By Daniel Hill
THROUGHOUT the early and mid-20th century, in most of the western world it was considered societal norm for many young women to attend solely to the maintenance and upkeep of a family in a traditional domestic setting.
Ambitions that women and girls may have had external to these commitments such as a potential career path they could embark upon in life was considered in many instances a secondary priority, if not a completely unattainable dream, the only purpose of which was to provide emotional solace whilst they prepared dinner or hoovered the carpet in the sitting room.
However, with the gradual emergence of both the women’s rights movement in countries such as the United States throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and with the recognition of feminism as a legitimate, if not entirely respected political ideology, attitudes towards the role of the fairer sex within society began to change.
Many women no longer felt obliged to adhere to the arbitrary standards set by societal expectations with many prioritising their own career ambitions over the expectation that they should act as the matriarch of a traditional nuclear family. More women naturally then began to occupy positions within society that were traditionally perceived to be reserved for their gender opposites.
This is not to say that feminist idealism completely eradicated the innate desire that women of this era had to start families. Many women who were influenced by the emerging zeitgeist of libertarian feminism did not personify the bra-burning fanatic that has become so erroneously synonymous with the feminist movement at this time, chanting phrases such as a woman needs a man, like a goldfish needs a bicycle.
They simply allowed for it to demonstrate what it is they could potentially be capable of achieving in life beyond the approved husband, 2.5 children and white picket fence. This new ideology also brought with it the belief in many women of a false dichotomy between the fulfilment of their career ambitions and the establishment of a family. Many women considered the two to be mutually exclusive life priorities, completely incompatible with one and other.
Of course, this Is a falsity. Many inspiring women rose above the societal expectations and barriers at this time acting as loving and compassionate mothers to increasingly large families whilst simultaneously enjoying both emotionally rewarding and financially lucrative careers.
And so, we come to the 21st century in which women occupy many respected positions throughout most societies in the world. From doctors, teachers, members of law enforcement organisations and the armed forces there are very few occupations in which women are not fairly and equally represented, whilst at the same time also enjoying the love, support and encouragement of their husbands and children. Unfortunately, however political institutions in Northern Ireland remain one of the few rare exceptions to this pattern as we here in the Democrat detailed last week in the introductory article to our series Fairer sex, not fairly represented which will examine the underlying factors that have resulted in women becoming so woefully underrepresented in politics in Northern Ireland.
Leading on from our interview with Aoife Clements, founder of the charity organisation 50:50 N.I, who cited domestic and professional commitments as one of the contributing factors that have resulted in the chronic underrepresentation of women in politics in N.I we will examine how duties to family life may act as a barrier to more women entering the political arena.
For factually accurate and informative first-hand accounts of how commitments to family life could prevent more women from fulfilling their political ambitions we interviewed two highly respected and well renowned female political figures within the Newry, Mourne and Down District area.
They are Liz Kimmins, Sinn Fein MLA for the Newry and Armagh as well as Laura Devlin, the SDLP chair of The Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.
Stemming from her own experiences in having to attend to her professional commitments as both a full-time social worker whenever she initially began her political career at a council level and later as an MLA and mother to a young son, Liz Kimmins understands fully how domestic and professional responsibilities may act as a hinderance to women who wish to engage in politics.
“I would definitely say that for many young women the commitments that they have to both their family and professional lives can be a barrier to getting involved.
“Whenever I began my career in politics at council level, I quickly got used to having to balance my duties as an elected representative with my professional commitments as a full-time social worker. This has become more challenging in recent times due to the fact that since January of 2020 I have been an MLA and am now a proud mother of my two-year old son Daithi.”
After being gifted with Daithi, Liz had to make several difficult decision’s regarding her life priorities which saw her reducing her working hours as a social worker so she could attend to both the wellbeing of her new son and the constituents within her council area which she had a democratic responsibility to represent.
“When I first had Daithi I was working full-time as a social worker and as a councillor. As a result of my new responsibilities as a mother, I had to reduce my hours as a social worker. My role as a social worker was a 9-5 job in addition to my council responsibilities so if I attended to both of these that would have left very little time for me to spend with my son.
“There are numerous things that I have to take into consideration to strike an effective balance between my work as an MLA and as a mother and partner. Obviously, I cannot speak for everyone but generally speaking in most families it is the mother who has to deal with the majority of domestic responsibilities, so I also need to factor this into account whenever I am prioritising my workload. Also because of the nature of the job, every week is different, and I can find it difficult at times to carry out my duties both as a mother and as an elected politician representing the interests of my constituents.
