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Voting female isn't voting feminist - blog #6

Dr. Camilla Fitzsimons,

Maynooth University.

On the 7 June 2024, registered voters in Ireland will have the opportunity to choose who will represent them on local authorities that are responsible for a range of services including housing, transport and community services. As well as these local elections, the electorate will also select seven people to represent Ireland as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). In Limerick City, the first elected Mayor will be decided. Soon after these new posts are taken up, preparations will begin for yet another electoral battle, this time a general election that will determine Ireland’s 34th Dáil. For the first time in Ireland's history, some are speculating its top job of Taoiseach might even go to a woman. This wouldn't be the first time a woman would hold a top political job on the Island of Ireland. That accolade goes to Michelle O'Neill who eventually took up her role as First Minister of Northern Ireland in February 2024. Emma Little-Pengelly became the deputy First Minister that same day.

As is typically the case around election time, public votes also signal a new round of discussions and why, in this day and age, there are still so few women in mainstream politics. For context, since the foundation of the state in 1922, just 131 out of a total 1,452 of all members of parliament (TDs) have been women. These numbers do seem to be rising albeit slowly. In 2020, 36 female TDs were returned which was a record high of 22.5 percent of all TDs.

Several feminist led initiatives have contributed to this increase. For example, the group Women for Election Ireland (Est. 2011) were instrumental in introducing gender quotas into Irish politics. As election posters adorn lamp-posts and even front yards, 40 percent of each party’s candidates must now be women or the party faces fines. Such is the focus on women's representation, one newspaper article went so far as to admonish Fianna Fáil by declaring them bottom of the class for having the fewest female candidates in these local elections.

As well as these quotas, there are also grassroots initiatives to support women to step into politics. These include She Her Elected which offers training and other supports for women considering a career in politics, and the Limerick Women's Caucus which provides female-only networking opportunities for those in power. Both initiatives support women from across the political spectrum. These types of supports can be invaluable for some especially given the structural and institutional barriers women face including prejudicial recruitment and selection practices, an ongoing ‘boys club’ mentality and/or because their care loads make it difficult for them to do the job well.[1] 

Most people likely agree that women do indeed face a more challenging working environment than their male counterparts. This can be because of ongoing gender stereotyping, because they are much more likely to have their physical appearance scrutinised, and because they are more at risk of harassment by the public. To illustrate, Nessa Horgan of the Green Party once described her work as being marred by a persistent ‘dark hum’ of online abuse as well as more occasional in-person harassment and even assault.[2]  Sometimes female politicians can't even rely on their own parties to protect them. For example, when a Limerick based local counsellor was one of many women to be the subject of misogynistic hatred in a WhatsApp group that included the sitting TD and current Mayoral candidate Brian Leddin, he initially refused to admit any wrongdoing despite describing the independent counsellor as ‘unhinged’ and ‘craving fame’ before eventually apologising. But he faced no sanctions from The Green Party he is a member of much to the dismay of some party members.

These challenges haven't stopped some feminist groups from doing their utmost to attract and retain women in politics perhaps influenced by the liberal notion that sheer strength in numbers might be enough to create less sexist working environments. One current example of what this can look like is the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) feminist manifesto which asks female candidates to pledge to champion women’s economic independence, value care, commit to ending domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, guarantee women’s bodily autonomy, include women’s voices in peace-building, make women and integral part of the green transition, and put an end to what the manifesto describes as "the neo-liberal and patriarchal exploitation of women’s and girls’ bodies". In return, prospective candidates get to present their candidacy at NWCI hustings across the country like the one linked here.

I'm all for having more women in electoral politics and agree that it can be a tougher job for women. But I don't support initiatives that, either overtly or covertly send out a message that voting female, somehow means voting feminist. My concerns begin with obvious reality that there is no guarantee that more women in power will lead to anything other than singular career success for individual women most of who's proximity to privilege is already strong. As is the case across TDs more broadly, few have had to face the challenges that many working-class, racialised, LGBTQ+ and disabled populations often endure. It is hard to remove this reality from the fact that, overwhelmingly, the track record of many women in politics has been to consistently and repeatedly prioritise party politics over feminist struggles.

