Minister Madigan speaking at the Fem Fest conference
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I am very honoured and excited to have been asked to speak at this year’s FemFest.
On behalf of the Government, your Government, I want to congratulate Orla and Laura and the wider team in the National Women’s Council of Ireland, for organising today’s event. In December we marked 100 years since women were allowed to vote and run for election. Today’s event is one of a small number of events that the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is supporting financially in recognition of this very special centenary. Crucially, by being here today, we are all carrying on that struggle for full equality.
It is in 1919 that I would like to start, before moving to Ireland today and the issues affecting young women like you.
I’d like you to imagine this for a moment:
A little over 100 years ago, no woman in this room, solely because she was female, was permitted to run for election in this country. As a woman in Ireland, no matter how educated or intelligent, it could not be done. Even if that woman was bursting with ideas and reforming policies, she could not bring them forward. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t contemplate it, it was simply that she was prohibited to do so by law. Her thoughts and ruminations of a better society would have to remain in her mind and in her dreams at night. She could, of course, share her views and opinions with her husband, brother, father or other male relative or friend. He, if he was inclined to listen to her, might consider her statements good enough to carry forward. But he might not. He wasn’t obliged to do so. For the majority of women, it was easier to say nothing, to remain mute and to know your place. That is understandable. Tasked with rearing families, household duties & volunteerism, there was enough work to keep a woman occupied. But yesterday’s woman of a 100 years ago was a subspecies. She was discriminated against since the day of her birth, her femininity a handicap, her capabilities and opportunity to contribute to public life blatantly repressed. But who would dare try change it?
Well for some women, to have to remain consistently submissive and subservient to the male gender had taken its toll. They knew, deep in the recesses of their collective psyche, that it wasn’t alone the fact that women had views to express but that there was an accepted, tolerated and innate prejudice against us because we were women. That being female was lesser than being male. That we were not equal. We were not equal because the law explicitly said so. These courageous suffragettes wanted to change the status quo. And so the fight began. And let’s be honest here. It was a fight. Women were jailed, pilloried and abused. But they rallied together, holding public & private meetings, shared leaflets and postcards and put up posters with words like ‘’Women can canvass! Why can’t they vote!”
These magnificent women, some of them in their teens and twenties, methodically, meticulously and bravely disseminated information to all in their path. I pay tribute today to all the suffragettes who, because of their efforts on our behalf paved the way for women to take their rightful and necessary place in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. Countess Markievicz stood for election just over 100 years ago. She was only one of sixteen women candidate throughout Ireland and the UK to put their name on the ballot paper. She was the only woman elected with 7,835 votes or 65.9% of the poll in the constituency of Dublin St. Patrick’s. She also later represented my own constituency of Dublin Rathdown. I also sit under her portrait at Cabinet, her face the sole female among the eight male portraits of illuminaries like Pearce, Emmet, Parnell, Grattan, Wolfetone, O’Connell and Sarsfield. I sit around the cabinet table 100 years later, the 19th female cabinet minister with the 18th Regina Doherty, the 16th Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the 15th Heather Humphreys and the 10th Katherine Zappone.
Although women could finally vote and stand for election, this was a qualified freedom as the representation of the people Act specified that in order to vote a woman had to be at least 30 years of age & either married to a man who owned property or owned it herself. Despite this ridiculous restriction the electorate expanded significantly from 700,000 to two million people.
I am ashamed to say that not alone did it take another 60 years for a woman to take a seat at the Cabinet table, it also took a further decade before the full equal franchise was extended to all women over the age of 21 regardless of property qualification via the Representation of the People Act 1928.
I’m sad to say it but 100 years on, Countess Markievicz’s work remains unfinished. 100 years on, we have not achieved full equality in this country. At 22% in Dáil Éireann & 32% in Seanad Éireann, female representation in the houses of the Oireachtas is way behind what it should be. We must take up the mantle once worn by Countess Markievicz and so many inspiring women like her and work to ensure that our progress continues.
It is not that women are better or worse than men but we do bring a different perspective, a perspective that is sorely needed not just in government but throughout our society. We know from experience that diversity of opinion leads to better decision making.
The good news is that we are making progress.
Fine Gael has shown admirable leadership in building a republic of opportunity where everyone is afforded the chance to realise their potential – I was delighted when I heard that Ellen has agreed to stand for Fine Gael in the next election. We are leading the way in promoting women candidates for both local elections and the General Election. The last Fine Gael Government introduced gender quota legislation. This obliged all political parties to have women making up at least 30 per cent of their candidates or risk having their State funding cut by half.
Having said that, we need to give serious consideration to raising this bar higher though and doing it urgently. I know that the need for more women to be represented in politics, business and the media was one of the issues identified in the Femfest workshops that took place over the last month
Hand-in-hand with this push for greater female representation in our politics is the push for gender equality in business and public life. Currently the “representative” institutions of our state fall far below 50%. This Government has put a priority on achieving progress in this area.
The Gender Pay Gap Bill is making its way through the Oireachtas and will compel employers with a certain number of staff to publish information on the gender pay gap in their firm.
Last July I had the pleasure of launching gender equality policy statements by 10 of Ireland’s leading theatre groups. This laudable and significant development saw these leading bodies in Irish drama commit to, among other measures, achieving equality of gender of board members and an allocation of 50% of a new play commissions to women writers.
In December I also launched a particularly special initiative, the Markievicz Bursaries, awards to assist women artists and writers in producing new work that reflects on the role of women.
I must also mention the huge step that was taken in May last.
As the campaign co-ordinator for Fine Gael’s campaign for a Yes, I was so proud of the resounding yes from the people of Ireland. Over two-thirds of the population voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the exact opposite of the vote thirty-five years previously. It was a heart-warming reflection of the caring and compassionate Ireland that we live in. It also wouldn’t have been possible without the campaigning of the National Women’s Council over many years.
This change showed the power that women of all ages have when they make their voices heard.
I would encourage every one of you here today to work together, campaign and speak out for the changes that our country still needs.
If you need motivation, you need look no further than the women speaking today, including Vicky Phelan, Martina Fitzgerald, Suzy Byrne and Mary McAuliffe. All are truly inspiring women.
I would like to leave you with a quote from the wonderful Mexican poet Octavio Pax in Eagle or Sun, which to me epitomises the struggle women have endured up to this point while also recognising that at this crossroads it is up to us to forge a path forward in the right direction:
“With great difficulty advancing by millimetres each year, I carve a road out of the rock. For milleniums my teeth have wasted and my nails broken to get there, to the other side, to the light and the open air. And now that my hands bleed and my teeth tremble, unsure in a cavity cracked by thirst and dust, I pause and contemplate my work. I have spent the second part of my life breaking the stones, drilling the walls, smashing the doors, removing the obstacles I placed between the light and myself in the first part of my life.’’