Friday, September 15, 2017

Why ballet is boring

Classical ballet has to be one of the most technically revered art forms in the human arsenal. The fine balance between sheer athleticism and seemingly effortless poise pushes one to the outer extremities of their physical capabilities. Yet more often than not, the mere mention of it sends the unappreciative into an impulsive fit of eye-rolling. You see, ballet bores a lot of people, and even though it’s one of my passions and I’ve danced for the most part of my life, I can see why.

The pervasive stereotype of ballet undeniably stains it a baby pink. From its nascence to modern day, ballet has been deeply entrenched in Western culture as a “girl thing”. Fumbling around a ballet class at the age of five has come to be viewed as quite a ‘normal’ hallmark of a girl’s childhood (at least if they’re white and middle class), and while the vast majority don’t actually end up pursuing careers in dance, ballet is undeniably dominated by women. At least at a glance.

Classical ballet is saturated with gender clichés. In terms of physique, elite dance companies such as the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, are rigorous in maintaining their dancers firmly in the clinically underweight section of the BMI index, with a 5.7ft tall girl being expected to weigh at most a mere 109.8lbs. This wafer thin female ‘ideal’, is supposed to make it more aesthetically pleasing for female dancers to execute certain moves, but is primarily in place for the benefit of male dancers. A large part of the male dancer’s role in classical ballet is dedicated to performing intricate lifts of their female partners in their pas de deux. Vaganova themselves have stated that girls who weigh over 110lb will have “very limited access” to partnering classes to protect boys from potential injuries. But what about protecting girls from the rampant eating disorders and unhealthy lifestyles that injure female dancers in their pursuit of these ridiculous ideals? I didn’t come across a section for that.

So female dancers must be ‘slight’, as many companies phrase it, but also significantly shorter than men to facilitate a height increase when they dance en pointe. Male dancers also aren’t immune to bodily requirements. They are to generally be tall, lean and strong, quite obviously so they can fit into the classical roles of princes and protectors of the ethereal heroines, who only exist to live and die for heterosexual love.

It’s a mystery to me how in an industry largely populated by women, a bias in favour of men manages to prevail. Yet if you peer past the pliés and pas de chats, you can see the different strata of sexism are more concrete than classical ballet's fairy tale foundations.

It’s a known fact that male dancers progress through the ranks of dance companies in an expeditious fashion in comparison to female dancers. Supply and demand, apparently. Although I admire his awe-inspiring command of the art form, I can’t help but think that Sergei Polunin, who danced to Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ in a stunning video directed by David LaChapelle in 2015, would have actually grossed 21,239,206 Youtube views if he hadn’t already been dubbed the “bad boy of ballet". He’s infamous for his tattoos, tantrums and tremendous snubbing of the Royal Ballet in 2012, when he left the company shortly after being appointed its youngest ever principle dancer at the staggering age of 19. His stunning classical technique aside, he defies all expectations of how the conventional stoic ballet dancer should act. He didn’t conform, he partied, he took drugs and had even danced while high. The reason why he seemingly got away with it all? His male privilege in the industry. As a classically trained dancer, I’m acute to the rigorous discipline any dancer of a high calibre, let alone the principle dancer of the Royal Ballet, would have to engage in. Which is why I can see that if a female principle dancer ever acted in any way erratic regardless of their talent, they’d quite frankly be shown the door. Female talent is easier to come by after all.

Sexism in ballet is often implicit. However, what’s not implicit is the severe lack of female choreographers being given the opportunity to flourish. If women are the more populous sex in the industry, common sense would dictate that there would be a wealth of talented female choreographers who’s works are showcased, wouldn’t it? Apparently not. Based on their 2016-17 seasons, The Paris Opera Ballet featured only Crystal Pite as their token female choreographer amongst 23 other men. The Royal Ballet featured the work of Pite, and another female choreographer, but 14 more male ones. If you’re looking, the examples of gender inequalities in the context of choreography are endless.

