By Siobhan Brett
‘Or, should I say: congresswoman! Let’s get that much out of the way right now,” bellowed the jubilant head of the postal workers’ union. “Congresswoman!” cried a community activist. “I like the way that sounds.”
“Congresswoman?” said the executive director of a union representing non-profit social service, home care and childcare employees. “God bless you and thank you.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hair resting behind her shoulders, looked up from the notes she was furiously taking and smiled each time the term was used. On August 7 roughly 200 people had edged their way into a community hall in the Bronx, New York City’s northernmost borough, to listen to her speak.
The 28-year-old listened, first, for the best part of an hour, to a line of environmentalists, car washers, teachers and health care campaigners. When her turn finally came, Ocasio-Cortez said firmly: “I’m so thrilled and honoured by folks calling me ‘congresswoman’. But I am not ‘congresswoman’ yet.”
In her district’s Democratic primary at the end of June, Ocasio-Cortez defeated the incumbent, Joseph Crowley, a man twice her age and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. News of the upset was carried around the world. In November, she may become the youngest-ever woman elected to Congress. The Bronx, then, will have plenty to talk about.
But neither the excitement surrounding Ocasio-Cortez’s elevation nor the novelty of her candidacy is an anomaly in 2018. In the US this year, a record-breaking number of women – more than 500 –are running for office.
Earlier this year, in Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections since 2009, there were 113 women registered as candidates. Last time round, there were just 12.
Spain now has a majority-female cabinet. France is 50-50. The Mexican-president elect has stated that he wants women to hold eight posts in his 16-member cabinet come December (already, the percentage of women in office in Mexico is in the very high forties, a circumstance that was legislatively induced). Last year, 208 women MPs were elected to the House of Commons, a record high of 32 per cent.
In 1990, an opponent criticised then-prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, for “going for” a second child while in office. “It is clear that the prime minister of Pakistan wants it all: motherhood, domesticity, glamour,” sniffed Syeda Abida Hussain. “She is even seeking more power than she has. Such a person in an ordinary context would be described as greedy.”
On August 2, prime minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern – hailed by some as being the second ever woman to do as Bhutto did – returned to work six weeks after giving birth to her first child.
Ardern returns with the option of breastfeeding her daughter in New Zealand’s ‘baby-friendly’ chamber and has tweaked the rules to allow children join their parents in the parliamentary swimming pool. “I’m not the first woman to multi-task,” she said, laughing, when she announced her pregnancy. At 38, Ardern is also the youngest female head of government in the world.
Ocasio-Cortez may not yet be a congresswoman. But to the supporters gathered anxiously last week to see her, some on folding chairs, many more standing towards the back of the hall, all perspiring heavily in the August fug, she seemed close enough.
What is the source of the momentum that seems to be building behind women with ambitions to enter politics, and to succeed once there? “This is not just a curiosity. It’s not an interesting number or statistic. It’s historic,” Anna Eshoo, a democratic representative from California, told Politico in March. “This year a lot of unspoken but tough walls have come tumbling down.”
The recent American experience is certainly instructive. The years-long campaigning by organisations like Black Lives Matter. The sprawl of the #MeToo movement. Reproductive rights. Increasingly urgent protests against family separation and unequal pay. All of these efforts, many of them in response to measures mooted or implemented by the Trump administration, have been led, or brought to prominence, by women.
The developments are to be welcomed, but with the right amount of scrutiny, according to Cynthia Richie Terrell, the founder and director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organisation that works to advance female representation in appointed and elected office.
“I would say this year definitely feels different,” she says. “But there’s a caveat.” Terrell used as an explanatory crutch the ‘excalibur’ scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!”).
“Like the handing out of swords, resignation by men due to predatory sexual behaviour and other scandals, leaving openings for women, cannot be the basis of our revolution,” she says with a small laugh.
Terrell is nonetheless heartened by what she hopes is a “normalisation” of women’s power and women’s candidacies. She says that for her and many of her peers the goal was not to have one woman running, even if she has star qualities, but to have two, three, multiple women running against each other.
“So voters can choose,” Terrell says. “So the candidate is not just the woman, it’s the best candidate. It can be hard to see that though, a true blossoming of female representation. It’s sobering to look into the depth of underrepresentation of women, the depth of American exceptionalism, and our isolation from the rest of the world where new standards are being met.”
The US ranks behind 200 countries, globally, and it’s not because of the ambition or education of American women, says Terrell, but because of the system, and the lack of quotas, or even targets, as well as enduring structural barricades to entry. While applauding enthusiasm and candidacy she said it was a distraction from the structural reform necessary for consistent and lasting change.
“We’re behind countries that are far less economically advanced, and, again, it’s not that the women are different. It’s that the systems are different. It’s very important to work collaboratively and in solidarity with those who are running and winning, but at the same time ‘the year of the woman’ is a silly catchphrase when we need this to be the century of women,” Terrell says.
In a 2014 body of research carried out by Columbia University (eventually summarised under the headline, When Women Rule, Nations Prosper), it was found that a woman in the top national leadership position was correlated with a 6.8 per cent greater increase in GDP growth.
The Columbia research emphasises women’s “participatory, democratic style” and acknowledges an appetite – the voter’s tendency to better trust women in tricky interpersonal or emotional situations.
The summary reads: “A mere 15 per cent of parliamentary representatives around the world are women — a reflection that for all the benefits democracy may bestow upon nations, it has not yet fully delivered on social equity. There are hints of change: women in top national leadership positions — president or prime minister — have more than quadrupled between 1950 and 2004, from four to 18. Recently, women have been elected in every corner of the globe, including Chile, Germany, Liberia, and South Korea.”
