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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 6, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    Like JFK’s mom told David Frost: these women politicians can’t have it all

    Mary Minihan

    A book I started reading on holidays was the wonderfully-gossipy ‘The Kennedy Women’ by Laurence Leamer, who quotes David Frost asking the Kennedy matriarch Rose (JFK’s mom): “Your sons have gone into politics, but you wouldn’t particularly urge your daughters to go into politics?”

    “Well I think their first duty is to their family,” Rose replied, “and I think it would be very difficult to do both”.

    So I get back from my holidays to find the women TDs have been dropping like flies in Leinster House! Fine Gael’s Olwyn Enright (36), pregnant for a second time, is opting to spend more time with her family and Liz McManus (63) of Labour also announced last week she will be stepping down from the Dáil at the next election. McManus’ son Ronan, a councillor on Bray Town Council, is expected to be a candidate for the Labour nomination to run in Wicklow.

    Enright, of Laois-Offaly and soon to move to husband Joe McHugh’s Donegal constituency, gave a revealing interview to my colleague Kathy Sheridan in which she said being a TD was not compatible with being a mother. (http://bit.ly/dj7SYh)

    “And it’s not been challenged really. And – I know – here’s me walking off the pitch and not challenging it. But the way I see it is, I don’t want to have to explain to my children in years to come, ‘Well you know, it was really important for women that I stayed in there, so sorry about you.’ I had to decide my priorities, and my priorities are them at the end of the day.”

    Well who could argue with that? (And who could fail to be moved by the simplicity with which Enright described the feelings of many a mother working outside the home when she revealed how unprepared she was for the intense desire to simply spend more time with her child. “I didn’t appreciate beforehand how strong it would be.”)

    I was interested to read that Enright is now reviewing her attitude to gender quotas. I carried out a survey of all 23 women deputies last month asking: Should political parties be required to adopt quotas/gender targets in their candidate selection process? Enright was then one of the 14 against the proposal contained in a report from
    the Oireachtas subcommittee on women’s participation in politics.

    McManus has been a long-time supporter of such quotas. She now says she believes a younger generation “burdened with unemployment, gargantuan mortgages and crippling debt” should have “a central place in Dail Eireann in making the important decisions”.

    So that would be people of, what, around Olywn Enright’s age, right? Drat.

    Hey sisters, can you hear those whispers around the corridors of Leinster House? Sounds like they’re (still) saying: “You can’t have it all.”

    (Incidentally, you can listen to Mary O’Rourke and Ivana Bacik battling out the gender quotas issue in entertaining style on BBC Radio 4′s Women’s Hour http://bbc.in/a2OuGP and my articles are here: http://bit.ly/adAqEB and http://bit.ly/a8Ze7v and  http://bit.ly/cHb3wm)

    • David Healy says:

      While I would be against quotas, I can see the merits of having some sort of “affirmative action” for a strictly limited time (otherwise it would become a national principle and we’d never be able to even discuss repealing it). It would be better to promote the idea of more women in politics by changing the whole political system.
      In Liz McManus’ case, it will be interesting if she promotes the idea of having a female Labour candidate in North Wicklow rather than supporting her son!

    • Liam says:

      not in favour to be honest. I would prefer to see a partial list systemto bypass the election process to ensure competent ministers full stop . Nothing is seved by have more calamity you know whos’ in the Dail

    • Hugh says:

      “McManus has been a long-time supporter of such quotas.” Provided they don’t get in the way of family members getting on the ticket, natch.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      A more important reform should be to ban family members standing in the same const – try break that old chestbut of ‘inheriting’ the seat and at the same time educate Irish people to make their own choices – the priest can’t read your mind anymore than the TD can see your bollot paper.

      But something radical has to give in Irish politics and the only way to break the old ways and the cronyism and gombeenism is to do something radical like imposing a female quota for a set period of time after which it lapses – one short sharp shock to the system is better than the usual pathetically slow pace of reform.

      We are meant to believe Fine Gael is going to be radical enough to lead through a level of reform that exceeds anything that has ever happened in Irish goverance history pre or post independence and yet that same party doesn’t even have the guts to face up to the issue of equal representattion of 50% of the population.

      On the other hand, the risk of a quota is that you end up with a Dáil full of the likes of Mary O’Rourke’s, which would set equality back generations.

      If a women wants to stand for the Dáil then that women (orindeed that man) needs to face the reality that even with Dáil reform to make it more relevant and end the old boys 19th gentleman’s club nonsense, they cannot be both a full time TD and a full time parent and women need to stop expecting other women to be both or to feel guilty with whatever choose.

      There are loads of people in all sorts of jobs who have to sacrifice time with their children – there’s nothing special about a TD that it is more important they get to have quality children time than say someone working shifts in a factory or a lorry driver or nurse or doctor or just putting in every hour they can to keep a business going.

      Children don’t remember when you weren’t there as long when you are there they get your 100% attention and that there is someone there at the events that mean something to them – doesn’t matter if it’s one parent not two or a grandparent or special aunt or uncle – a friendly face and then when you do come home you turn off the phone and focus on the child and when you’re in Leinster House you have proper care in place for your child so you can focus on doing that job.

