Women's Parliamentary Representation since 1922

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Women's Parliamentary Representation since 1922

In the 1918 general election, the last all-Ireland election to Westminster (British parliament), Constance Gore-Booth (Countess Markievicz) was the first woman to be elected to Parliament. One year later, she had the distinction of being the first woman in Europe to hold government office when she was appointed minister for labor in the first Dáil. Markievicz's political success suggests that the Irish public and its political leaders viewed women's holding of high office with equanimity, but the next decades would prove otherwise. By the end of the 1930s the fourteen women (nine in the Dáil and five in the Seanad) who had entered Parliament following independence left politics, to be replaced by seven new women. In 1969 there were only three women in the Dáil, and none of them had cabinet experience. Women's presence in Parliament began to gradually improve from this point on, and in 2001 women held a modest twenty-one seats (13%) in the Dáil and eleven (18%) seats in the Seanad. Women also had made it into government office; in 2001 three women (20%) held ministerial offices and a further four (23%) were junior ministers.

Women have been similarly represented in Northern Ireland's electoral politics. Between 1921 and 1972 (when the Northern Ireland devolved parliament was suspended), nine women held seats (were members of Parliament) in the Northern Ireland Assembly and only one, Dame Dehra Parker, served in government (held ministerial office as well as being a member of Parliament). In general elections during this fifty-year period only three women won Westminster (British Parliament) seats. In the next three decades, women's absence from political life in Northern Ireland (with notable exceptions) was exacerbated by the "Troubles." The 1996 IRA cease-fire, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the restoration of devolved government combined to provide women with renewed political opportunities. In the 1998 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, fourteen women (13%) won seats and two women (16%) were appointed ministers in Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive. This progress continued in 2001: In the local elections women's presence increased from 86 seats (14%) to 108 seats (19%), and in the general election a record three women (17%) were elected to Westminster.

Influencing Success

A combination of individual and system-related factors act to support women's advancement in political life in Ireland. There are three main routes to national and regional politics: political parties, a family connection to politics, and community activism or local-government service. In addition, party ideology, the electoral system, and voter attitudes toward women as political decision-makers are important influences. Membership in an established political party is the dominant factor, because either party officials invite women community leaders to run for election on their ticket or because party notables support women activists. A family tradition of political involvement is a second important factor. Party and family interact to socialize women into politics, demystifying power and teaching women the rules of the political game. Although the power of the political dynasty has decreased over time, it is still a feature of political life in Ireland: nine (33%) of the new women elected to the Dáil in the 1990s were the daughters of former (male) politicians. Community activism, including involvement with women's groups, is the third most significant route to political life for women in the Republic and also has been a major factor in women's participation in Northern Ireland politics since 1998. As with the political-family factor, activism socializes women civic leaders to political life and encourages them to seek more political power. Careers are most likely when women contest elections under a party ticket, again reinforcing the role of party politics as the gatekeeper to political life. The majority of women, and men, begin their formal political careers in local politics, using it as a stepping-stone to higher political office.

Particular features of the political system—the ideological position of parties, a proportionalrepresentation electoral system and a relative willingness by voters to support women candidates—are also significant in bringing women into elected politics. Parties in both the North and South that occupy centrist or left-wing ideological positions and new parties are more likely to have women representatives. In addition, a proportional-representation voting system does not disadvantage women's candidacies, while the electorate in both the North and South is quite open to voting for women candidates from their preferred party when given the opportunity to do so. It has been found that electoral systems based on proportional models are more favorable to women's representation than majoritarian systems (Norris 2000). All elections in the Republic of Ireland are conducted under a form of proportional representation—the single transferable vote—in multimember constituencies. Voters can choose along a number of dimensions, including party and individual, and can also indicate their second, third, and further preferences. Local and regional elections in Northern Ireland are conducted under similar electoral rules as those in the south. Research indicates that the major factor influencing the gender composition of the Dáil is incumbency (Galligan, Laver, and Carney 1999). It also suggests that voters are quite happy to vote for women candidates, especially women incumbents. In both Northern Ireland and the Republic, the election of women candidates closely correlates with their proportion of total candidates; thus, in the 2001 elections in Northern Ireland, women constituted 19 percent of candidates and won 19 percent of local council seats.