Classical ballet with all its flaws has at least flirted with feminism, I’ll give it that. Isadora Duncan, a renowned California-born dancer of the 19th Century, rebelled against the Victorian ideal of womanhood by refusing to wear the restrictive corset or painful pointe shoes, and opted to perform bare foot and in a loose-fitting Grecian tunic. She paved the way for other women to rebel against the inherent inequality of classical ballet. Duncan, along with Martha Graham, another feminist of the ballet world, facilitated the rise of modern, more abstract ballet. This took hold of some of the feminist ideas of the 60’s and 70’s, such as sexual liberation, and channelled it into the art form. As a result, modern ballet and dance has been said to be truly dominated by women, yet classical ballet still isn’t quite ready to boast this feat.

I find it remarkable that in one of the most widely perceived “female” spheres, there’s still ample room for sexism. It’s surprising and covert, yet unmistakably there. Which is why I don’t get irritated when people roll their eyes and say classical ballet is boring anymore. Although the art form itself formed a huge part of my life and will always be dear to me, the sexism that classical ballet represents bores me too.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Women in sport: how far have we come?

Last week in class we watched a clip from the Makers documentary. This told the story of Kathrine Switzer, who, in 1967, became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant. At the time, women were not sanctioned to enter the iconic race but Katherine had completed her application in the way she normally signed her name, ie as “K V Switzer”. Consistent with the attitudes of the time, race organizers “naturally” assumed that she was male.

Katherine didn’t enter the 1967 Boston Marathon looking for a fight. She simply loved to run. However, the race official, Jock Semple, was so outraged when he saw her racing with the other competitors (all male) that he ran onto the course and attempted to physically pull her away and rip off her numbered bib. Although Katherine’s story made headlines at the time, it was another five years before women were officially allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon.

Fifty years on, we rightly celebrate the undoubted progress that women have made in the sport and fitness world since Katherine’s frightening 1967 encounter with sporting officialdom in Boston. No one today bats an eyelid at female marathon runners. In fact, it’s a recognised Olympic sport. Women’s participation in various other sporting and fitness disciplines has rocketed. Indeed, we’re now increasingly being accepted even into “traditionally male” sports like boxing (Ireland’s very own Katie Taylor being one such example) as well as soccer and rugby. All of us – male and female – are increasingly familiar with and accepting of ever more female sporting role models such as Serena Williams and Nicole Adams. Clearly, we have come a long, long way since 1967. Or have we?

A seemingly trivial remark apparently made about me a few days ago prompted me to question how far women have actually come since 1967. What triggered the thought was something a friend told me the other day about what a male student had apparently said of me. What was stated was apparently along the lines of:- “I saw that Irish girl [me] in the gym yesterday and she looked like she really knew what she was doing… Is she doing that for the float trip next weekend?”

I never heard the comment myself and I’m sure there was a compliment intended in there somewhere. Yet for some initially inexplicable reason, I can’t help but feel slightly offended. Why?

Perhaps, I’m simply neurotic. Or, perhaps, I’m unduly sensitive about being Irish outside in the United States and that someone would assume that, as an “Irish girl,” I would not be expected to “know what I was doing” in the gym (particularly in the male-dominated weights area, where I spend most of my sessions). But no, I know that the comment was in no way derogatory of my Irishness. That is simply part of who I am and how I’m known here, and is perfectly fine.

So what was it about the reported remark that caused me to react so badly? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that my real issue was the seeming association between my interest in the gym and personal vanity. To me it implied that my sole motive for being in the gym was to make myself appear more physically attractive on a weekend outing – presumably to male students. In short, I (rightly or wrongly) interpreted the statement as judgemental and demeaning, not of the Irish, but of females in general who choose to go to the gym, exercise or take part in sport. I am sceptical that a statement like this would have been made about me if I had been male.

As earth-shatteringly appalling as it may sound coming from a female, I actually love the gym, and I love exercise. I have been weight lifting for several years now, and health and fitness has become a very important part of my life. It has helped not only my physical health, but also my mental well-being. In the past, I have struggled with anxiety, and, for me, the gym and other activities like hiking, horse riding and swimming have become my “sanctuary.”  It’s where I go when I’m stressed or upset or just simply need a bit of “me-time.” It makes me feel strong and confident. Of course, all of us like to look well and to keep our weight in control. But that is a human desire and is certainly not the sole preserve of females!