      You can’t have it all – Rose Kennedy was right and lots of women of her generation and one or three after her were also right – it’s only since so called ‘feminism’ took off in the 60s/70s that the ‘have it all’ myth has led to such misery.

      So, it’s not a matter of fitting in career and housewife – it’s picking one or other option and not feeling guilty about it or being made feel guilty.

    • We need to stop stereotyping about his issue. Parents are made up of two genders and politicians are not the only ones with careers that have long and or antisocial hours. Plus it is not just parents that we need to consider but people with caring responsibilities of other kinds such as sick relatives. Where was the hand wringing when two male Oireachtas members announced decisions to retire recently, one immediately due to health reasons and the other at the next election due to their caring responsibilities?

      I am a TD and I have a young child and so do other TDs of both genders, both from Dublin and rural constituencies, so it is not true to say the role of mother is incompatable with being a TD. There is persistent steroetyping on this issue as if fathers do not want to play their part in parenting nor are needed to do so. In fact in reality the women Oireachtas get far more support when they have a baby from their Oireachtas colleagues than their male counterparts do and this is a phenomenon in a society which gives no paid paternity leave to fathers even though it might suit some mothers to go back to work sooner and have their partner caring for their child in the home in the early months of their child’s life. Irish fathers expect and are taking more and more of a role in family life despite the discrimination against them in doing so and despite the fact that this is not being acknowledged by many commentators. More and more men are taking on more and more caring responsibilities in the home these days and that includes male partners of women Oireachtas members.

      It is challenging to be a TD and have a familly life and you do have to juggle your time but so do parents in many careers or with long travels too and from work or who have to work away from home for some of the time. The reason for late sittings is to cater for the rural TD with family committments as well as constituency ones or otherwise TDs from rural constituencies would have to spend more nights away from home then they currently do. And this leads to the other side of being a TD – when the Dail is not sitting you are your own boss in terms of how your organise your time. Yes we have to attend local meetings but so too do many other people in the community and they too do so after a long days work.

    • Seanie fITZ says:

      interesting that, so far, all comments are from men!

    • mary says:

      Obviously Seanie’s comment was sent in before Joanna Tuffy’s comment was published! (I had been thinking the same thing Seanie! It would be interesting to know the gender balance of our blog readers.) Many thanks for comments so far.

    • jo blogs says:

      I think that is called Indirect Discrimination Des old chap…So you might want to familiarise yourself with Equality legislation before coming out with this antedeluvian hogwash…Change the way the Dail works to make it accessible to women…who may want to ‘have it all’…In the same way that industry has had to adapt to accommodate women…

    • One of the problems with changing how the Oireachtas does its business is that it won’t necessarily free up time for members to be more family friendly. If the Dail meets for 5 days per week with shorter days then where do rural TD live? where do their kids go to school? If they live in Dublin then watch as they lose their seat next time out to the next “more local” candidate. And even with the Dail sitting in the evenings, many TDs have to spend their week day evenings at resident associations and other public meetings or out canvassing, failing to do so leads to a lose of their seat.

    • jo blogs says:

      Dan I agree it’s difficult/inconvenient but it’s not insurmountable. There are all sorts of ways of communicating without having to be in the same room…video conferencing is just one example…It’s like the old joke about how many Psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb….There is also an implied notion that women are primary child/carers…Other wise the policies are discriminatory and if ‘the Oireachtas won’t free up time for members’ then maybe someone should take a test case through the Courts…but surely there are peole bright enough to resolve this issue…oops back to the lightbulb joke…If they want me to set up a Tribunal to come up with some women/family friendly policies then ‘Barkis is willing’ to coin a phrase…!

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      And a Dail full of Dublin based TDs would be a bad thing.

      Politicians that are part of the community they represent is a good thing, and a worldwide phenomenon despite what the detractors seem to think.

    • jo blogs says:

      Precisely Joanna that’s why you need to use the ‘leetle grey cells’ to find a way to enable and encourage non Dublin women TD’s to become involved in Politics…

    • Joanna Tuffy says:


      A third of Labour TDs are women, 3 non Dublin, and many of our new women candidates are in rural constituencies. But you have hit the nail on the head in that it is involving women in politics in the general sense is the answer rather than top down imposition of gender quotas.

    • jo blogs – “There are all sorts of ways of communicating without having to be in the same room…video conferencing is just one example…”

      But are most of our TDs and Senators really seeking to communicate with one another at all? Or aren’t they really reading points into the record without listening to what the other side has said. What really is the business of the Oireachhas as compared to the business of the elected reps? Much of the problem I see with the idea of quotas is that it excludes those men who have also turned their backs on politics from the discussion. Instead of finding common cause with one another to ensure that as many people will want to participate and those who want to stand can do so, the discussion is about measure aimed only at ensuring that some women, sufficient to satisfy a quota get into the Oireachtas. It should be about broadening out access and interest to the wider population.

