Such hostility is predictable when you remember that just 19 women have sat at the Cabinet table, the top table in Irish politics, writes Daniel McConnell.

IS IT any wonder the cervical check scandal happened? Is it any wonder it took so long for the X case to be legislated for?

Speaking of which, is it any wonder the X case arose in the first place?

Is it any wonder that a taoiseach of the day felt it was OK to walk up behind a female rival in the Dáil chamber and pull her bra strap?

But in each of the above instances, the toxic impact of paternalism within the system in this country is clear to see.

The devastating report by Dr Gabriel Scally, released last month, included scathing criticism of the medical profession.

Male dominance in the healthcare sector was singled out for condemnation as the affected women pointed out that most of the doctors behind the failures to disclose information to female patients are men.

“The point was made that many of the major controversies about maltreatment of patients or denial of reproductive rights in the Irish healthcare system have involved women being damaged,” read the report.

“Why does it always happen to women?” one woman said to the scoping inquiry.

“I think there is a history of looking at women’s health services as being secondary,” said another.

Last week, saw the launch of Madam Politician: The Women at The Table of Irish Political Power by RTÉ’s political correspondent Martina Fitzgerald.

With any political book, you always look for the news hook, and Fitzgerald’s fascinating work did not disappoint.

Dripping with galling episodes of sexism and misogyny, the book revealed just how repressive Leinster House was.

The standout tale involved one time Fine Gael senator and later minister Gemma Hussey.

As a member of Seanad Éireann, she had sponsored a private members bill on rape which was being debated in the lower House, the Dáil.

She took her seat on the edge of the Dáil chamber and then it happened.

“There’s a circle that goes around above the chamber, where senators sit to observe Dáil debates. I was sitting there observing a debate when I felt a chuck on my bra strap at the back. I got a shock and I leapt to my feet,” she told Fitzgerald.

When she stood up and turned around she was confronted by none other than Charles J Haughey, the taoiseach, recently elected.

“He kind of gestured to me to sit down.” Then Haughey said to her: “I just wanted to say to you Senator — don’t worry about your bill. We will look after your bill because I have an excellent minister who will steer it through, Mr Sean Doherty.”

As the book states, Hussey, struggling for words, merely watched as Haughey moved away.

“I was dumbfounded, I was just amazed. I was kind of rendered speechless, really,” she said.

But it was not the first inappropriate encounter Hussey had had with Haughey. She also had another uncomfortable episode in his office when he was minister for health and he made a crude reference to the Billings method (a means of determining female fertility).

Today, as the book points out, such an incident would be legitimate grounds for resignation. But the mere fact that the most senior politician felt he could do it with impunity, speaks volumes as to the cold and dismissive attitude of official Ireland toward women.

The incident between Hussey and Haughey dates back some 30 years, but the CervicalCheck scandal shows that such deep-rooted hostilities are alive and well.

But such hostility is predictable when you remember that just 19 women have sat at the Cabinet table, the top table in Irish politics.

Is it any surprise that so many wrongs have occurred in the name of the Catholic Church when, as again revealed in the book, the late Pope John Paul II, so highly regarded and revered, felt it was appropriate and acceptable to demean President Mary McAleese when they met.

McAleese nails the late Polish pontiff for his “highly offensive” misogyny.

She said she was seriously offended by the pontiff purposely ignoring her when they were first introduced ahead of their much-publicised meeting during her presidency.

Rather than greeting McAleese, the Pope reached across to her husband, Martin, and said: “Would you not prefer to be the President of Ireland instead of your wife?”

McAleese, in the book, said “nobody else thought it was funny” and her husband was “mortified” by the Pope’s comment.

He knew by my face that I didn’t think it was funny. I did say to him, ‘you would never have done that to a male president’,” she said.

Her predecessor, Mary Robinson, when on the campaign trail for the Presidency in 1990 was branded a “Marxist, lesbian bitch” by a priest of Pope John Paul’s Church.

Time and again in Fitzgerald’s book, what is laid bare is the blatant contempt shown to the small band of women who sought to smash their way into the male-dominated, overly macho world of Leinster House.

The impact of male-only policymakers over so many decades led to such cruelties being inflicted upon so many for so long.

The scandal of the Kerry babies, the Ann Lovett tragedy, the Grace case, the Magdalen laundries, Tuam, and on and on and on are all symptoms of a paternal system which completely dismissed the female perspective.

Thanks to a deserved weakening in the stance of the Church in State affairs but also in the welcome increase in female participation in politics, such obscenities are hopefully consigned to the past.

But you would wonder when you read the contributions of newer Dáil entrants such as Josepha Madigan, Regina Doherty and Heather Humphreys.

As the book tells us, Doherty faced attitudes that were not dissimilar to those experienced almost 30 years earlier by women such as Maire Geoghegan-Quinn and Nora Owen.

When she first decided to run, comments were made to her about being seven months pregnant and she encountered people who told her she should be home minding the kids rather than considering a life in politics.

While there are now five women sitting around the Cabinet table — four senior ministers and Mary Mitchell O’Connor as a super junior minister — it is barely a quarter of the total.

In the Dáil, of the 158 members, just 35 are women and the imbalance is telling.

The book is a timely reminder of how much progress remains to be made if we are to consign such tragedies and scandals to history.


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