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Election of 30 female MLAs signals a sea change in our politics that is as welcome as it is overdue

But gender issue won't rest until half those returned to Stormont are women without anyone batting an eyelid, writes Gail Walker

Published 10/05/2016

DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly
DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly

Once upon a time - and not a very long time ago either - a focus on 'women in politics' here would suffer a twin attack. First, they would still be unionist or nationalist, regardless of gender. Second, those sectarian politics would take precedence over gender politics.

That was how it went, according, mainly but not exclusively, to men, but completely according to the same traditional view that saw every single type of politics here - socialism, civil rights, poverty, environment, employment - as secondary to the constitutional issue or the border.

In some ways, though, even the Women's Coalition (remember that decade-long outbreak of feminist activism?) somehow accepted that those two perceptions were valid and had to be overcome by a different politics altogether - one based on women's solidarity. And in our minds' eyes, so to speak, it was easy, imagining women involved in politics, to think of what used to be called 'rabid' women on both sides of the house, aggressively pursuing the old agendas of division.

But last Thursday 30 (yes, 30) women were returned to the Hill, compared to 20 returned in 2011. That of course is not the end of the issue. The end of the issue will be when women make up 50% of the MLAs returned without anyone batting an eyelid.

Most heartening was how time and again, constituency after constituency, women topped or near-topped the poll - Carla Lockhart, Joanne Bunting, Michelle McIlveen, Jo-Anne Dobson. And then there were the relative veterans such as Arlene Foster, Michelle Gildernew and Naomi Long. There were other very credible performances too - Emma Little Pengelly, Claire Hanna, and Clare Bailey (of the Greens, who beat SDLP deputy leader Fearghal McKinney), Kellie Armstrong, Megan Fearon, Catherine Seeley, Sandra Overend, Nichola Mallon, Claire Sugden... on it goes and doubtless I will get rapped for those I've omitted, but I list this sample purposely.

First of all, just look at the sheer number of women. Second, look at their diversity, not just in terms of party but in social profile. Some are high-profile media performers, others appear more destined to be party apparatchiks and strategists. A few seem destined to have a lower profile, Stormont equivalents of Westminster backbenchers, never having a day in the limelight.

In other words, women are on the verge of being everywhere and on all levels of the body politic here. Not window dressing, not show ponies and not politically correct tokens, as if their selection and election came with a kind of nod and wink from the boys higher up. No, this is a confident, self-assertive, self-assured lot - there on their merits.

What we saw in the counting centres and TV studios was inconceivable even 15 years ago: woman after woman giving victory speeches, telling Mark Carruthers what the question really was and denying leadership ambitions.

And it was all rather marvellous. It may be a bit frightening to start thinking about the next Assembly election, but what are the odds of all five of the big parties being led by women? Look at Scotland with Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservatives, and Kezia Dugdale heading up Scottish Labour.

What happened last weekend is real, radical change for Northern Ireland. The elevation of Foster to lead the DUP was among the most striking events of 2015, breaking the stereotype of that party as a gang of misogynists, rolling their bowler hats down the marble corridors in Stormont. She is absolutely a woman, with a woman's perspective that manifests itself through her leadership of the party. Amazing. That same energy and purpose is discernible in many of the other women MLAs.

Which is why it is puzzling that the rise of female MLAs seems to have been overlooked by the chattering classes. Some 28% of our elected representatives are women. The figure is 22% in the Dail. Surely that is cause for acclaim?

The problem is, of course, the profile just doesn't fit with the idea of 'women' being essentially a Left-leaning monolith - the Left which is, so they tell us, all about caring and sharing. Women must be same-sex marriage supporters and pro-choice, touchy-feelers and believers in big government. Anything else leads to deeply insulting and convoluted sexism, where Right-wing women are the 'product of a false gender consciousness' and stooges of the patriarchy. Or, in other words, really men.

Rather than accept that women have opinions that go right across the spectrum, the male-dominated commentariat don't seem to have recognised what has just happened to our politics.

It has changed, radically. The simple basic gender affinity which struggle against sexist adversity creates among successful women, without compromising their political principles, will alter the dynamics of politics here. Watching that happen will be one of the interesting exchanges of this new mandate.

For some women, the constitutional issue will still be key. Some others will be… well… politicians - that curious mixture of public service, vanity and deep-seated fear of being out of step.

Women are just as smart, just as vain, just as heroic, just as stupid, just as brave, just as foolish, just as principled and unprincipled as men.

Aren't we great?

Belfast Telegraph

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