This isn't something new. Some of Ireland's earliest self-proclaimed feminists including Nuala Fennell, Monica Barnes and Gemma Hussy used feminist activism in the 1970s and 1980s as a springboard into mainstream politics. All three of these women were successful candidates for Fine Gael following extensive and important work that secured greater protections for women.[3] It is sometimes hard to fathom that these women remained members of a political party that in 1983, was responsible for introducing the first constitutional ban on abortion in the world. Monica Barnes did speak out against her Fine Gael party and even received death threats for doing so. She also publicly predicted that the 'eighth amendment' to Ireland's constitution would have dire consequences for women. But she didn't leave the party rather remained a serving TD until 1992. Three years later, liberal feminists inside and outside the Dáil failed to enthusiastically campaign for the right to divorce. According to research by Michele Dillon, the Council for the Status of Women (precursor to the NWCI) were so keen on staying in the good-books of lacklustre political parties who were afraid of losing face with a still powerful Catholic Church, they did practically nothing to assist those who were campaigning for divorce.[4]  This task was mostly left to the Divorce Action Group (DAG), community groups and left-wing political parties including the Socialist Workers Party and some members of the Labour party. Without the CSW mobilising its membership, their efforts fell short and Ireland's 1986 referendum on divorce was defeated. The lesson we can learn from these examples is that, across these erosion of women's rights—the struggles for abortion access and the right to divorce—failing to alter their parties' stances demonstrated how words often lack substance, and that party loyalty can typically be taken for granted.

Perhaps the starkest example of party loyalty over feminist struggle happened in 2014 when Francis Fitzgerald, the then Justice Minister in a Fine Gael led government and a former Chairperson of the National Women's Council, led Ireland’s defense of its constitutional ban on abortion to the UN’s Human Rights Committee. The case they put forward was that a person's human rights could be limited if this was the will of the majority of the electorate. Upon hearing this stance, she and her colleagues were asked to withdraw their remarks and apologise with the committee’s chair Nigel Rodley accusing the Irish state of treating women as vessels and nothing more.

Six years later, Fitzgerald would be one of three female MEPs, along with Mairead McGuinness and Maria Walsh - who is a current signatory of the NWCI’s current feminist manifesto, to vote against increasing search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean, a motion that was lost by two votes. As the International Organisation for Migration noted in 2024, up to 100 people drown in the Mediterranean each month because they are denied the right to regular, safe pathways.

There have also been times where women have assumed leadership roles within the Irish political system and then used these roles to advance neoliberal policies that are clearly to the detriment of poorer women. During Mary Harney's tenure as Ireland's first female deputy prime minister from 1997 to 2006 (as leader of the center-right Progressive Democrats), one of her first actions was to seek to axe over 10,000 community employment jobs. These positions were predominantly held by women who were single parents working part-time in community projects often providing essential services including childcare and citizens' information. Their jobs also had a built in training allowance that prepared them for future work and helped them juggle the responsibilities of parenting with their lives as paid employees. Instead of community employment schemes, Harney claimed they weren’t real jobs. Her concern was that their very existence was leaving retail and service industry employers unable to fill low-paid, feminised, precarious jobs. There was also nothing feminist about her record as Minister for Health. Harney was instrumental in creating a two-tier health system, in introducing prescription charges for medical card holders, and in driving through a Fair Deal nursing home scheme that to this day helps prop up a privatised elder care and that often robs people the opportunity to pass on often modest family homes to their children. Little wonder that she was sometimes dubbed Ireland's Margaret Thatcher.

Any sense that electing women from centre-left parties would have a different outcome for women were quickly dashed following Joan Burton's tenure as Labour Party leader and Tánaiste (Deputy prime minister) from 2014-2016. This was as part of a coalition government with Fine Gael. Burton, who was a regular in feminist circles, was responsible for introducing some of Ireland’s harshest austerity measures ever including cuts to eldercare, healthcare, disability services, fuel allowances, lone-parent benefits, school uniform and footwear allowances.[4]  Burton's behaviour, further demonstrates what happens when liberal feminists synchronise their ambitions with those of the neoliberal capitalist project. Rather than seek to emancipate all women and girls, their end game becomes ensuring women like them can take their rightful place at the tables of power in an otherwise largely unchanged world. This is despite the fact that the neoliberal policies they get behind (or sometimes lead out on) have created a global economy where the world’s richest ten percent currently take home 52 percent of all income whilst the poorest half earns just 8.5 percent. This income inequality isn't spread equally - it disproportionately impacts women and girls, across the globe.



There are other sides to neoliberal led inequality including how the advances that have been made by some women, are increasingly supported by a growing network of global care chains where privileged women get to 'lean on' millions of working class and migrant women who carry out the domestic and care labour of privileged women and often work in the worst and most badly paid feminised roles.[5]  

And where liberal feminists of the 1960s and 1970s held an relatively strong anti-war perspective, this has mostly been replaced by a modern 'feminist' agenda that throws its weight behind imperialism and militarisation and even use feminism to justify these actions. As the Pakistani journalist Rafia Zakaria explains, incursions into mostly Muslim minority, often oil rich countries is increasingly justified as a quest to emancipate women.[7] Zakaria criticises the way many western feminists don’t even consider the fact that there might be feminist activists within the countries they interfere with as to do so would quickly expose how these feminists would prioritise ending repeated imperialist occupations and would abhor their own weaponization against their husbands, brothers and sons.