The question I’ve been left with is whether a seemingly throw away remark about my reasons for exercising might be exemplary of wider barriers that women still need to overcome in the area of sport and fitness. I found myself wondering whether the 1967 spirit of Jock Semple still survives in sport – albeit, perhaps, in a more covert and less glaring form? Once I began to look further into the subject, it became hard for me to avoid the conclusion that a bit of the outraged spirit of Jock Semple might still lurk amongst us, perhaps somewhere in the depths. In preparing this blog I googled “women in sport” and was stunned to discover that the first search result was an article entitled, “Top 10 Most Beautiful Women in Sport”. The more I searched, the more I found female sports being praised (or criticised) for their bodies, rather than for the hard work they put in for competitions or the titles they win.

And what of girls in sport who may not correspond to the traditional stereotype of a physically slender female that many men find appealing? I noticed that, in recent years, Olympic gold-medalist, Caster Semenya, was barred from competing and was subjected to degrading gender testing simply because the media and athletic associations thought she looked “too masculine”. Such attitudes are reinforced by the limited nature of media coverage of women’s sports. Studies show that only about 4% of sportscoverage in local and national media is dedicated to women’s sport. Self-evidently, female athletic achievements are much less important to the popular press than male.

If this is how women are evaluated and treated in sport, how can I blame any male student for possibly suggesting that, as a girl, I only go to the gym because I want to impress men? If this is how women are evaluated and treated in sport, no wonder there remains a significant disparity between male and female participation nationally and internationally. If this is how women are evaluated and treated in sport, should we be surprised that, by the age of 14, for example, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys? Surely all this merely serves to maintain life support for the 1967 Jock Semple notion that women and girls don’t belong in the sport and fitness arena on the same basis as men?

Women today owe a huge debt of gratitude to people like Katherine Switzer. Their personal courage, determination and audacity opened a huge new door of freedom and opportunity for women in sport over the past 50 years. However, we owe it to Katherine - and we owe it to the many other brave women of her generation - to remember her example and not to become complacent. It is Katherine’s spirit - not the 1967 spirit of Jock Semple - that most needs life support today and which we must, in our own and our children’s interest, endeavor to keep alive and perpetuate.

Yes, we have come a long, long way from the 1967 Boston Marathon. But the journey is not yet over.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Feminism and rap: an imperfect union

As a brown man raised in a community bursting at the seams with people of color, police presence, and poverty, it was impossible for me not to be wooed by the allure of rap music. American society’s dominant narratives have always been a reflection of the convictions of white men. At some of our nation’s darkest moments, rap has been a powerful counter-punch, giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless. When the crack epidemic was crippling ghettos, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five gave us “The Message.” When police brutality was dominating the national headlines in the mid-80’s, Ice-T gave us “6 in the Mornin.’” When people were getting fed up with racial profiling, N.W.A. brought gangsta rap into the mainstream with “Straight Outta Compton.” I love rap music because it is honest and unfiltered in a way other genres can never be. All of that being said, it is impossible to be a feminist and a rap enthusiast at the same time without feeling like a hypocrite. 

I recognize that it is difficult to speak about rap music, or any kind of music for that matter, in broad strokes. There have been countless rap artists over the years and new ones are born daily. People make music for a myriad of reasons. Some people hope to be famous, some hope to be rich, others make music simply for themselves. Motivations vary and not everyone seeks to make music as a means of effecting positive social change. That being said, one thing is disturbingly common across all rap, the dehumanization and over-sexualization of women. When women appear in music videos, it's almost guaranteed that it is in a skimpy outfit. When women are the focus of songs, it's almost always as an instrument of male pleasure. 

Perhaps worst of all is the fact that women are largely mute when it comes to rap. Whether they are there to be ogled, insulted, or sexualized, women do not often speak. This raises another important issue, the lack of prominent female rap artists. While there are plenty of wonderful and capable female rappers, they rarely gain the traction that male rappers do. Sure, there are examples of iconic women who have overcome the odds such as Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot, M.I.A., Beyonce, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, etc., but these women are exceptions. Additionally, even for those that find mainstream success, it is often only after having to conform into artists that are palatable to the average rap fan. It is difficult to enter a male dominated industry as an outsider in any context but I imagine the difficulty is amplified in the hyper-masculine space that is the rap industry.