Elaborating further on how the exact nature of the role of an MLA can make it somewhat difficult for a young woman with a family to strike an effective balance between political commitments and their domestic responsibilities, Liz cites the fluid and amorphous working hours of a politician as a particular point of difficulty.
“The problems that female politicians face in trying to strike an effective balance between their domestic and professional commitments is only further exacerbated by the fact that there are no set hours in politics. Theoretically you could be called upon to carry out your duties as an elected representative at any point 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You need to remain flexible.
However, thanks to the support that I have received from my partner, my extended family and my friends and owing to my previous experience as a councillor I have managed to strike a good balance between my work commitments and my family life. I do understand though that not every woman necessarily has these support networks and thus may find it difficult to get involved in politics if they have other life commitments.
Despite the challenges she has encountered in trying to strike an effective balance between her commitments as an MLA and a mother of a young son, Liz would still express a great deal of enthusiasm to have more women act upon their political ambitions regardless of their domestic situation.
“It is very important that we have more female voices in politics here in the North. With more female voices you will see a better range of opinion and change will be made more quickly. I believe it is crucial that more young women come forward to fulfil their political ambitions. If there is a greater diversity of not only gender but also age, race and religion it would be a better reflection upon the whole of society. As a result, the decisions taken by elected bodies such as the Assembly would have a more positive impact upon people because a greater diversity of individuals are contributing their opinions to the decision-making process.
“I would encourage anyone, both male and female to act upon their political aspirations. Although it can be a very difficult path to follow at times there are always ways of managing your own circumstances so you can fulfil your ambitions.
SDLP chairperson for The Newry, Mourne and Down District Council Laura Devlin would reiterate the point made by Liz that it can be difficult for any person be they a man or a woman to strike a reasonable balance between their work commitments and their family life, even more so if you are engaged in the fine art of compromise.
“Striking a balance in politics is always difficult and even more so given how accessible we all now are to the public, so I do my best to take time away from the computer or phone, but it certainly isn’t easy. You always want to do your best for people by trying to respond to them as quickly as possible.”
“I recall when both my children were new-born’s, I took them to council meetings with me. I had great support to do that but for several months I missed the evening meetings in those early days as having an infant out at that time of night just wasn’t practical.
In addition to the regular difficulties faced in trying to balance her family life with her work commitments, Laura also claims that each subsequent lockdown implemented to slow the progress of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has also brought with it its own set of idiosyncratic challenges.
“In terms of difficulties, I found the first lockdown more challenging, as at that time creches and day care facilities were closed. My son Tom is 4 ½ now and my daughter Polly will be 2 in March. So, attempting to work from home when the children were so young was certainly challenging. I did my best during the day with the children and then worked most nights – often through to 2am in the morning as well as a full day at the weekend which allowed us to have a Sunday off together as a family.
Laura does claim however that, rather surprisingly some benefits may emerge as a result of the lockdown that could in fact help more women with family commitments to enter politics in the future, citing the example of online virtual meetings as one positive to have come out of an otherwise difficult and depressing situation.
“To be able to do a 2-hour meeting from my home office, as opposed to travelling to and from Newry or Downpatrick definitely has its benefits. The option to dial in would have helped me immensely whenever both of my children were first born. So, I think from a parent’s perspective the option to dial in to meetings and events is one of the very few positives that we can all take from this pandemic – the fact that all organisations had to step up and move with the times in terms of virtual ways of working from home. “
Again. like Liz, Laura also wants to state that the difficulties she has faced as both an elected representative and Mother to a young family should not act in any way as a deterrent for any young woman who wants to commit herself to the service of others.
“I would advise any young women that juggling politics and family is completely feasible with the right support. We need more women in politics and in all aspects of civic and business life. I only have to look around me and see amazing role models who do both. I think the tide is turning in that regard which is really positive.
The Democrats investigation into the underlying factors that have resulted in women becoming so disproportionately underrepresented in politics in Northern Ireland is ongoing. Make sure you purchase your copy of your favourite local paper next week to read about how harassment faced first-hand by elected female representatives can act as a deterrent to more women coming forward to enter political life, which will include interviews with the Crotlieve councillor Karen McKevitt and the SDLP MLA Cara Hunter.