The way forward for feminism

It seemed that all was well in the world of women last week, Women’s Week, when leader of the opposition, Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny tabled a motion to impose quotas on the number of women candidates that would have set targets ensuring that 20% of its candidates in the next local election would be female, increasing to 25% in the European elections. And yet, the proposal was defeated after being strongly opposed by one of Fine Gael’s most prominent female voices, Dublin South East TD, Lucinda Creighton. The confusing reason why a proposal, on the surface so favourable to women was defeated mainly by women needs to be looked at: are women really their own worst enemy, or is there still a long way to go before the fairer sex can be equally represented in parliament and all other areas of civic life?
Lucinda Creighton was just one prominent female Fine Gael politician who opposed the leader’s motion; Catherine Byrne, TD for Dublin South Central and Senator Fidelma Healy Eames were also amongst the ranks of the discontented, not on the grounds that they did not want more female candidates, but on the basis that it was a banal gesture, when issues such as long hours, childcare and the treatment of women within the realm of politics have not been addressed. Creighton claimed that within no political party had anti-bullying or anti-discrimination measures been enacted, nor are there any human resources systems in place. Creighton’s assertion begs the question: are all concessions made to women a mere smokescreen, underneath which circumstances are still as outdated as they were fifty years ago?
Without a doubt, Kenny meant for his proposal to symbolise more than a well meaning gesture, and while the desire to increase women’s involvement in politics when it has traditionally been below par can be seen, as it was by the rank and file of his own party, as a cynical ploy masked as progressiveness, it is nonetheless a vital, positive evolution in feminist philosophy. The question on everyone’s lips in the wake of Women’s Week though must be how to make these measures stick; how can women be totally equal in the workplace and in all other aspects of life?
Feminism and all its branches have, since its matrix, been paralysed by inner strife and disagreement, and though women’s movements, frequently described as “classes of wild enthusiasts and visionaries” by the media, have been campaigning for multiple decades, it is argued in many the agora that we are no closer to absolute equality than we were before the achievement of the vote. To look closely at some governmental decisions of the past year is to see that many of them have a direct negative effect on women. The cuts to child benefit in the 2010 budget are, according to the National Women’s Council of Ireland, playing out disastrously across the female spectrum, with many Irish women now struggling more than ever to pay childcare costs. The ultimate result of these cuts will be a drastic reduction of the number of women in every workplace. More worrying still is the fact that the poorest people in Ireland are older women, who dedicated their lives to rearing the next generation and are now forced to listen to the rank and file of government and opposition discuss the damaging products of demographic time bombs. At the heart of the matter, most agree, is the need to get women into political power, but as we have already seen, with things as they stand this is nigh on impossible.
It is a vicious circle; women will be unable to compete or work in positions of political power until conditions for them change, and yet conditions may not change until they are in power. Another line to take on this sorry saga is to look closely at decisions the government has not made, in relation to the key issue of abortion. Despite the fact that there have been many referenda, the Irish government is still incapacitating many women with regard to making their own decision. Whether or not insufficient sexual education is at the heart of the matter, the fact remains that each year thousands of Irish women are forced to put their health at risk to travel to England or further afield to have terminations, in many a case because continuing with their pregnancy would be harmful to their health. Throughout multiple interviews the Women’s Council of Ireland conducted with those who had traveled abroad for abortions, with medical practitioners and with social workers, the terrifyingly overwhelming characteristic that emerged was the various, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles girls and women face in regard to making mature and sensible decisions about their pregnancies. Not only are they denied access to services they need within Ireland, they are discouraged and in many cases aggressively so, from seeking the care they need abroad. Alongside these concerns is the fact that they cannot be certain that the advice they receive is accurate or complete.
“Nowadays there is no such thing as feminism,” claimed Miuccia Prada, during the week, and you would have to agree with her. The majority of the population believe women do have a status equal to that of their male counterparts, and that following the achievement of the vote and all other “concessions” since gained, what is there to complain about? As a nation, we need to scratch beneath the surface and face the gloomy truth; a ballot represents nothing more than a symbol of grudging goodwill if women are not represented in a representative democracy.
Somehow or another, be it through motions like Kenny’s or the solving of the problems highlighted by Creighton, women need a greater voice in politics. Now all we need is a powerful woman to lead the way and show us how.