The narrow minded hyper-masculinity that dominates rap both keeps it from progressing and reinforces traditional gender ideas that relegate women to secondary roles. This has become especially clear recently following incidents involving prominent rap artists forced to confront sexual ideas they are uncomfortable with. Earlier this year Atlanta-based rap trio Migos, made up of members Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff,  came under scrutiny and were forced to apologize following homophobic comments made in a Rolling Stones interview. When asked about a fellow Atlanta-based rapper who recently came out as gay, Offset stated, "the world is fucked up" and Quavo followed by saying "That's wack, bro." Only a day after the interview was published Migos issued a disingenuous apology but the damage had been done and the message had been sent. This is only one example amongst many which make it clear that being anything other than a hyper-masculine male will be met with either disinterest or disgust. 

Personal experiences confirm that the problem of close-mindedness in rap is reinforced by listeners as well as artists. When popular rap-duo Killer Mike and El-P released their hit 2014 album "Run the Jewels 2," there was refreshing twist. Track 9, titled "Love Again," begins with Killer Mike and El-P describing a few of their most memorable sexual experiences in typical mysogynistic fashion. At the third verse we hear a guest feature from Tennessee female rapper Gansta Boo, her opening lines being "That's what you want, huh? Well, let me tell you a little story..." She then proceeds to describe one of her most memorable sexual encounters with a level of extreme detail typically reserved for men. When I heard this song I immediately replayed it because I could not believe what I was hearing, Killer Mike and El-P set us up to have Gangsta Boo completely subvert our expectations and traditional gender roles. Sadly, not all of my friends shared my enthusiasm. I found that many of them were uncomfortable with hearing a woman rap in the same way that men do and began skipping the track entirely. 

While the current place of women in rap is not great, there are reasons to have hope. We must keep in mind that despite its immense worldwide popularity, rap is a relatively young genre. When it comes to sexuality and gender, we are seeing a slow but noticeable shift towards a more accepting rap culture. On the one hand we have an older generation of rappers evolving in their beliefs. When confronted about his previous use of homophobic language, Killer Mike of Run the Jewels tweeted a sincere apology. True to his word, Killer Mike and Run the Jewels as a group continue to advocate for equality and speak out against homophobia in rap. In addition to changes of heart, we have a new generation of hip-hop artists openly embracing feminism and homosexuality. Frank Ocean and Syd tha Kyd, both originally of hip-hop collective Odd Future, are openly gay artists who today enjoy immense success and support. This past year alone hip-hop collective Brockhampton has exploded onto the scene, led by openly gay frontman Kevin Abstract. The group has various songs with lyrics about being proud of being gay and aggressively calling for respect for women. 

Ultimately it is unrealistic to expect that the entire rap industry will conform overnight to meet our hope for equality. In fact, it is exactly because rap refuses to conform that it is such a powerful genre. Sometimes this non-conformity can be on the cutting edge of progress and other times it can derail the genre and keep it stubbornly entrenched in outdated ideas. For all the criticizing we do, and must continue to do, it is also healthy to recognize the progress that has been made. When we reflect on the current state of rap it is clear that this generation of rap artists and rap listeners are much more accepting than previous generations. It is also painfully clear, however, that better in this case is not good enough. As Tupac one famously said, "Time to heal our women, be real to our women...So will the real men get up? I know you're fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up." While we can hope to see more women enjoying prominent roles in the rap industry and to hear lyrics that are less degrading, this is a change that can only be facilitated by us, the listeners. We must challenge ourselves to be more intentional about the music we support. Only then, collectively, can we begin to make the major strides that need to be made. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Un joto femenista!

