A woman’s place is in parliament

As Irish readers of this blog will perhaps know, over the past 24 hours or so there has been a lot of comment on the internet, particularly on Twitter, about the performance of the Labour Party’s spokesperson on Finance, Joan Burton, on a late night television programme. The programme was maybe 10 minutes into its allotted time when tweets began to appear suggesting that she was not handling herself well, was being too aggressive, was showing hostility towards a fellow panelist, was shrill, wasn’t listening, and so forth. I was working on something else at the time and wasn’t watching the programme, but as the initial trickle of tweets began to turn into a flood I became transfixed by it. Here, apparently, a well known member of the Irish parliament had spun out of control and was in meltdown. By the end of the programme, on the basis of the tweets, it appeared her career was over.

The next morning I decided to watch a recording of the programme on the TV station’s website. As far as I could see, Ms Burton was indeed highly assertive, she did focus strongly on the particular panelist mentioned, and she rather doggedly pursued a few issues, perhaps beyond the point where it made sense to do so. But the impression given by the tweets that she had become hysterical and had lost it seemed to me to be very wide of the mark. Furthermore, she didn’t show any greater aggression than had been shown a couple of weeks earlier by party colleague Pat Rabitte on another TV programme, and he had on the whole been praised for this approach.

I cannot help wondering about all this. In the course of this week’s programme Ms Burton had herself at one point voiced the suspicion that an assertive woman is still not always respected in politics. She may be right. In fact, the atmosphere of our parliamentary proceedings, both in Ireland and in Britain, has still not shaken off the male-only atmosphere of the Victorian era. Proceedings are quite unruly and often seem childish and puerile to the casual spectator, with insults and taunts thrown across the floor as a matter of routine. Working hours are bizarre and, for practical purposes, make it impossible for a member to exercise family responsibilities. Some reforms have been attempted, but not enough. Women still leave politics because they cannot adapt their lives to the male bachelor traditions.

Experience in other countries should enlighten us a little. Finland, with a century old tradition of female parliamentarians, seems to have got it about right. Even in the United States Sarah Palin’s ‘Mama Grizzlies’ can enter Congress without much bother (though for other reasons one might wonder about them). It is time to stop instinctively thinking of women politicians as intruders in a man’s world. It is time to show that we are not all like Sky television football reporters.

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37 Comments on “A woman’s place is in parliament”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    quite appropriate that you use the adjective ‘hysterical’ above in fact hysteria has traditionally been viewed as a a “female malady” starting with Hippocrates’s explanation of the disease as a “wandering uterus”, hysteria has been linked to the feminine, irrational, emotional, and sexually unrestrained. The social, economic, and political upheavals of the nineteenth century complicated conventional gender norms and brought discussion of hysteria into a larger cultural context and hysteria was used to reaffirm gender stereotypes, especially when a woman did not comform to the expected behaviour. Looks like the comformity mechanisms set in place then are still at work today :( Needless to say this a topic familiar to anyone working in the gender studies field (E. Showalter Hystories: Hysteria, gender and culture
    (1998) but as the episode you mention seems to confirm still worth pondering today..

  2. jfryar Says:

    I can’t help but notice that, after a well written and argued piece on the need for more women in parliment and the culture preventing that, Ads by Google added a link to a ‘Stunning Moldova Women’ internet wives site.

    Perhaps Google disagrees with you, Ferdinand?

  3. Vincent Says:

    Ah come on now. Burton was going after Joe Higgins, baldheaded. What the Rabitte did was to filet the Government representative on that panel.
    Further you can actually see that Labour feels it’s real enemy in the election will be those left of them. They are all forgetting that huge numbers of the population have the ability to parse. You lot have seen to that, thanks.

  4. Al Says:

    Watch it again.
    Twas not impressive
    In saying that it takes serious talent to take on Joe higgins. She probably is doing too many things, and went in unprepared. There is a real possibility that labour will loose support on the outside flank to the ULA and instead of asking the voter to deliberate on their long term interest, it looked more like a drunk relative at a wedding.


    • I wasn’t particularly suggesting it was impressive – in fact, she would be well advised to think through her strategy. But it was not (as some have suggested) inarticulate, nor do I think that she was unprepared. Furthermore, my suspicion is that if a man had conducted himself in precisely the same way he wouldn’t have had this kind of response. Or maybe you only get praise if you rip into Fianna Fail?

      • Vincent Says:

        Spot on. There is no value for anyone ripping Joe a new one. Plus he now has a Seat anywhere he wants one.
        And it has nothing to do with her being a woman. And if FF decided to have a go at him, well they while stupid in other ways are not in this. Joe Higgins has that X-factor that’s sometimes conferred on Irish politicians. Noel Browne had it.

      • Al Says:

        There are degrees of articulation and preparedness. I would put it to you that it was not a high level of articulation, nor did it look to be prepared. The section on determining Mr Higgins correct title was cringeworthy.

