This a guest post by Dr Morgan Healey. Morgan completed her PhD through the University of Limerick, Ireland, in 2009 focussing on Irish women politicians and their experiences of gendered political spaces.
Reading the news (and in particular social media) yesterday I was incredibly disheartened to see statements from both men and women MPs discounting the potential Labour party policy calling for temporary special measures to ensure a 50:50 gender representation in the Caucus by 2017. It is a laudable goal for Labour and one that all political parties should strive for. But the misogynist discussion that followed the announcement of the policy showed exactly what women MPs have to face within the political party machinery when it comes to fighting for selection and running a successful campaign. The sophistry of equal opportunity for women and the idea that ‘good’ women candidates do not require any additional support because they will get elected on merit must be contested if this debate is to move forward.
The construction of politics as ‘jobs for the boys’ has created myriad barriers to women entering politics. Research by feminist political scientists and theorists has attempted to grapple with the gendering of political tenets, such as the abstract individual, the social contract and those dealing with the systemic limitations of not being selected to run, facing a political party system that prioritises ‘proven’ men politicians, rewarding them with safe, winnable seats (or a high number on the list), and so on. If women do manage to succeed, and make their way through the myriad gates that block their inclusion to win a seat and enter Parliament, the discrimination continues. Women with children face non-family friendly working hours, for example, being away from home for three nights a week, needing a relatively high and stable income to afford child care and perhaps assistance in the home (with the assumption still that if they are married their husbands will also be in paid work).
What is insidious about all of this is the tightrope women politicians are forced to walk between trying to belong (i.e. be the ‘same’ as the men politicians) and at the same time using their gender to promote a ‘different’ way of doing politics – one that simultaneously or strategically sets them apart for the sea of men. It is within this context that I want to unpick some of the unhelpful comments made by women MPs themselves, and argue that acts of belonging to the political gendered norm (read men) are being played out in these comments. Specifically, arguments against the proposal seem to be focus on notions of merit vs special treatment, with the latter providing a dangerous precedent whereby a woman’s gender can be used and named to detract from an already tenuous attempt at belonging.
I have a bit of experience when it comes to women in politics.. My PhD thesis, “The Naturalised Politician: How Irish Women Politicians Construct their Political Subjectivities”, examined the lived experiences of then-serving women politicians in both the lower and upper house of Parliament (known as the Oireachtas in Irish). I used a poststructural feminist framework to investigate how the women I interviewed understood and articulated their own gendered political subject positions as politicians, so please excuse some modest use of this frame and some of the associated language below. While I won’t attempt to provide a wholesale summary of my thesis, I do want to return to one of the overarching themes that came across when I interviewed the women – that is, a muted sense of belonging – and how I think this is playing out in relation to the current political storm over temporary special measures.
So what does ‘belonging’ mean and require of women in politics? And how does it play out? Academic theorists like Breda Gray (2002), Ruth McElroy (2002), Anne-Marie Fortier (1999), and Elspeth Probyn (1996) have used notions of belonging to deconstruct how identities or processes of identification are produced. They argue that individuals, groups, or nations are constructed along dichotomous relations of insider/outsider, and that these are often produced along racial, ethnic and gender lines. As Anne-Marie Fortier (2002) argues, the social and historical practices which mark out terrains of belonging or commonalities amongst groups delineates the dynamics by which people/groups fit into the norm. My argument is that an important element of women politicians’ ability to belong to the ‘gendered spaces’ of politics is conditional upon their ability to show they too can ‘fit in’. If we assume that being a politician is an example of Fortier’s ‘group identity’ and argue that through the gendering of this category as ‘man’ certain terrains of belonging are marked out, then women’s ability to belong and be considered legitimate politicians will be based on their ability to approximate the male norms of politics.
If part of this approximation entails being like one of the boys, then for women politicians belonging is often weakened because of course erasing one’s gender is never wholly attainable (or desirable). Thus, the women politicians I interviewed were not completely excluded but instead were included differently. One important strategy for belonging was through maintaining loyalty to their affiliated political party’s ideology. It is within this context that I want to examine the quotes by Irish women politicians when compared to coverage of New Zealand women MPs’ reaction to Labour’s policy.
Yvonne Galligan and Richard Wilford have done research on Irish political party ideology and the implications for the ‘just add women and stir’ method of integrating women into the party machinery. Specifically they assert that the dual notions of equality of opportunity and loyalty in Irish politics obscure men’s normative position within the party. It’s not surprising, then, that the Irish women politicians I spoke to often simultaneously argued that the political structures were gender neutral, and that the key to success within the party was hard work and enterprise, while at the same time they contradicted themselves with tales of battling against male elites that would not take their candidacies seriously. Fidelity to the myth of gender neutrality and equal opportunity are often used by women politicians to ‘fit in’, promising not to raise the fact of their specific gender in return for legitimacy as politicians.