In México, joto is a masculine word that denotes a homosexual male, and pejoratively connotes an effeminate gay man who is a pasivo—sexually receptive rather than insertive. Moreover, the word’s breadth and potency as a pejorative is colored by regional influences: joto in metropolitan Guadalajara—Mexico’s Castro—connotes something different than it does in rural Michoacán. I have yet to find an English term that aptly captures the meaning of joto, so information is bound to get lost in translation. The same can be said of “queer”, which translates to raro in Spanish, which, in turn, translates to “rare” in English.  

I tell my English-speaking friends that I’m queer only if they are familiar with the term. Otherwise, I simply say that I’m gay. But with my Spanish-speaking friends, I vacillate between joto and gay. And sometimes I queer joto by upending the gender and calling myself a jota, even if it’s grammatical nonsense. Jotas don’t exist, but lesbianas (lesbians) do!

To add to my already complicated identity, I am also a femenista, and I have been one since before I knew what the term meant. Life steered me in its direction.

Due to my father’s trek to el Norte, my abuelita, tías, and mom raised me. They taught me early on that despite seemingly fixed gender roles, mujeres (women) deserved the same respect and treatment afforded to men. I also witnessed how poverty and an indifferent labor market gave these mujeres the impetus to practice feminism. Indeed, when my mother and I reunited with my dad, she let him know that she too would have to work because a single service-sector paycheck was not going cut it.

My father too agrees that men and women deserve to be treated equally even if he doesn’t grasp what femenismo (feminism) is. In fact, his trek to el Norte was also a journey into feminism, because it forced him to grapple with the fact that there isn’t, as former President Obama notes, a “right way and a wrong way to be a man.” When my father arrived in this country he had to cook, clean, and take on service sector jobs despite his traditional upbringing. Immigration forced him to confront domesticity and the untenabilty of strict gender roles. And he learned that, just like women are expected do, men of color in this country have to compromise in order to survive. In short, although my father didn’t seek out feminism, feminism found him.

Personally, as my lexicon grew, I learned to articulate what I had grown up observing, and I began calling myself a feminist. In fact, I became a hyphenated feminist. Throughout several semesters of undergraduate study, I identified as a queer-intersectional-feminista. This was not because it was trendy do so, but because I felt compelled to ask mainstream feminism to make room for an immigrant joto like me.

I wholeheartedly believe that “the personal is political,” and that feminism must continue to hear, incorporate, and reflect upon others’ her/hi-stories, including those of men. Indeed, Adichie’s comment that masculinity is a “small hard cage, [where] we put boys inside,” highlights the fact that gender norms also bedevil men. Thus, feminism should actively strive to fold more men into its ranks. 

But with all its problems, I admire feminism’s bent toward reflexivity and its willingness to critique itself. I take comfort in knowing that feminism is capacious enough to embrace jotos, individuals who identify as queer, and others whose identities may be morphed or partly lost in translation.

The feminists in our own lives

In last week’s Feminist Legal Theory class we had the opportunity to watch an episode of PBS’ Makers, a documentary film about the revolutionary women’s movement that blossomed and swept through American culture in the 1960’s and 70’s. As we watched the women onscreen, my thoughts naturally turned to the women in my own family. My mother and my aunts were born in the 1950's and came of age in the era of the National Organization for Women and the women’s liberation movement, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. While I was familiar with the general contours of the feminist movement, I had never taken the opportunity to ask my family members about their experiences growing up during this time period and how these greater cultural and political changes affected their own lives.

My mother (Deb) and my aunt (LuAnn) were kind enough to spend an hour on the phone with me and let me pepper them with questions about their memories of the prominent figures and organizations within the movement. How much did they remember? Did they ever read TheFeminine Mystique? How many bras did they burn? While the specifics were foggy (and, sadly, no bras were burned), both my mom and my aunt were cognizant of the feminist movement. My aunt told me that while she didn’t really understand the movement’s significance at the time, she did feel inspired by it and wanted to learn more about it. Both my mom and my aunt expressed feeling somewhat removed from the greater women’s movement, perhaps an effect of growing up in rural, Catholic East Moline, IL.

