Speech at a meeting of the International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses
Dublin Castle, Sunday 9 September 2018
A Cheann Comhairle,
A Theachta Dalaí,
A dhaoine chóir,
A chairde gael,
May I thank you, Ceann Comhairle, for your most generous introduction. It is a great honour for me to join you all in the opening of the International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses this evening.
What a splendid gathering it is – present and former members of Dáil and Seanad, delegates from forty parliaments, female ambassadors accredited to Ireland, a stellar programme of speakers for tomorrows sessions – formidable and wonderful.
This assembly is taking place in the centenary year of the some of the most important victories in the long and continuing struggle for women’s rights on these islands. In December, we shall recall the general election of 1918, the first election on our islands held following the extension of the franchise to some women, and the first to recognise the right of women to sit in parliament.
The first woman elected in that election of 1918, Constance Markiewicz, would go on to take her seat, not in the Westminster Parliament, but in the 1st Dáil Éireann, the legislative assembly of the revolutionary Irish Republic. On the first meeting of the 1st Dáil Éireann, she was recorded as ‘fé ghlas ag Gallaibh’ – detained by a foreign enemy – as she was then interned in Holloway Prison, the site in which so many suffragettes had been imprisoned before her.
By her words and by her example, she inspired generations of Irish women and men, not only as the first Minister of Labour in the insurgent Republic, nor only as a soldier during the battle for our independence, but as a feminist and an internationalist.
Such a commitment must be recognised for its exceptional breadth. Feminists of the period in so many political and ideological movements had to struggle for parity of esteem for women’s rights, their articulation of such issues often tolerated at best.
The Irish Women’s Parliamentary Caucus are the inheritors of a heroic tradition of seeking equality for women, both within and beyond shared political projects and movements. How most fitting then that in in this the most auspicious of years Ireland’s hosting of the International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses is providing an opportunity not only to celebrate that which has been achieved but to consider all that must still be done to advance and achieve the economic, social, political and cultural rights of women in this century and the next.
Each Caucus represented here today draws strength from their own history of representative democracy, whether it is from the magnificent oratory of Shirley Chisholm, the capacity for leadership displayed by Barbara Castle, or the courage demonstrated by Joyce Banda in leading her country. May I take this opportunity to pay a special tribute to a most distinguished parliamentarian, Harriet Harman, who followed in the footsteps of Barbara Castle and Betty Boothroyd by making a remarkable contribution to the cause of social justice and equality in her own country. Very few parliamentarians can boast of a legislative achievement with such transformative potential as the Equality Act of 2010.
Such parliamentary achievements are accomplished not only by the endeavours of individuals, but by the great movements of thought and action which gave life to the struggle for women’s emancipation across the world – the demands for civic equality in the 1860s, the suffragists and the suffragettes of the early twentieth century, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the encuentros feministas of the 1980s, all of those struggles for rights contested, whether won or still to be won, across the planet.
In our own time, a confident and renewed feminism is now sustaining, transforming and achieving in new circumstances, and I am confident will continue to sustain, not only advances in the economic and social spheres, but also in parliaments across the world.
We can now speak of a fourth-wave of feminism, a feminism global in its scale and in its ambition and universal in its solidarity, dedicated to confronting some of the most pervasive structures of oppression which yet still remain. Yes, it is about participation, but it is also about transformation in the fullest possible sense of achievement of equality and the deepening of democracy in our institutions.
In 2015, the Ni Una Menos mobilisations against domestic abuse and femicide in Argentina directly inspired, a year later, the Non Una Di Meno marches throughout cities in Italy. In Spain, on International Women’s Day this year, 5 million women and men joined a 24-hour strike against gender inequality at home, in the workplace and in the public square. Globally, the revelations and discussions associated with hashtag MeToo have brought a new vigour to the campaign against violence and harassment against women in the workplace.
As a fellow-traveller of the women’s movement in our own country for my whole political life, may I say that I am delighted to see it so vibrant, so full of confidence, and capable of overturning all those still surviving injustices. It is shaping to be a most powerful emancipatory force, and I do believe that power needs to be redefined so that we can hear the female voice on its own terms and have delivered for us all its full capacity for an inclusive discourse.
In such circumstances as this moment, with all its possibilities, this Congress is of vital importance, so may I extend my gratitude to Deputy Catherine Martin, the chair of the Caucus, and Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, deputy chair, and to all the Irish Caucus for the leadership they have demonstrated in hosting this first Congress in Ireland.
