irony given the record of the DUP on women’s liberation.
Women at the cabinet table in the South have been no better. As Minister for Social Protection from 2011 -2016, ex-Labour leader, Joan Burton, oversaw some of the worst austerity measures, including cuts to child benefit, cuts to carer’s allowance, cuts to state pension, cuts to disability allowance, changes in access to jobseekers allowance, and increases to student fees, all while opening food banks across the country. Again, these policies have had a disproportionate effect on women, especially women from the Traveller, Black and migrant communities.
In the current Dáil there are female TDs that have produced literature against Traveller accommodation in their constituencies, who have voted against the Right2Housing, against pay for student nurses and mid-wives, while presiding over the Cervical Check Scandal, and voting to seal the records from Mother and Baby Homes. Hardly a ringing endorsement of women standing with their less fortunate sisters.
It is obvious that a seat at the table for establishment women will not automatically ensure that women’s lives will fare any better. Instead, the crucial factor is the class that a given elected representative sets out to fight for.
Remember, it has been women and men from the radical left who pushed the call for Repeal of the 8th; the radical left that raised the slogans of the #MeToo movement; the radical left who led the campaigns against austerity and who have recently called for student nurses and midwives to be paid, for an end to direct provision and to fight against all forms of racism and fascism.
One champion of the More Women Movement has been Social Democrat TD, Holly Cairns. Cairns recently offered to pair with Fine Gael TD, Helen McEntee, if she chooses to take maternity leave, meaning neither TD will vote while McEntee is on leave. Elected reps on County Councils or in the Dáil are not entitled to maternity leave and Helen McEntee would have to resign from her position as Justice Minister if she decides to take leave.
While I commend Cairns’ integrity in offering this solution, it is unlikely it would have been offered if the roles were reversed. The lack of maternity leave for elected representatives has been highlighted by many county councils down the years and is an issue current and previous governments have been well aware of. By offering this olive branch, Cairns is also doing a disservice to Social Democrat voters in Cork, lessening their voice in the Dáil in favour of a Fine Gael TD who has made a career from attacking women.
The call for maternity leave for elected representatives is only now being highlighted by the media and NGOs, and the optics will be terrible for the Irish government if a Senior Minister has to resign her position to take maternity leave.
Deputy Cairns has also used the #MoreMná hashtag to call for more involvement of women in politics and other leadership roles. All but one of the 18 Cork TDs are men and Cairns has recently pointed out that,
“There are 6 times more men named Michael representing Cork in the Dáil than there are women…. We desperately need more women at the decision-making table. We see how the lack of representation fails women time and time again from the Cervical Check scandal to the Mother and Baby Homes Report to the gender pay gap.”
While it is shocking that only one woman was elected to represent the people of Cork, Cairns has once again blurred the importance of class in politics by lumping socialist TD Mick Barry in with died-in-the-wool Conservatives like Michael Martin and Michael McGrath. Lumping Mick Barry in with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael TDs not only does a disservice to Barry himself, but also to the many women that he has worked hard to represent.
For example, Barry has been one of the main champions of the Debenhams workers – the vast majority of whom are women. Barry along with his colleagues in People Before Profit has also consistently raised the voices of working-class women and minority women and fought against policies that undermine them.
More Working Class Women
If we really want more women and minority voices in politics, we need to break down the barriers that still exist. Councillors should be paid a living wage so that women with families can apply. Meetings should be on during working hours, not run late into the night, whether at local level or in the Dáil. Migrants and people of colour should be given funding to allow them to get organised, and the same goes for Travellers and working-class women from the poorest communities.
While it is great to hear the call for more women in politics, and important for young girls to see women in leadership roles, it is far more important to see working class women, black women, Traveller women, radical women, women who want to challenge the injustice and oppression of both women and men.
The women who launched International Women’s Day didn’t just want to be part of the Old Boys Network – they wanted to tear it apart. #MoreWomen will just give us #MoreOfTheSame.
We can’t rely on elected reps be they men or women to give us real liberation. That will only be achieve by a movement of the whole working class.