While the totems and highlights of the feminist movement don’t loom large in my mom and aunt’s memories, the women in their own family did. They told me stories about their grandmother, who drove the family car since grandfather never learned how to drive. They told me about their own mother, sort of a legendary figure on my mom’s side of the family. Lucille Petersmith was a powerhouse. She worked, like many residents of East Moline, for John Deere, and was the only woman working as a loan manager for the John Deere Credit Union. While she was respected for her business acumen and had a reputation for treating customers with dignity and professionalism, she still experienced sexism in the workplace, not only from men but from other women as well. Both my mom and aunt said that Lucille was known for speaking her mind, standing up for herself and others, and piping up when she saw something that “just wasn’t right.” My mom and aunt carried Lucille’s values and attitude of fearlessness as they started in their own careers.

The most eye-opening parts of our conversation pertained to the sexism my mom and aunt experienced in the professional spheres. My mother moved from the Midwest to California in her twenties. Her first job after college was working at Pacific Gas and Electric. Despite being in a more “progressive” locale, my mom was surprised to find she was still expected to adhere to a strict dress code… skirt suits and dresses only—and this was in the 1980’s!

My aunt, like her mother, began working at John Deere and was one of the first women to be promoted to Distribution Service Center supervisor. She was often the only woman in meetings and, as such, she was the “default” note taker. One day having had just about enough, she placed a pen and paper in front of a male colleague and said bluntly “Today it’s your turn to be the scribe.” They didn’t ask her to take notes again. 

Another incident occurred after my aunt became a mother. She had marked her calendar to let coworkers know she would have to leave work to take her son to a doctor’s appointment. Thereafter, a manager assigned her an important report, due the same day as the appointment. Yet this manager was curiously absent from the office when the report was due. The manager had expressly told my aunt that she couldn’t leave the office until the report was submitted; as a result, she missed the doctor’s appointment. The manager returned hours later, at which point my aunt handed him the report and told him she would not be missing another doctor’s appointment. These were only two highlights (or lowlights) out of many slights and hurdles my aunt dealt with as a powerful woman navigating a male-dominated company in a male-dominated industry (agriculture and engineering).  However, my aunt’s take no sh*t attitude and passion for her job served her well… ultimately she retired as manager of the John Deere Pavilion, the most popular tourist destination in Illinois outside of Chicago.

Our conversation eventually segued into a discussion of what it was like to work and raise children. My mother spoke about the stresses of balancing her own career goals with family goals after she and my father moved from San Jose, CA to Auburn, CA. She grappled with the fear of leaving her children for long hours with “strangers” while she made a daily commute to and from Sacramento. She also explained the isolation she felt after moving to a new town, where she lacked the support network necessary to feel comfortable extending herself professionally. Ultimately, while she loved her job, she ended up shifting gears career-wise and went from a supervisory position at a PG&E service center to an office assistant position at my elementary school. She never regretted her decision (and I was a happy child and lucky to have my mother so accessible). Additionally she explained it made sense financially since my dad made more money at the time.

As a hypothetical exercise, I asked “If you made more money than dad at that time, would you and dad have agreed him quitting or taking on a less time-consuming career?” She admitted it was a difficult question, one she wasn’t sure she was able to really answer.

I had two major takeaways from my conversation with my mom and aunt. The first was the importance of cross-generational feminism and the value of having these conversations and sharing common experiences. It’s inspiring to hear about the challenges women in my own family have overcome. It makes me feel like I am part of a larger, more personal feminist story. Furthermore, it feels great to “share notes” and strategies I can deploy in my own life. The other great takeaway I had from this conversation is the importance of recognizing the feminist icons in our own lives. The feminism prevalent in today's pop-culture emphasizes personalities, celebrities, social-media savvy. I do recognize the value of charismatic leaders who can mobilize and advocate for the feminist movement on a more national level, but sometimes the best role models are your own family, friends, and coworkers. After all, while my mom and aunt knew of Gloria Steinem… they attributed their feminist awakenings and journeys to their small-town mom and grandmother. The idea of looking to women in your own life for feminist inspiration isn’t revolutionary, but I can certainly say that the older I get, the more important it feels. I'm grateful I have such strong women in my life who've done this before and can help show me the way.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The she-wolves of politics

I’ve never identified as a feminist more than earlier this summer. In the chaotic aftermath of the British General Election, in which Theresa May grappled with a hung parliament and the reality of her party losing their parliamentary majority, I discussed the results in passing with a regular client of the firm where I was working. Until, said client stated, “Sure she has nothing better to be doing with herself that one! She doesn’t have children, you know?”. Quite suddenly I didn’t feel like courting political debate anymore.