    • jo blogs says:

      Well Dan…
      I understood the purpose of a ‘Parliament’ was to parler…if you’ll pardon my French…Maybe that of the Dail is to stall…
      Seriously tho’ I have no problem with quota’s as a means of having a representative number of women in ‘Politics’…I don’t think it’s a case of one or the other. EVERY effort needs to be made to remedy this anomaly…In particular the profile of women in Central Government which should in turn encourage more women to consider Political careers…
      It seems the issue has been taken up by Garret Fitzgerald in todays paper…he makes some intersting points/observations and it is obviously an issue that concerned him during his time in Office and beyond…in a benevolent Tory Grandee sort of way…but as is often the case it is these are sometimes the most radical thinkers…Not that the Sisterhood will thank me for saying so…!

    • jo blogs says:

      AND I’ve just spotted that typo before anyone else mentions it…Duh!

    • jo blogs says:

      I’ve now read Miriam Cotton’s scathing response to Garret Fitzgerald and as I suspected the Sisterhood is not happy…However many of the commentator acknowledge that the inherently sexist and discriminatory Political set up is at the very core of this issue… effectively alienating women and/or preventing those who might wish to take part from doing so. I think Ms Cotton is right but her position is also somewhat utopian as the situation is ‘disimproving’…an expression I have only ever heard en Irelande…
      Anyway read it for yourselves it’s good stuff…As for the typos..maybe it’s apostrophilia…;-)

    • jo, you’re correct in that parliament should be about parley but let’s face it most of the time it’s not. One of the reasons for a parliament was that it made the collection and dissemination of political opinion easier as those reporting on it could hear it all in one place. That was when the battleground of ideas was mostly in the chamber itself (it was never really exclusively there)

      Now it is the talkers that go in search of the media, as the battleground is outside the chamber in the living rooms, kitchens and pubs of the nation. And with that one has to wonder if the centrality of the parliamentary chamber and the consequences it has for those who would become public reps is still necessary. Would it make it easier for more women (and men from wider backgrounds) to be members of the Oireachtas if they never had to attend the chamber itself?

    • Dan,

      I agree very much with your last point. But just on your point about TDs and Senators listening to each other, many TDs and Senators speak without script and listen to each other and there can be some very good debates. I have been there, I’ve seen it and heard it. Unfortunately that type of debate is rarely covered because it does not involve a row or the party leaders.

    • jo blogs says:

      In response to your point about decentralisation…Possibly…or at least to some extent but it is not the fundamental issue! The changes need to be structural AND organisational…
      For some women this is at micro level i.e the conflict between competing priorities make it impossible for them to get involved. For other i.e those without primary care responsibilities the very nature of the Political system deters them. The hierarchy the adversarial nature of debate…etc etc etc the sheer blokiness of it all.
      The Palace of Westminister resembles nothing if not a Public School/Oxbridge/Gentlemans Club…
      I have never been to Leinster House but it’s probably something similar…It is not women friendly…
      In order to become a Politician women have to become more like men…Mrs Thatcher being the uberfrau in this respect. It is a male bastion and it remains such deterring women by making it impossible for them to become a member of the club.Women are tolerated as long as they don’t get too uppity cf Hillary Clinton who was pilloried (!) and berated because of her ambition…WHY?
      To redress the gender imbalance requires fundamental not cosmetic change and until that is accepted women will remain under represented in Politics.

    • jo blogs says:

      You may have noticed how few women contribute this blog…if/when they do it’s controlled by men…on men’s terms…

    • jo, “The hierarchy the adversarial nature of debate…etc etc etc the sheer blokiness of it all.” Politics at it’s most straight forward is meant to be a contest of ideas, that can’t be done on the basis of some woolly consensus. That contest is not blokey it’s human, the idea that there is some more feminine approach that is all lovely dovey and peaceful is coddles-wallop. Sure there are some women who favour that sort of approach (just as there as men who do) but it’s not somehow magically tied into being female. Find some some topic that two women have a disagreement about and that they really care about and they will argue, they will be adversarial, and they will be as nasty to one another as any politician.

      I always find this aspect of the complaint about politics to be the most peculiar, the notion that if everyone just got together we could work it all out. When people fundamentally do not agree on what the correct course of action is in a given situation, sitting down and splitting the difference isn’t necessary any more the correct course of action than the two directions they want to go in. In fact it is more likely to be wrong.

    • jo blogs says:

      Of course Dan you’re absolutely right… about everything… I guess we’re just not cut out for it…I’m so sorry I wrote such silly things… really I am…Please forgive me I’m such a silly…must go and put my make up on and clean the house…gotta get the master’s tea…make sure everything is perfect for him when he gets home…After all that’s what I really find fulfilling and worthwhile…sure what would I know… a mere woman…Honestly what WAS I thinking of…did I say thinking…Oh you know I didn’t really mean that….!

    • Of course, you do jest so, Jo. If you were really taking that tack of expressing an opinion and because someone else expressed one contrary to yours that you were running off to bake scones or whatever you’d be merely underscoring the views of those who suggest the problem lies not within the nature of politics itself but with some of those who want to get involved in decision making without ever having to accept that their own views might be challenged.

      That you’re not like that are you?

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