Last summer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made international headlines when she defeated a ten-term incumbent Congressman in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th congressional district. At 29, she was elected to the House of Representatives and became the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress.
Since then, her profile has skyrocketed and she has become one of the most talked about political figures in the United States, in part because she represents a segment of the American population that has typically suffered from poor political representation: young women.
This is not a problem that is confined to America. Here in Ireland, women of all ages suffer from a lack of representation on both a national and local level. Women comprise just 22.2 per cent of the Dáil and 30 per cent of the Seanad while the number of women elected to local councils. For younger women, the figures are even more stark.
Take “millennials”, for instance. A millennial is defined as anyone born between 1981 and 1996. At present, there are just three female TDs who meet this criteria: Sinn Fein’s Kathleen Funchion, Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee and Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers.
There are many reasons why the number of young women in politics has remained stubbornly low. Women For Election, a not-for-profit organisation that trains and supports prospective female political candidates, has identified the five Cs: cash, childcare, confidence, candidate selection, and culture. Likewise, a historic lack of representation has meant that women are less likely to put themselves forward for election.
“I think the biggest barrier is that you can’t be what you can see,” says Ciarín de Buis, chief executiveof Women for Election. “I know that’s a cliche but it’s a cliche for a reason.”
Fortunately, there are signs that a change is underway, with young women around the country contesting the local and European elections. For instance, Adrian Kavanagh of Maynooth University has identified at least 560 female candidates who are contesting the local elections, 65 of whom are aged between 18 and 35.
Many cut their teeth on last year’s campaign to repeal the eighth amendment. “In terms of the recent referendum, we would have noticed an uptake in our training campaigns,” says de Buis.
For many, it was their first time in politics and they noticed the impact they could have. “They are now seeing their next step as getting into representative politics,” she adds.
Political party: Green Party
Catriona Reid has a lot on her plate at the moment. Not only is the 19-year-old studying for the Leaving Cert and deliberating over what to place at the top of her CAO form, but she is contesting the forthcoming local elections as a Green Party candidate in Carrigaline, Co Cork. Not that she is out knocking on doors each evening, mind you. "Unfortunately with the Leaving Cert there is very little time I can commit to actually canvassing," she says.
Born in Romania, Reid moved to Ireland with her Scottish father and Romanian mother when she was a child. Her father Gordon Reid is a longtime member of the Green Party and is also running in the local elections in a neighbouring constituency.
She first became politically engaged in 2014. That year, Nigel Farage made headlines for making a series of xenophobic remarks about Romanians and Bulgarians. “That really bothered me,” she says. Likewise she took great interest in the Scottish Independence Referendum. However, she soon turned her attention towards matters closer to home.
“In 2015, I began to realise that I needed to think about Irish politics. If I’m interested in politics, I should be interested in what’s happening in my country and not just what’s happening in the UK,’” she recalls.
She went on to join the Green Party, citing their commitment to environmental issues as their number one selling point. “Ione hundred per cent consider climate change and environmentalism to be the number one issue facing my generation.”
Over the years, she has been active in campaigns to stop the construction of a waste incinerator in Ringaskiddy as well as a planned Cork-to-Ringaskiddy motorway. In 2016, she published a book detailing the day-to-day happenings at the planning hearing for the Ringaskiddy incinerator.
We would have a much happier electorate, I think, if we had more minorities and women
Last year, she approached the Green Party about running for the local elections, believing she had a lot to bring to the table in terms of her own lived experience. “I decided to run because I knew I could represent a woman’s voice, a young person’s voice and also the voice of an immigrant,” she says. “We would have a much happier electorate, I think, if we had more minorities and women.”
Despite being younger than most of her political opponents, she remains undaunted. As she puts it, everyone has to start somewhere.
“To quote Harry Potter, ‘Every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than what we are now, students. If they can do it, why not us?’ It’s just a matter of having the confidence to go out there, make a few mistakes, and learn from your mistakes.”