I mulled over his statement long after he left the office. It was universally accepted that May had blundered in her decision to call a snap election, and that the outcome had significantly weakened her position both in the British and European political landscapes. However, I find it almost impossible to believe that if she were male and had suffered the same crushing defeat, my political sparring partner would have reduced her career to a mere frivolity that she only engages in to fill in the blanks left over from her inability to have children which frustrated her “natural”, if it is natural, societal role as caregiver. 

Although this man’s viewpoint hopefully isn’t indicative of the majority’s, I’d be naïve in thinking there wasn’t a bias in favour of men across global politics. Women’s underrepresentation in politics is a phenomenon that transcends the boundaries of culture, colour and creed. Yes, slightly more women are making their political débuts each year, and yes, we’ve come a long way from actually attaining the right to vote. However, the pace is glacial, and frankly we don’t have the luxury of waiting to see how things transpire naturally if we would like to see equal representation of men and women within our lifetimes. Enter gender quotas. 

Gender quotas are being moulded to the varied political frameworks of over 100 countries across the world, the US being one of the most glaring exceptions. The 2016 Irish general election saw political parties flex their stiffened equality muscles for the first time, induced only by the threat of slashed state funding if women didn’t make up at least 30% of their candidacies. Although driven largely by an ominous economic threat, the measure produced the desired result of almost doubling female candidacy in the space of five years from 86 women in 2011 to 163 in 2016. 

“But what about the ‘deserving men’ being robbed of their candidacies?”, “Surely it’s contrary to the values of democracy?” cry the sceptics. Studies conducted on Swedish elections from 1982 to 2014, a country which has been in the vanguard of political gender equality, revealed that it’s not always the ‘most deserving’ candidate that actually gets the job. Not surprisingly, gender quotas have been found to actually boost the competency of male candidates now competing for coveted political appointments against the nemesis ‘token females’. This study, compared male competence in politics under the lenses of income, education, occupation, age and residence and concluded that a 10% rise in female representation corresponded with a 3% rise in ‘competent’ male candidates. 

If we’re to dwell on the vein of the ‘meritorious’ being most deserving of candidacies, we must also take into consideration the fact that a glaring majority of female candidates have had the same or greater levels of political work experience as their male counterparts. The ‘extra’ women on Irish ballot papers in the 2016 election weren’t just plucked from the kitchens of cosy suburban cottages to serve as appendages to the ‘big boy’ game of politics. Many of them were already experienced local representatives with just as much political exposure as their constituencies’ golden boys. This time they were merely afforded the opportunity to actually appear on the ballot paper. 

Forty out of the 46 countries that have over 30% representation by women in politics have gender quotas. Have these countries spiralled into anarchy as a result of such a sharp influx of ‘dreaded’ female influence? I think not. If the aim is to achieve equality of representation while at the same time encouraging and equipping women to put themselves forward for election, then gender quotas satisfy that aim. Despite all this, it still unsettles me that in Ireland, our fresh-faced Taoiseach has been bending over backwards making ‘commitments’ to oversee gender equality in order to win favour with the new breed of ‘trendy’ politicians, Justin Trudeau's state visit to Ireland in July being a prime example of this.  The difference is, Trudeau has actually followed through on his promises of gender equality in his cabinet (although disappointingly not in the Canadian House of Commons), whereas Varadker quite evidently has not, with only 6 of the 34 Ministers in Government being women. 

Equality in politics evidently still has a long way to go, yet in my view gender quotas are a good place to start. As with any social issue, societal attitudes need also to alter in order to foster change. The electorate, as well as political parties, need to stop subconsciously limiting women to menial political roles and to stop viewing them as unnatural she-wolves if they succeed, or fragile maidens if they fail. Only then can I hope that my political adversary might comment on something of political substance when describing the defeat of a female politician, rather than merely pointing out her infertility.