Four years on, the number of incumbent female heads of state and government is 26. So far this year, Romania, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados have all installed women at the top for the first time in history.
A celebrated 2012 analysis by the consultancy firm McKinsey suggested that private profit is also easier achieved by diverse and inclusive boards. Terrell and her colleagues are having conversations about other walks of life in which productivity and non-monetary dividends can be similarly reached, as in judicial appointments. “Judicial outcomes are actually more important than legislative outcomes,” she says.
Terrell’s organisation, RepresentWomen, can express concerns about the category of outcome, but not about the substance or the politics. “Pushing for pro-choice, democratic women is not actually parity,” she says. “We can only achieve parity when indigenous women, Republican women, and lower-income women all have representation.”
It is incorrect, in the political climate of panic over isolationism, nationalism and “resistance” against other populist forces, to look at voguish social democrats with liberal agendas like Ocasio-Cortez or progressive feminists like Ardern and take their progress as a given for women on all sides of the political spectrum.
To take the US as an example: according to the Center for American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, of 408 women running for the House of Representatives, 305 are Democrats and 103 are Republicans. A rising tide, if it really is rising, lifts all boats, not just left-wing challengers.
Clare Malone, politics writer with the US news site Five Thirty-Eight, said in a recent podcast on the theme that Republican female politicians had “a very fair beef about the way they are talked about in the press by their opponents”. Ads are often sexist, demeaning, and nicknames get bandied around, Malone observed.
This makes somebody like Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, a “cult hero” for some women of the right, according to Malone, who said there was something to be said for high-profile Republican models and “polished, high-profile women on the right.” “Sarah Palin, they are not,” she said.
Election does not equate to popularity, and in any case popularity does not insulate a politician from pot-shots and abuse. In 2012, the then prime minister of Australia and the first woman to have the position, Julia Gillard, stood on the floor of parliament and took apart the “repulsive double standards” of the then leader of the opposition. The excoriating 15-minute clip is summarised on its own Wikipedia page under Misogyny Speech.
Gillard is heckled but, by the end, assumes a rare self-possession. She concludes, quietly and calmly: “The leader of the opposition should think seriously about the role of women in public life and in Australian society, because we are entitled to a better standard than this.”
After Gillard’s term, a proposed telemovie about her life was rejected “by every local network, cable broadcaster and digital streaming service”, according to the Daily Telegraph in Australia.
In order to defeat Joe Crowley as she did, Ocasio-Cortez told Rolling Stone she sent 170,000 text messages and knocked on 120,000 doors. Her victory took everybody by surprise, at first, but soon vocal opponents from within the Democratic party and without began to circle in earnest.
At the end of the event in the Bronx, a member of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign team pleaded with gathered reporters and members of the public to clear out of the community hall and into the summer thunderstorm developing outside.
The waiting group shifted here and there without really moving. One man accidentally dropped a handful of flyers bearing the face of another female political hopeful in New York, Sex And The City star Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor on a platform similarly beloved of right-minded urbanites, with emphases on transportation reform, legalised marijuana, and “community over corporation”.
Those holding phones and DSLRs were balanced on steps and pressed up against walls. The voice of the campaign worker eventually rose to an exasperated pitch. “No more questions! No more photos! And no more selfies!” she shouted. “I honestly don’t understand what more you want from her.”
Can Ireland follow the world’s lead?
Ciairín de Buis, chief executive of Women for Election, heralds a new era for female representation in Irish political life
Earlier this year, Countess Markievicz regained her place in parliamentary history as the first woman elected to the House of Commons. A century ago, the revolutionary abstained from taking her seat with Nancy Astor becoming known as the first female MP (after bye-election victory in 1919). Last month, Irish politicians travelled to Westminster to present the Countess’s portrait to the House of Commons as part of an exhibition celebrating the centenary of women gaining the right to vote. Of course, Countess Markievicz went on to become one of the first female cabinet ministers in the world, having been appointed to the first Dáil government in 1919.
Ireland has form when it comes to powerful women - think of Gráinne Mhaol (Grace O’Malley), Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, former European Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. But, as the granddaughters of Markievicz, it’s dismal that since her appointment we’ve only had 18 other female members of cabinet. Today, only 35 out of 158 TDs are women, that’s 22.2 per cent of TDs - though in saying that, we’re better than the US, whose congress is 20 per cent women.
We currently have no female TDs in Clare, Cork East, Cork North Central, Cork North West, Cork South Central, Donegal, Kerry, Laois, Limerick County, Longford-Westmeath, Meath West, Roscommon-Galway, Sligo-Leitrim, Tipperary, Wexford, and Wicklow. Only 21 per cent of councillors up and down the country are women. At the current rate, it could take another 200 years to achieve gender balance. Quotas, already operating at a national level, are being floated for the locals. They are a sometimes divisive tool for gender equality, but they work. This summer, Mexico proved gender quotas work fast, after quotas introduced in 1996 resulted in a 48 per cent female incoming Congress.
Women for Election, founded in 2012, trains women for politics. Of the 194 women who won seats in the 2014 local elections, 50 per cent trained on our programmes. At the most recent general election in 2016, 40 per cent of first-time elected women TDs had taken the course, including deputies Catherine Martin and Lisa Chambers and minister Josepha Madigan.
So far this year, we’ve held ‘Inspire’ training days in Dublin and Cork, with more happening in Dublin on September 22 and in Galway on October 20. After May’s referendum, and with the local elections due next May and the possibility of a general election at any time, there is a buzzing political energy among Irish women. We say: now is our time.