        I think that I am an equal oppurtunities cringer, but will have to think through my last few episodes of political cringing to determine my case.
        Tis gilding the lilly a little too much to link all these (VB show, Sky sports, Female Parlimentarians) together within this post.

        It would become distracting from greater issues to keep focused on Ms Burton’s performance. Labour should be looking at this in terms of the danger of their support, partially induced from the anger out there, being taken from them by a semi organised left flank.
        They should be out on the media speaking to the angry populace about the importance of directing that anger into government rather than opposition. 1 year in government being worth 10 years of opposition oratory, and all that.


        • I’m curious about the view being expressed that JB was ‘unprepared’. I have now watched the whole thing again, and I see no evidence of that whatsoever. If anything she had all the facts and figures very readily at her fingertips.

          • Al Says:

            Unprepared in the strategic sense of how to handle VB and JH, both separately and together.
            It is all good having your figures ready, but if the form of contest addresses issues like titles, etc, then would you consider that a full preparation.
            Now in saying this, it is just an opinion from a spectator. If I had been through a VB show and held my own, etc, then I would take my opinion a little more seriously!!

  5. Andrew M Says:

    I agree completely about the tone on twitter (and on a certain popular Irish web forum, and in various IRC channels) being completely over the top about it. She didn’t come off well, and the word “harangue” is now going to have her picture next to it in the dictionary, but she certainly hasn’t lost my vote because of it.

    She desperately needs a PR/image consultant, though.

  6. Padraig McKeon Says:

    I’m one of those that commented on Twitter and I thought her performance was appalling.

    I never consciously considered gender. I DID consider that this is a prosective if not presumptive Minister in our next government and my assessment is very much in that context. Joe Higgins as others have noted is a skilled operator, but his form and style is well known. Vincent Browne likewise is a challenging anchor, but his methods can be predicted. I have no doubt that she went into the engagement with a determination to be firm and not to be messed about by the ways of the said gentlemen or indeed anyone else – and rightly so.

    With all those factors covered, I would expect a prospective Minister to be able to command the room – hold her own line, rise above the guerilla tactics of the opponent and face down the challenge of the anchor. She achieved none of these and instead sank below them. I don’t think gender was anything to do with it – it was just a shockingly poor performance relative to what we might expect from a senior figure. I believe that the performance in itself does raise issues as to the capability of the party to contribute to government because if this is one of the best that they have…? It is worth noting too that many viewers will have plugged into this broadcast having seen two very poor performances by other Labour party representatives in panel discussions earlier the same evening and on the previous evening.

    FWIW I thought Rabbitte was well over the top in his attack on Pat Carey in the previous programme that you mentioned. My overriding memory of that broadcast was the silent dignity of Carey who was sent out by Government to defend the indefensible and refrained from attacking the opposition. His silence was more telling but honourable than many of the bellicose defences mounted by his various colleagues.

    In general, a little more of that type of maturity and calm at the microphone on the part of our senior politicians would serve us better and might persuade us to believe that there are qualities of leadership therein.

  7. Cathy Says:

    Two questions: Do we elect our representatives on the basis of performance in the media? and is that performance an indicator of an ability to govern the country?

    • Padraig McKeon Says:

      It may seem like a weak basis on which to do but I believe that it is now a significant influence in peoples’ thinking.

      Personally I would see it as A measure – one of many. In that regard, and allowing that I make my living in communications, there are two – arguably contradictory – sides to my take on such performances. I would be careful not to read too much into a polished performance as folk can practice and train to achieve same – it is as likely to be a performance as the real thing. On the other hand, I would take some heed of a poor showing as that is evidence of the interviewees ability under pressure. That is a factor.

      No one media outing should be the sole judge of a politician but their performance in the media over time has to be.

      • anna notaro Says:

        This last point connects nicely with the previous post ‘The importance of good (political) communication’, in addition we now have the gender dimension…having watched the clip in question, as an outsider observer (i.e. somebody not not living in Ireland)I cannot find any justification for the comments on Twitter or elsewhere besides the obvious:(‘some’) men are extremely uneasy (and not necessarily consciously)when dealing with assertive women, in 2011…

        • Donnacha Tynan Says:

          How was she assertive??? She went on a rant..repeatedly cut across Joe Higgins and Vincent Brown. Now this is not too unusual on political programmes but it is the amount of times she interupts another panelist that is unusual. Please can all women out there look at the footage objectively and not through some weird feminist glaze. Would this be acceptable from a man if the roles were reversed?? Absolutely not he would be called a bully and a sexist pig, outcast from his political organisation and may lose his job as a result. Please try to treat BOTH women and men equally. I watched the worst ten minutes and I cant remember one minute of good discussion. The reason I cant is that

          1. Joan Burton lied and was caught out by Vincent Brown
          2. She refused to let Joe Higgins get two words out of his mouth
          3. She constantly tried to play the victim card in order to get her way.


