Cross posted from Irish Examiner from Friday, February 10, 2012
The gender quotas bill is a chance to give women — over half the population — more than an abysmal 15% political representation, writes Clara Fischer
LAST week history, indeed herstory, was made: The Electoral (Political Funding) Bill 2011, or less formally, the gender quotas bill, was introduced in the Seanad. While this certainly is a seminal moment in arduous process toward gender equality in politics, it is just that, a moment.
Given the rampant ideology of post-patriarchy and its impact upon our Sex and the City-addled collective consciousness, we would do well to view this bill not as a satisfactory solution but as a vital step in the campaign toward gender parity in all political decision-making in Ireland.
By placing current events in this wider historical context of the struggle for women’s access to political power, it becomes apparent just how much is still left to do. Women have never made up more than 15% of TDs and currently fewer than 20% of representatives on local authorities are women. There are just two women members of the Cabinet, and women account for just over one third of all State board members.
In light of this dire situation and the democratic deficit it engenders, it is fair to ask whether the quotas bill will mitigate the status quo. The answer to the former question is a resounding yes and no: quotas will ensure that a minimum (30%) of women candidates are put on the ballot paper, lest political parties risk being sanctioned with cuts to their funding. What quotas will not guarantee, though, is the election of those candidates, or even the equitable treatment of candidates by their parties.
Women might be placed in constituencies where there is little or no hope of their success (so-called unwinnable seats). Parties may simply take the financial hit and ignore the candidacy quota.
These possibilities considered, is breaking the historical 15% threshold all we should hope for? Women make up over half of the population of Ireland, so why stop at this low level of political power sharing?
The Government’s plan of increasing the quota to 40% after seven years will go some way toward realising the maximally effective political reform we so desperately need.
Labour have expressed their openness toward setting a higher quota, while Fianna Fáil are reluctant to do so. On the other hand, Fianna Fáil wish to extend the legislation to apply to local elections. Both of these measures are needed to really get the most out of this decisive moment in Irish history.
Lamenting the slow progress for women’s suffrage in 1912, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, the famous Irish women’s activist, sardonically remarked that the 19th century would have made for an interesting study on "Female Patience".
Little did she know that the achievement of women’s right to vote would be followed by 94 years of women’s effective near-complete exclusion from political decision-making. If our policymakers are interested in significantly increasing the number of women representatives, they will use their power to make the gender quotas bill as effective as possible by bringing local elections under its remit and by increasing the quota. We cannot afford to let this moment pass without at least aiming at complete gender equality in Irish politics. Women’s patience has run out.
* Clara Fischer, a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network, holds a PhD in feminist and political theory.
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