It would seem that acts of loyalty to the status quo might require perpetuating such myths, even if it’s to the detriment of one’s own political career or the career of other women politicians. Take for example Politician I, who employed a modest strategy for success, reasserting a model for working within a predefined system of meritocracy This politician’s approach was to keep her head down, show initiative, play along with the existing party structures and hope for the best:
We [women] are a very tenuous group. So I suppose what I’m kind of concentrating on doing is putting forward my own proposals, you know, work within the party structure to put forward ideas, and if I can do that and do it competently and hope that I will be rewarded for it. You know there is no guarantee but I think it’s the only solution because you can’t just sort of… you can’t sulk and you can’t…it won’t get you anywhere (Politician I, emphasis and bracket added).
Politician Q asserted that if she had been a man, her seat would have been protected in the last election and she would not have been set adrift by the party and subsequently lost her seat. She stated:
But I think if I had been a man with the sort of record that I had, I think they would have made sure that I got back into the Senate. So I think it interrupted my political career for five years… I wasn’t good enough to have my career kind of protected somewhat or given an inside on the 2002, which is completely infuriating (Politician Q, emphasis added).
What she learned from this was the need to better align herself and make strategic alliances with top ranking men in the political party. “I mean if you look at our parliamentary party of course the male network and I think you do have to penetrate it and you do have to make alliances with men and I think a lot of women don’t do that (Politician Q, emphasis added)”. This woman learned she had to show loyalty to the party mechanisms and ensure her profile was raised enough to have her career protected the next time around. Like Politician I, the strategy was not to explicitly challenge the inherent gender inequalities that resulted in the loss of her seat, but to penetrate the male network.
Specifically discussing the topic of quotas, Politician B was adamant that special temporary measures were detrimental to women, offering an example of where quotas were used to increase the number of women on boards of Irish institutes of technology. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:
Politician B: ... Sweden and Denmark, people are always pointing to those countries and they say that’s how they got their 50% women members of parliament because they got them all together and said you’ve got to take this women now and this woman must be picked and ahhh yuck. One tried it here. A Labour Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach was her name and she brought in that when you were appointing boards to run the ITs, the Institutes of Technology around the country of which there are nine, she brought in that there must be women on the board. And then they became known as ‘Bhreacthnachs’ babes’ and every one said ‘oh she’s the quota woman on that board,’ you know.
Morgan: So if you don’t have quotas how… ?
Politician B: Well, nothing you just have to make your way.
Morgan: You just have to make your way and…
Politician B: …and it is tough.
While acknowledging that it was tougher for women to make their own way, Politician B offered no other solution for changing the status quo of women’s representation than ‘just making your way’. Importantly, Politician B did not offer an account of why people would assume the women elected through a quota system should be seen as less than any other member of the board, instead fortifying that argument in her own disapproval of such measures. Reading this quote with Politicians I and Q above, it would seem that making one’s way is about acts of loyalty and not challenging or questioning gendered constructs of political legitimacy.
Comparing this with what I read in an article in the New Zealand Herald, “MPs snub pro-women seats”, it would seem similar acts of loyalty are being articulated by women MPs themselves. This article specifically cited Maryan Street and her opposition to quotas in the selection process of Labour candidates. Relying on discourses of equal opportunity and meritocracy, she echoes many of the sentiments of the Irish women politicians:
Ms Street said it was hard enough being a woman in Parliament without facing accusations of being there by way of gender. "I think it's about competence. It's always about merit."
Similarly invoking merit as an argument against quotas, Minister for Women’s Affairs, Jo Goodhew said on Radio NZ:
What really bothers me about this is New Zealand has got an amazing history of women who have been in amazing positions – chief justice, governors-general, we’ve also had prime ministers. I think it demeans them for any suggestion that women should be there because the time is right for a woman. They were there because of their merit.
In another New Zealand Herald article, “Pro-women plan rattles Labour”, the Minister of Justice, Judith Collins was quoted:
National's Judith Collins was dismissive of the proposal, saying it showed Labour women clearly were not confident of being selected under normal processes. "It is a surprise that they have so little confidence in themselves."
What all of these statements belie is the gendered nature of these ‘normal’ processes. By focusing on the processes, the conversation is shifted away from examining the system itself. While processes are important, substantive change is unlikely to be sustained if the underlying gendered nature and norms of politics is not contested.
If becoming a legitimate politician necessitates acts of loyalty and the perpetuation of narratives about equal opportunities in order to belong to the gendered order of politics, then it is perhaps unsurprising that some women politicians are the most voracious critics. If part of belonging means trying to ‘fit in’ to a political norm based on ‘man’ and disavowing any gendered specificity, to call for special temporary measures based on that specificity is dangerous for many women politicians.
I am not attempting to either condone or condemn MPs like Street, Goodhew or Collins. Instead I want to provide a different reading of why some women MPs in particular appear so threatened by a policy intended to increase women’s participation and representation in the party. Ultimately, while I am fully supportive of temporary special measures to increase women’s political representation, I also believe it will take a lot more to ensure gender inclusivity.
So long as the political norm of politician is assumed as ‘man’, women’s legitimacy in occupying the role of politician will continue to be fraught and tenuous. The work of deconstructing and reimagining the political landscape to ensure that intersecting identities (along the lines of race, gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality) are assured equal outcomes is essential. Part of this process must include a more critical analysis of the discourses used to discount attempts at equality, and how gendered notions of merit and equal opportunity are invoked in the name of maintaining the gendered status quo.