Political party: People Before Profit
When Kellie Sweeney was studying nursing in Trinity College, a tutor gave her class a lecture on politics. “It was about how we didn’t have nurses in politics,” she recalls.
Now Sweeney is seeking to change that and running for People Before Profit in Lucan. The 28-year-old is a qualified nurse and mother of two young children. She is currently on a career break from nursing due to the high cost of childcare.
Sweeney first became involved in social activism following the traumatic birth of her first child. “I ended up with post traumatic stress disorder from the whole experience,” she recalls. Indeed, the experience was so distressing that she took out a Credit Union loan to finance a home birth for her second child.
She linked up with Aims Ireland, a voluntary organisation committed to improving maternity services in Ireland. She attended protests and gained a greater insight into the far-reaching implications of the eighth amendment.
From there, she got involved with the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment and was active with Dublin Mid West Together For Yes. It was around this time that she became acquainted with People Before Profit. The party’s socialist beliefs aligned with her own and she formally joined the party after last year’s referendum. She was initially unsure about the idea of running in the elections: “I didn’t feel it was the right time because I had the two small children,” she says. “That in turn ended up being my reason to run in the end. I couldn’t wait another five years.”
“If my children have any hope of having a future, we need to do something about it now. The government are taking no action on climate change, they’re taking no action on housing – what sort of future do my kids have to look forward to?”
Capitalism, she says, has failed working people and humanity.
“Socialism is the only viable option, really,” she says. “The market is destroying the environment and it’s destroying people’s lives.”
She says that society “desperately needs” more working class women in politics. Moreover, it needs to examine the factors that prevent them from getting involved. “The truth is many working class women are too busy trying to keep their heads above water to get involved in politics,” she says. “If we really want to see more women in politics, we need to alleviate the economic burden. We need financial support; we need secure and affordable housing; and we need free childcare.”
“Until that happens, working class women will continue to be underrepresented in politics and it will continue to be a space for the privileged.”
Political party: Sinn Féin
Growing up in Bray, Co Wicklow Grace McManus was a member of a local youth club called Celtic Youth Bray. Twice a year, the club would host an event known as “issues night” where the teenagers would have an interactive learning experience on social justice issues.
“We did a child labour workshop in the youth club,” she explains. “I was maybe 14 and I will never forget it as long as I live.”
For Grace, these events helped spark an interest in activism and politics. As a student in Trinity College, she campaigned on issues like youth mental health. Now 27, she works in Leinster House as an advisor to Sinn Féin senators Máire Devine and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, and is running as a Sinn Féin candidate in Bray East in the local elections.
McManus doesn’t fit the usual profile of a councillor in Bray. At present, there are eight councillors representing Bray on Wicklow County Council, all of whom are men. By comparison, McManus is a young gay woman “with an eyebrow piercing and an undercut”. Like many of her peers, she still lives at home with her parents as she can’t afford to rent. This was a factor in her decision to run.
“Representation is important. It’s not everything. I want to be there because I’m skilled and I have the knowledge and I have worked hard to be there. But I also know that when you see yourself in a lineup, it becomes more realistic.”
Not only are young women underrepresented in local politics, but so are young people in general. This can lead to them feeling disengaged or removed from politics. “A lot of my friends are like, ‘I don’t know much about politics’ and they’re afraid I’m going to judge them. And I’m like, no that’s by design. You’re not supposed to know and why would you? Because it seems like all the decisions are taken almost as if they’re not accountable to the people they affect.”
“Who would be a politician?” is a refrain we often hear in Ireland. McManus says a different class of politician is needed to challenge this narrative.
“We have to change that,” she says. “If it is that nobody in their right mind would be a politician, who is going to be our politicians?”
“Maybe it’s not awful to be a politician. Maybe if you’re an awful politician, it’s awful. Maybe it doesn’t seem exciting to young people because we’re told that all politicians are the same but maybe we’re not all the same.”