    • I do think that a skillful media performance can make a difference; and, as Padraig says, a bad performance (or a series of these) can help to sink a politician, as was almost certainly the case with Brian Cowen.

      Then again, media skills are not enough for a competent government. They won’t help to mask failure; but they will help to communicate success.

      This being an age of instant media, it is I think necessary for a successful politician to have some ability to communicate.

  8. Ryan Says:

    Glad this was written – I had the same thoughts but thought I might be being a little too gender-sensitive.

    But thinking it through – if Rabbitte had referred to Joe Higgins as ‘Your MEPship’ wouldn’t we have added it to our lists of favourite Rabbitte witticisms? He certainly wouldn’t be accused of being ‘cranky’ – such a derogatory word. Heaven forbid a woman is just angry.

  9. Michael O'Brien Says:

    Some of what Burton said was plain factually wrong. For example claiming that Joe Higgins did not have a position on the bank guarantees and that he carries political responsibility for positions that other parties like Sinn Fein took just because he was in a technical group with them.

    For those who do not know (which doesn’t include Ms Burton) every independent deputy or party with less than seven deputies which wants speaking time have to come together to form a technical group for that purpose. It does not imply any level of political agreement.

    For Burton to have raised that was desperate stuff. The constant interruptions and the accusation that members of the Socialist Party are incapable of ‘independent thought’ and the your MEPship jibe were just plain ignorant.

    That the blogger cannot see this says more about his political prejudice. Ms Burton’s gender is an irrelevance. Consider for example the even greater coverage of Conor Lenihan’s meltdown on VB last week.


    • ‘Even greater coverage’? Nonsense.

      As for some of the other stuff you object to, it’s just the normal cut and thrust of debate. Joe Higgins when on the Dail was famous for making such contributions himself.

      • Al Says:

        It’s not just a case of landing the punches. Consideration is also needed for how many are thrown. Pat rabbitte and Joe higgins usually land the first one they throw, cleanly, on the jaw, clear ko’s. And Joan regularly does this herself, and would probably go through all or us for a shortcut.
        However, the incident in question leaves room for reflection. I don’t intend talking about Joan Burton further. she has better counsel than us.

  10. eoinaldo Says:

    Might this not be a case of the subjective bias of twitter users?

  11. Conor Williams Says:

    Isn’t this just another longwinded way of you telling us that university staff work all the hours God sends, busy at their computers at 11:10 pm at night? None of us believes that line either judging by the darkened offices I see in DCU at 7 pm every evening.

    Putting aside her behaviour the question is what do YOU think of the views she expressed? Or did you watch the programme for some other reason?

  12. Andy Says:

    Do me a favour, love.

  13. Dan Says:

    Just watched that as an extended clip on YouTube. I didn’t think that Joan Burton was particularly bad. Joe Higgins happily dishes it out – he got some back here.

    I did think though that Vincent Browne was a bit of a hypocrite. He asked Burton a question, then immediately interrupted her; she requested that he listen and not harangue her. Thereafter, for the rest of the interviews, he constantly and gleefully accused her of “haranguing” Joe Higgins – it looked like vengefulness to me and a bit like petty bullying. It is clear though, that there is growing scrap on the left for this election – what good that will do the country remains to be seen…


  14. [...] As Irish readers of this blog will perhaps know, over the past 24 hours or so there has been a lot of comment on the internet, particularly on Twitter, about the performance of the Labour Party's spokesperson on Finance, Joan Burton, on a late night television programme. The programme was maybe 10 minutes into its allotted time when tweets began to appear suggesting that she was not handling herself well, was being too aggressive, was showing hos … Read More [...]

    • Lois Says:

      its what you do rather than what you say (or how you say it) that is the greater measure of a person. talk is cheap

  15. Eoin Ryan Says:

    Having watched the 5 minute clip on youtube, I thought that Vincent Brown was the petulant and cranky one.

    Joan should have taken the high ground, but instead was drawn down into the mire.

    I’d tend to let them both away with it, since it was a long day at the end of a long week. Probably both fairly knackered.

    The clip was a bit of a damp squib in my opinion – certainly compared to it’s trending on twitter. It definitely didn’t deserve that kind of attention.

    • Padraig McKeon Says:

      Eoin, it is indeed a long week… but the programme was broadcast live on Monday night?

      Eoinaldo, you are absolutely right to shine a light on selective bias among the Irish Twitter community although it should be said that in this instance, the performance was ajudged as poor by tweople of all political perspectives.

      Finally it is worth noting that people generally only see something once and are gone. Very few people do what many of us here have done – watch a programme over again – and as such in some respect the over analysis is misplaced as it does not reflect how a broadcast would be viewed by the average viewer.