Impact of the Women's Movement

The dominance of conservative sociocultural and religious attitudes that have conferred on women second-class citizenship accounts for women's absence from political life in Ireland until the 1970s. The emergence in the 1970s of the civil-rights and feminist movements in the North and South, influenced by similar developments in Britain and the United States, brought the position of women under public scrutiny and debate. However, in Northern Ireland the slide into political conflict (the "Troubles") cut short the potential of the women's movement to raise women's aspirations toward holding political office. When the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the long-running conflict emerged in 1996, the women's movement mobilized to win representation to the multiparty peace talks; this led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, a feminist party with a membership drawn from both nationalist and unionist communities. In subsequent elections the presence of the Women's Coalition prompted longer-established parties to pay greater attention to women's political presence; in 2001 this resulted in the selection of a greater proportion of women candidates for the general election and, importantly, placement of women candidates in contests for winnable seats.

The women's movement in the Republic of Ireland was conscious of the need to increase women's presence in parliament, and the Women's Political Association was formed in the 1970s to achieve this end. The WPA continued to advocate for women candidates throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in that period three women's movement leaders were successfully elected. During the 1990s arguments by party feminists for increasing women's representation in the political sphere began to have greater influence. Although the main parties stopped short of introducing quotas to boost women's presence, they tried, with varying degrees of commitment, to encourage women to run for political office. The success of the women's movement in bringing women into politics was evident with the election of Mary Robinson as president in 1990 and Mary McAleese as her successor in 1997.

The Future

The influx of women into politics in Northern Ireland since 1998 indicates the emergence of a degree of political stability in this troubled region. The risk facing women's continued political presence is a breakdown in the "peace process" and a return to the conflict of former years. In this eventuality many of the women holding assembly seats are likely to disengage from electoral politics—returning the political space to a virtual male monopoly—because a return to violence would make it difficult, indeed dangerous, for them to be politically aligned. Elected representatives and their families were (and in some areas continue to be) singled out for death threats, intimidation, and other forms of violence. Many women MLAs still speak of experiencing localized intimidation in their constituencies towards themselves and their families. If there is a return to violence, the risk to their lives and family members' lives would escalate.

Women in politics face an uncertain future in the coming years. The high turnover in women's representation in 1997 was repeated in 2002, with five (24%) established female legislators losing their seats. While this loss was offset with the election of five new women and two former women TDs regaining their seats, the overall representation of women in Parliament languishes at twenty-two (13%). The number of new women winning political office is too low to make an impact on the gender balance in the Dáil, and high levels of voter volatility suggest that parties may be less inclined to select significant numbers of women candidates.

Countering this conservatism are new legislative and policy-oriented measures adopted by the British and Irish governments to encourage the selection of more women for political office. In 2001 the House of Commons adopted the Sex Discrimination (Election of Candidates) Act providing that parties could develop positive measures for candidate selection to redress the existing gender imbalance in Westminster and the devolved legislatures. In the same year, the Irish government provided medium-term financial support to parties aimed at developing capacity-building programs for potential women candidates. While the efficacy of these measures will be tested in time, they offer the possibility of a more hopeful future for women's political representation on the island of Ireland.

SEE ALSO Markievicz, Countess Constance; Parker, Dame Dehra; Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Robinson, Mary; Primary Documents: From the Report of the Commission on the Status of Women (1972)


Fearon, Kate. Women's Work: The Story of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. 1999.

Galligan, Yvonne. "Women in Politics." In Politics in the Republic of Ireland, 3d edition, edited by John Coakely and Michael Gallagher. 1999.

Galligan, Yvonne, Eilis Ward, and Rick Wilford. Contesting Politics: Women in Ireland, North and South. 1999.

Galligan, Yvonne, Michael Laver, and Gemma Carney. "The Effect of Candidate Gender on Voting in Ireland, 1997." Irish Political Studies 14 (1999): 118–122.

McNamara, Maedhbh, and Paschal Mooney. Women in Parliament: Ireland, 1918–2000. 2000.

Norris, Pippa. "Women's Representation and Electoral Systems." In Encyclopaedia of Electoral Systems, edited by Richard Rouse. 2000.

Yvonne Galligan

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Women's Parliamentary Representation since 1922

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Women's Parliamentary Representation since 1922