A Woman’s Place review: Too few women in politics? Must be their own fault

In RTÉ’s documentary, a male artist and a male journalist peer at women politicians

A Woman’s Place: Noel Murphy’s portrait of the 53 women serving in the Oireachtas also includes Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to Westminster and Dáil Éireann

A Woman’s Place: Noel Murphy’s portrait of the 53 women serving in the Oireachtas also includes Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to Westminster and Dáil Éireann

 

“Do you want me to smile?” Lisa Chambers asks. There may be slightly more concern in her question, while posing for a photograph, than that of an artist’s subject. The Fianna Fáil TD is one of 53 women currently serving in the Oireachtas, who collectively form a record number elected to Irish public life.

One hundred years since Constance Markievicz became the first woman elected to Westminster and Dáil Éireann, that still counts as only 22 per cent of our politicians, who must now be as aware of gender inequality at the highest level as they are informed about the politics of the male gaze. From the campaign trail to the Mona Lisa, even a smile can be political.

Unveiled on March 8th – International Women’s Day – this year, Noel Murphy’s portrait of all currently serving women politicians is also intended to honour Markievicz, looming above them, although how they see their debt to her is barely explored in A Woman’s Place (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 11.10pm).

That it is a full five minutes before we see or hear from a single woman does not dispel the appearance of unchecked male bias

Instead the documentary focuses on how a male artist and a male journalist view them, hoping to tease out their characters under the watchful eye of the director Declan McGrath. That it is a full five minutes before we see or hear from a single woman does not dispel the appearance of unchecked male bias.

Murphy insists there is “no fixed point of view” to his painting, allowing “everyone to take control of the work”. That, however, is neither how his painting nor the programme functions. The women are for looking at; the men do the looking. Even the symbolism, unintended or otherwise, is unfortunate to the point of risible, where the softly spoken painter must break the daunting whiteness of his canvas with stickers that read “Fragile” to help inspire his portrait of women in power.

In this he is aided by the journalist Eamonn Mallie, who poses questions typical of a silver-backed panjandrum. Why are so few women in politics, he asks: “Is it the difficulty, the lack of commitment, or interest of females in politics?” The assumption, of course, being that it must be their fault.

“Probably blindness on behalf of men,” Joan Burton responds when asked in a similar vein to explain why there has been no woman taoiseach. The former Labour Party leader is so polite and tactful that the team do not seem to pick up on her calling out the unchecked gender bias of all-male panels.

In some ways these sittings count as a political lesson for the artist, who marvels at his subjects’ lack of ego while repeating the difficulty and importance of his own task

Ivana Bacik, the Senator who has chaired the Oireachtas Vótáil 100 committee organising events to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland, is equally assured when she explains the importance of gender quotas in politics towards achieving “a representative parliament – and that’s the nature of democracy”.

In some ways these sittings count as a political lesson for the artist, who will marvel at the lack of ego his subjects display while repeating the difficulty and importance of his own task. That he mingles his subjects without regard for party or political affinity, “to get rid of a political message”, seems its own kind of blindness.

When one subject laments that women politicians are often treated as “one homogenous bunch”, what does that say of Murphy’s imbrication of faces?

At least the politicians float stealthy and perfectly valid art criticism. “A big scrumble of women, isn’t it?” Bríd Smith, one of the few who expresses some insights into Markievicz, says of the crowded canvas. “Will she have her gun?” the Solidarity-People Before Profit TD asks Murphy. The artist demurs. “Give us all guns,” she says. Who’s fragile now?

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