      • Eoin Ryan Says:

        By no means was the weekend restful for anyone involved in politics!

        Sure didn’t the government collapse on Sunday live on TV?!

        I would guess that everyone on the panel was fairly exhausted and as such would cut them a bit of slack.

        On the main points of Ferdinand’s blog, I agree completely with him that the procedures and habits of our elected need to be swept away and replaced with new arrangements more suited to our modern world.

        • Padraig McKeon Says:

          While my point on the time of week was somewhat tongue in cheek, I take the point about all days running into each other last week. That said, such pressures come with the territory and I don’t accept that they should get a little slack

  16. Alan Brophy Says:

    I couldn’t agree more, well put.

  17. Colum McCaffery Says:

    Let’s be clear about what happened on the VB programme. Joe LIED; he knew the numerical position in the Dáil very well – and he lied. VB allowed him to lie without interruption. VB also declined to ask him about reversing particular cuts. Joan was treated very differently and she walked into it. I know Joan reasonably well. I reckon she’ll be furious with herself for not anticipating the trap and she’ll be determined to avoid it in future. She’ll be fine.

    What happened and similar will be repeated over and over again during the election campaign and Labour speakers will have to remain calm. Both liberals and fringe leftists need to defeat Labour. Liberals need moreover to portray socialism as “impractical”. Media people antagonistic to the socialist perspective will bring on fringe leftists to do their work for them. Joe’s function during the campaign will be familiar: to perform and present “genuine” socialism as defined by the right and so firstly, to undermine the credibility of socialism and secondly, to portray Labour as not socialist or the same as the liberals. Labour speakers will need to remain calm and present socialism as an entirely practical proposition in the face of ALL opponents.

    • Baroslaw Says:

      Colum that’s not true. If Labour had kept that motion of no confidence on the table the Greens would have been obliged to support it- they had already signalled their own lack of confidence in withdrawing, and to vote against the Labour motion would have finished them as a political force forever. On that basis they would most likely have supported the Labour motion meaning the government would have fallen.

      As for Labour being socialist, that’s a complete joke- they have signed up to the target of reducing the deficit to 3% by 2015, and have outlined no alternative programme that doesn’t include cuts. They’ve also said they won’t be reversing cuts if they got into power, which presumably means PS pay cuts and the minimum wage cut will be copperfastened. That’s before we mention their support for the neo-liberal Lisbon Treaty, Pat Rabbitte on the Frontline in October when he said Labour had no problems with privatising semi-states like the ESB. The establishment are using Labour as attack dogs to do down the ULA and SF, and that’s going to back fire big time


      • Baroslaw,
        The problem with your assertion is that the Greens didn’t feel obliged and said that they were going to oppose the Labour no-confidence motion. The notion that Labour is secretly in favour of the Finance Bill is risible. Be sensible, a secret supporter would hardly table a no-confidence motion in the first place!

        By the way, why not post your name?

  18. Cian C Says:

    ‎”she didn’t show any greater aggression than had been shown a couple of weeks earlier by party colleague Pat Rabitte on another TV programme, and he had on the whole been praised for this approach.”

    thats not true, and one of the big differ…ences between the two is pat allowed other people to speak and didnt do things like calling joe you MEPship in a condesending manner or several other things joan did, the two are not equivocal (allthough i do think pat was just a little too agressive and personal too (personally i prefer cool rational debate))

    “Proceedings are quite unruly and often seem childish and puerile to the casual spectator, with insults and taunts thrown across the floor as a matter of routine.”

    ill agree entirely with that, it needs to change.

    “Working hours are bizarre and, for practical purposes, make it impossible for a member to exercise family responsibilities.”

    if they arnt in parliment at odd hours they would be out at the local charity\sports\whatever event ensuring their reelection anyway. you cant legislate against that. also it is sometimes nessessary or a good idea to work late to say get the finance bill passed and have an election. politics is an all consuming beast, but i would contend we should change peoples attitudes twoards the role of women as the one that manages a family as opposed to change the law.

    “It is time to stop instinctively thinking of women politicians as intruders in a man’s world.”

    Who thinks that?! i mean im not sure weather to consider that a straw man or the real opinion of a minority of chauvanists.

  19. Donnacha Tynan Says:

    Just stumbled across this from another site. How can you draw your conclusions after watching the programme.

    You described her as “highly assertive” no im afraid that is not an accurate description at all. She refused to let Joe Higgins finsh, if she was being highly assertive as you say she would have let him finish his speel and then attacked agressively using direct examples to amplify her points.

    It is so easy for Women to now play the sexism card…I wonder would or could a man accuse a woman of being sexist were the roles reversed. The sad reality is it is one rule for men and a different rule for women at the moment and people are starting to realise that the feminist agenda has gone too far. Im all for equal rights…but this is ridiculous.


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