“When politics becomes more accessible and interesting and relevant to people, we will see more and more young people engage with it.”
Political party: Social Democrats
When Evie Nevin was 26, she was diagnosed with a rare connective tissue disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The condition can cause frequent joint dislocations, bruising, and fatigue. A journalist by trade, she was left unable to do much of anything and left feeling "socially isolated".
“I figured with the chronic pain and the chronic fatigue that I would never do anything significant with my life,” she says.
Five and a half years later, the 32-year-old is running for the Social Democrats in Clonakilty-Skibbereen, Co Cork.
A mother of two, Nevin first got involved in politics during last year’s referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.
“There was an awful lot of talk during about people with disabilities and how we were all going to be wiped out,” she says. “It made me realise that there was nobody with a disability was speaking up and saying, ‘Well no, people with disabilities also need access to abortion.’”
She decided to set up Disabled People For Choice and went from spending seven days a week at home to traveling around the country campaigning. “It gave me a new lease of life,” she says.
After the referendum, Nevin joined the Social Democrats and decided to run for election. Disability rights, climate change, and housing are the issues of most interest to her.
Nevin and her family have been on the housing list for ten years. Yet Nevin says she has been met with radio silence when she has asked local councillors for assistance. This, she says, is partly what inspired her to run for election.
“I have the lived experience of being on the housing list and depending on social welfare for disability payments,” she says. “I know what it’s like for people to struggle. I don’t think there is anybody on Cork County Council who represents me. I decided that enough was enough and that if I wanted things to change that I would have to put my name forward for election.”
According to the Central Statistics Office, approximately 13.5 per cent of the Irish population has a disability. Yet this doesn’t bear out in politics meaning people with disabilities are often excluded from positions of power. This needs to change, says Nevin.
“We need to be brought to the table when it comes to policy and law making. Something I’ve been trying to push during this campaign is that disability does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone at any time. It’s incredibly important that we have a society where if it happens to someone they can transition into their new lives with ease and without the additional barriers that people do face at the moment.”
Political party: Fine Gael
Maria Walsh is arguably one of the most high profile young women contesting the forthcoming elections. Best known for having won the Rose of Tralee in 2014, Walsh is running in the Midlands/North West constituency for Fine Gael in the European elections.
Walsh’s first brush with politics came during the two referendums around marriage equality and the eighth amendment. Last year, as a birthday gift to herself, she attended a one-day training seminar hosted by Women For Election and was later approached by Fine Gael about running in the elections. She was formally selected in February and is now running on a platform centred around rural Ireland, mental health, gender equality, and diversity.
Walsh says she wasn’t raised in a political household and held no party allegiances growing up. It was Fine Gael’s involvement with the two most recent referendums that made her think it was the party for her. “I applaud anybody who disrupts the traditional sense of who we think we are as a country and where we want to go,” she says. She cites party colleagues like Kate O’Connell and Josepha Madigan as women who have inspired her on her political journey.
The 31-year-old straddles many social demographics. Not only is she a young gay woman from rural Ireland, but she is also a pioneer, a regular Massgoer and a member of the Reserve Defence Forces. She defines herself as a “traditional liberalist” or someone who is socially progressive while still believing in the importance of traditional values. “My friends call me a paradox in the sense of who I am and what I am,” she says.
As both a political novice and a young gay woman, she says that getting to this stage has been an uphill battle.
“It’s hard when you walk into rooms and don’t see anyone who looks like you or sounds like you or talks like you. Given the fact I’m female, given the fact I’m gay, given the fact that I didn’t come from a background of party politics, you almost have to elbow your way in to making sure people are taking you seriously.”
But weeks ahead of the election, she notes that her grueling schedule as the Rose of Tralee has served her well on the campaign trail.
“I’m so grateful the Rose of Tralee happened because I had the greatest apprenticeship,” she says. “My team will say, ‘ Are you sure you can do this?’ and I’m like, ‘Lads this is nothing.’”