Some feminist advances have come through parliamentary pathways. But this has been through smaller left-wing anti-capitalist parties or through the work of certain independents. There overwhelming philosophy is best summed up by Françoise Vergès as one where they,

"do not aim to improve the existing system but to combat all forms of oppression: justice for women means justice for all."[6] 

Sometimes this has been by advancing clearly defined feminist goals. For example, it was Clare Daly (then with the Socialist Party) along with independents Mick Wallace and Joan Collins who collectively introduced the first bill on abortion in 2012. This was despite the Labour Party claiming to be pro-abortion since 2003.

A particular feature of many of Ireland's left-wing anti-establishment parties especially those with the People Before Profit - Solidarity Alliance has been to amplify feminist struggles by working hand in glove with activists outside of the Dáil. At the same time, they use their power in parliament to disrupt business as usual when this is the most effective tactic. For example, in 2016 six PBP-Solidarity TDs broke parliamentary dress code when they entered the Dáil wearing the black and white REPEAL jumpers designed by Anna Cosgrave that were emblematic of the pro-abortion movement. Four days earlier, 40,000 people, including all six of these TDs, had joined the 2016 Annual March for Choice demanding free, safe, legal abortion services. Wearing the REPEAL jumpers just after this march ensured media coverage for a question to then Taoiseach Enda Kenny by Ruth Coppinger which called for an immediate referendum on the issue.

Coppinger was also involved in a second stunt when, in 2018, she demanded action on eradicating rape myths from courtrooms

by holding up a laced thong in the chamber, again during Leaders questions. Her actions made worldwide news and helped publicise a rape trial where the 17-year-old alleged victim’s underwear was used to build a case against the accusation.

Other truly feminist actions have come from independents including Catherine Connolly who has repeatedly criticised the government for paltry redress schemes for survivors of institutional abuse and Senator Lynn Ruane whose work includes securing improved protections for victims of domestic, sexual and gender based violence. These are the same TDs who consistently challenge transphobia and who highlight the range of issues that disproportionately affect women and girls including the lack of decent housing or no house at all, poverty wages and the absence of affordable childcare.



There is also another sinister development it is important to highlight namely a growing practice where far-right political parties deliberately use gender equality arguments and platforms to advance their anti-immigrant, xenophobic, homophobic and racists politics.

A prime example of this practice, which Sara Farris has dubbed 'femonationalism', is the recent election of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the ‘Brothers of Italy’ and the first female president of Italy. Meloni’s election campaign made much of the fact that she is a woman and a mother. Alarmingly, even this victory was praised in some feminist quarters including by Hilary Clinton who claimed her ascension into power would "open doors" for women stating,

“every time a woman is elected to head of state or government, that is a step forward. Then that woman, like a man, has to be judged, on what she stands for, on what she does.” 

Surely this exemplifies the issue with campaigns and platforms that aim to involve women in politics without sufficiently considering their actions, or inactions, once in power.

I want everyone to vote feminist, but this doesn't mean asking people to vote for women. What it means is that we should seek out candidates of all genders who embrace feminist principles that recognise the intersections of gender with social class, perceived ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, poverty, our relationship with borders and the impacts of the climate crisis—none of which are mutually exclusive. These are the candidates that, for me, see their role as to envision a better world founded on social justice and equality for everyone.

I am an Associate Professor working in the Department of Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University. My latest book Rethinking Feminism in Ireland (Bloomsbury Press) will be available in 2025.

  1. Maguire, S. (2018). Barriers to Women entering Parliment and Local Government. Universtity of Bath, Institute for Policy Research. Retrieved July 16, 2023, from  

  2. She used this expression during a television interview on the Late Late show on the 20th of January 2023 when appearing alongside Holly Cairns to talk about their experiences as politicians.

  3. These included successful lobbying for barring and protection orders and for women's right to collect child welfare payments which, to that point, went to the father.

  4. Dillon, M. (1993). Debating Divorce: Moral Conflict in Ireland, University Press of Kentucky, pp. 73-4.

  5. Cronin, D. (2012). Women and Austerity. Irish Marxist Review, 1 (1): 30– 33.

  6. Vergès, F. (2021). A Feminist Theory of Violence. London: Pluto Press. p. 23 

  7. Arruzza, C., Bhattacharya, T., & Fraser, N. (2019). Feminism for the 99%. New York: Verso books.

  8. Zakaria, R. (2021), Against White Feminism, UK: Penguin. pp. 69-70.

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