We cannot of course ignore the reality that this inaugural conference meets at a time, not only of possibility, but of profound uncertainty. Forty-three years ago, during the International Year for Women, the nations of the world met at the what would be the first World Conference on Women. Four years later, that conference yielded the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which obliges states to guarantee the same exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms on the basis of equality with men.
These commitments were re-iterated at the Fourth World Conference in Beijing in 1995, which emphasised that poverty and economic inequality so often thwarted the vindication of those rights. The Beijing Platform for Action explicitly recognised that women’s equal participation in all levels of political life and decision-making was vital, not only on the grounds of justice and democracy, but as a necessary precondition for the attainment of the goals of equality, development and peace to which all the Member States have committed themselves through the Charter of the United Nations.
Yes, there have been some movement in the battle for gender equality since 1995: 90% of children, of both genders, will now receive primary schooling in the developing world; maternal deaths have dropped by 45% since 2015; and nearly 24% of national parliamentarians are now women, up from 11% in 1995. Yet, as we all recognise, this reflects a slower pace of change than many of us had hoped, and indeed, reasonably expected.
The structural effects of globalisation on the international economy have both created and foreclosed opportunities for women, on occasion opening new possibilities for liberation, but also reinforcing and even exacerbating existing gender inequalities.
Vast new factories, for example, in Special Economic Zones in the Global South have emerged, predominately employing women and often subject to unsafe and hazardous conditions, as the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 so tragically demonstrated.
The workplace is now, in some settings more than ever, across the world, the site of struggle against sexism, discrimination and exploitation.
Women then too still carry the double burden of labouring in the fields and factories and in the house – the United Nations estimates that women do 3 times the amount of unpaid domestic labour and care work, so that on average women spend nearly 20% of their day undertaking the unpaid work necessary to sustain their families.
This struggle to assert the dignity of labour has been a long one. If I invoked the memory of our first female parliamentarian, Constance Markiewicz, I wish also to recall the legacy of her sister, the historically underestimated Eva Gore-Booth. In February 2018, Sabina and I had the enormous privilege of visiting the grave where Eva Gore-Booth and her partner, Esther Roper, now rest. It lies not far from Hampstead Heath. Their gravestone in St. John’s Churchyard is inscribed with the words of ancient Greek poetess: ‘love that is life is God’.
Eva Gore-Booth, poet, writer, Irish nationalist, differing from her sister, a pacifist. In her lifetime she was, as a trade unionist, a champion for the rights of all working people, but particularly women. She has been neglected in terms of her vital contribution to history, a neglect that has been corrected by her biographer, the historian Dr Sonja Tiernan. As a trade union leader, Eva Gore-Booth advocated for the right to vote not only as the vindication of a civic right, but also as a means to ensure the economic emancipation of women.
Over the past thirty years in the developed world, the limitations on the role of the State, the narrowing of the public realm and retrenchment of collective public provision has so often left the burden of caring and of responsibility to women, whether in education, housing, social care or health.
Of course, I am aware that I speak to an audience that is more aware of these injustices that anyone.
Three years ago in New York, the nations of the world agreed a landmark global agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It represents the shared ambitions and shared goals of the Members of the United Nations, and has the potential, if it is pursued with vigour, energy, and above all, with political will, to be the means by which we can confront the great challenges of our century.
Through the 2030 Agenda, states have pledged to achieve gender equality by eliminating discrimination and gender-based violence, recognising the value of unpaid work, and ensuring women’s full and equal participation in decision-making and full and equal access to economic resources. Most urgently, they have pledged to eradicate female genital mutilation, one of the most gross human rights abuses of our own time.
Accomplishing these tasks will demand international solidarity of the kind displayed by the women’s movements and their supporters through the years. Parliamentarians – more importantly women parliamentarians – will, in their capacity as legislators and as leaders, be at the very centre of decision-making. Indeed, one key indicator of success on that journey will be the proportion of women in each national parliament.
Though this Congress has and will bring together parliamentarians of diverse national traditions, politician allegiances, and partisan affiliations, we all share a common cause – the defence and advance of the political, civic, social and economic rights of women, wherever they may be, wherever they may live, hope and are struggling.
So as you face into the next one hundred years of struggle, not only of struggle but of achievement, may I, as President of Ireland, give you solidarity and support.