Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Neale Richmond should know better: calling grown women ‘girls’ is inherently belittling

Imagine anyone calling Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Indira Gandhi ‘the girls’

Fine Gael European election candidates Nina Carberry and Maria Walsh are hardly the epitome of girlishness. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The prize for biggest blooper in the orgy of postelections analysis goes to Neale Richmond. The Fine Gael Minister of State from Dublin Rathdown was happily telling Cormac Ó hEadhra on RTÉ’s Drivetime about the “really excellent campaigns” his party’s candidates, Maria Walsh and Nina Carberry, had run for EU seats in Midlands North West when he suddenly found himself lost in a maze of mortifying words.

“Both girls ... both ladies – sorry ... both candidates, eh ... both politicians have run absolutely phenomenal campaigns,” he blurted, demonstrating that, for some people, the word “women” is simply unutterable.

The two females he was talking about are hardly the epitome of girlishness. Walsh is 37, has been an MEP since 2019 and, before that, she served as a trooper in the Army Reserve at the Curragh Camp. She had the character to become the first openly gay winner of the Rose of Tralee contest ever before the marriage equality referendum was passed. Former champion jockey Carberry, who will be 40 next month, made history as a female winner in a male-dominated sport. She is older than Taoiseach Simon Harris.

Anyone can make a mistake, especially when speaking live on air. Those of us who have been there and done that will have sympathised with Richmond as he scrambled to find a suitable word, tossing out options from his vocabulary like a traveller frantically emptying his suitcase in search of his passport as his flight is about to depart. But this is 2024 and politicians really ought to keep up. Especially when their own political party has introduced election gender quotas and claims that it wants more women involved in politics, the least they can do is learn to enunciate the word “women”.

READ MORE

Calling grown women “girls” is inherently belittling. History has imbued the word with reductive overtones. Unlike the word “boys”, which exudes a can-do machismo, “girls”, when applied to women, evokes the ornamental variety as exhibited in the Lovely Girls Competition. While boys have become a Chinese emperor at the age of two and a pope at 12, girls do not run global religions or whole countries. Imagine anyone calling Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Indira Gandhi “the girls”. If the Irish female of the political species cannot be accorded her correct noun, is it any wonder that Ireland ranks 103rd in the world for the proportion of women in national politics?

In a week when this country’s female representation on local councils has remained frozen solid at its pre-election share, perhaps the Oireachtas should consider providing singing classes for its elected members, majoring in the Peggy Lee classic, “I’m a Woman, W-O-M-A-N”. The number of female candidates in last week’s local elections increased 21 per cent since the 2019 elections, mainly thanks to Sinn Féin, which fielded umpteen candidates and, like the Green Party, operates a 50:50 male-to-female candidacy policy. As neither party achieved stellar success at the polls, the overall gender balance remains unchanged at 26 per cent. The old councils are going out with 247 women councillors and the new ones are coming in with 247 women. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. There are still numerous electoral areas where not one woman was elected. Looking at you Castleisland, Tullow, Muinebeag, Ballyjamesduff, Ennistymon, Milford, Listowel, Swinford, Gorey and others too many to mention.

There is a maxim that if you can see it, you can be it but, if you can’t even say it, you might as well forget about it

In ways, Richmond is a modern man – polished, 41, from well-heeled south Dublin suburbia and with a master’s degree in political science – but his reluctance to give women their correct noun is an instinct that crosses all income, geographical, age and gender boundaries. Politicians are not the only linguistic offenders. Neither are men. Many women, even in their advanced years, insist on calling themselves and their friends “girls”. This is as much a cultural blind spot as Richmond’s south Dublin rugby club vibe of the guys-and-girls. Officially, boys and girls become adults at the age of 18 but some women are conditioned to continue regarding themselves as juveniles well into their dotage.

As long as sports commentators keep calling male participants “the boys”, it is entirely acceptable to call their female counterparts “the girls”, but it needs to stop there. Sport is one of the worst culprits in misnamed-gender assignment. Two of the silliest words in the English language are “ladies” and “football” when they are joined together at the hip. “Lady members”, “the “ladies’ committee” and “ladies’ day” at the races are as antiquated in the 21st century as crinoline hoops and horsehair skirts.

There is a maxim that if you can see it, you can be it but, if you can’t even say it, you might as well forget about it. This is not a matter of mere irritation or over-sensitivity. Words matter. They sink deep into the psyche. They have the power to influence the public mindset. Our cultural reticence to utter the word “women” is one of the reasons why gender quotas were necessary in the first place, albeit they do not apply to local elections.

Candidate selections are generally conducted by parties’ grassroots organisations, where men dominate the officer boards. Their tendency has always been to nominate other men for election. The challenge facing parties trying to increase their female footprint is illustrated by the fact that more than 70 per cent of council seats have been taken by incumbent councillors in these elections.

Opponents of gender quotas argue that the best person should be selected; the unspoken presumption being that the best person is a man. In the next general election, the gender quota will require that 40 per cent of a party’s candidates must be women or else that party will lose half of its State funding. As no quotas apply in local elections – the nursery for national politicians – where are the parties going to find all these women? Certainly not in the dictionary under G for “girls”.

To shamelessly twist Oscar Wilde’s words, parties planning for the general election are facing a dilemma of the unfundable in pursuit of the unspeakable.