This is a post originally published nearly two years ago, on 28th January 2015. What has changed? The good news is that our Deputy Leader, Clare Bailey, is now Clare Bailey MLA, having made joyful history in South Belfast.
What else? Yes, we have a woman Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street, following the breach of David Cameron’s promise to stay on whatever the referendum result. And one of the dominant parties in Northern Ireland is, for the time being at least, led by a woman. Sadly for the rest of us, in both of these cases, their primary role model seems to be Margaret Thatcher, the archetypal drawbridge ‘feminist’. Being a woman leader, for both Theresa May and Arlene Foster, apparently means trying to be more antagonistic, more arrogant and more intransigent than their male rivals. That is desperately sad, for all of us.
Genuine feminist leadership looks different. Genuine feminist leadership seeks respect, rather than fear, co-operation rather than naked power and empathy rather than prejudice. Genuine feminist leadership looks to empower all, especially those who are ignored, denigrated and insulted by traditional authority; the poor, the homeless, the LGBTQ community, and women denied the simple right to be trusted about their own reproductive health. It asks, and answers, the hard questions, and looks to the long term and the interests which we all share.
As we approach our own, seemingly now inevitable election, and the inauguration of America’s chillingly misogynist new president, I look to Clare, to Caroline Lucas, and to the strong Green women working across the world. And, despite everything, I still have hope.
One of the striking points about the recent election debates debate was the gender of the party leaders. All four of the BBC’s original invitees were, as we know only too well, men: Dave, Ed, Nick ‘n’ Nigel. For the mess they got themselves in, see my 15th January post. The three parties who were, following strong public feeling, eventually included, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, are all led by women. Finally, the traditional Northern Ireland parties who are now grumbling, and in some cases threatening legal action, without any notable public support, all have leaders who are … yes, you guessed it, men again.
It’s not conclusive, but it is interesting. From a quick trot around the records (so please correct me if I’m wrong), it appears that, apart from two Margarets*, none of the mainstream parties in either England or Northern Ireland has ever had a woman leader. Meanwhile, the UK has never had a woman Chancellor of the Exchequer or Foreign Secretary. The place for women in the Cabinet, it appears, is firmly in the Home.
*Thatcher, who could at best be called a drawbridge feminist, pulling the portcullis down sharply behind her, and Ritchie, who led the SDLP for twenty-one months before being shown a cliff and invited to jump.
In the Green Party, we’re trying to change this. We recognise that limiting women’s ambitions and roles is damaging for us all; for the women who could be great leaders, for the men who would benefit from working alongside them, for the electorate who need genuine representatives and for the next generation; our daughters and grand-daughters who will build upon our legacy. There are many barriers to women’s involvement in politics: expectations, assumptions, judgements and many practical difficulties. But, working together and with our male colleagues, we are beginning to overcome them. The Green Party in Northern Ireland in November launched our Changing the Conversation equality strategy, and elected Clare Bailey, Westminster candidate for South Belfast, as our Deputy Leader. We’re serious about supporting the talented and dedicated women in our Party; women like Jenny Muir, our Chair, and Georgia Grainger, Chair of the Young Greens in Northern Ireland. And I know from personal experience how much that kind of encouragement (and it is, literally, that, the imparting of courage) means.
So, if you’re looking to use your vote to bring about a genuinely progressive, equal and creative society, cherchez les femmes. Not the isolated, token females, awkwardly crammed into the middle of a sea of suits, trying to sound more macho than the men, or the over-groomed fragrant ladies, wives and daughters of the male power-brokers, but the real women, the ones who come in all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities and sexualities, the ones who know about life, the ones who laugh with their friends, and sometimes cry as well. The ones a bit like you.