By Christine Allen
“If I thought that shaving my head would further the cause, I would do it,” Kathleen Lynch TD.
These were Minister Kathleen Lynch’s words this morning following Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s “flaming red hair” comments at yesterday’s ‘How to Elect More Women’ conference at Dublin Castle. Enda was called upon to “set the tone” for the day (his own words).
Were his comments endearing and affectionate words for a fellow colleague or the homoerotic, patronising observations of the leader of a country in the grip of a male dominated parliament?
In the closing lines of his speech, he said:
“Let me compliment the Minister of State, Kathleen Lynch. Let me assure you this, she is fighting her corner. Believe you me, as I said to her many years ago, what they said about the flaming red hair speaks appropriately for her fight from Cork and the responsibility she has.”
The offside offence
Oliva O’Leary took offence on behalf of Kathleen Lynch and the women in audience, who could be heard gasping at the remark. The broadcasting veteran, tasked with facilitating the event, jumped to the rescue of the Minister and defended her qualifications by pointing out that there’s “a lot more to Kathleen than her red hair”.
She pointed out that Kathleen was one of the few Cork women elected. Did Olivia go for the easy goal?
Speaking to Minister Lynch this morning, I sense she wishes Olivia had sat back and kept schtum, as she had. After all, Kathleen is no shrinking violet and if she had taken offence, surely she would have made the point herself.
“People have big worries and big issues. If I thought that shaving my head would further the cause, I would do it,” she told me.
I also get the feeling that she believes women should not be fretting about the small pebbles in their shoes as they push at the boulder of inequality that blocks the door of Leinster House for women.
Should we take it from Kathleen that gender equality will come through choosing our battles carefully?
It was, after all, a few subtle syllables, accidentally woven, ever so slightly through a sentence. So slight, that many did not even hear it. Even Kathleen says that it was lunchtime before she realised what Enda had said.
But does discrimination need to be the obvious gestures, statements and behaviour of men which undermines and offends women and puts us back in our box?
In many ways, is it not the subtle, throw away comments in the workplace that give men the last word? These are the comments, which when challenged, gain feminists the label of whingers.
Most men will agree that there is no place for downright obvious, sexist remark missiles. But should we not also root out these hidden landmines?
Could Enda not simply have said,”Well done Kathleen. You are a truly great politician,” without a verbal pat on the bottom?
Whether we believe that “flaming red hair” slip it’s worth exploring or not is a matter for our own personal boundaries. Still, there’s no harm in asking a few questions.
The comment should be noted and recorded. Ask yourself, would Enda have commented on a male minister’s foxy hair? Was this a devaluation of Minister Lynch’s work based on a common sexist stereotype that “foxy ladies” are tough bitches?
Ivana Bacik is blond – does she have more fun? Is brunette Mary Lou more intelligent?
To some, this might seem like a badly timed slip of the tongue, to others it is misogynistic in a milder form of the term. Was it the crux of the gender debate or something best avoided so as not to divert from the real issue?
Speaking to Kathleen Lynch this morning (Saturday), she said yes, the current political landscape requires women to work harder than men to stand out from the herd, first at local and then at Dáil level.
She told me that she was not offended at Enda Kenny’s comment, which she said was a remark made from one friend to another.
She did say, however, that the stereotype of women in politics is that of a tough woman but said that feminism is “a liberating philosophy, not a restricting one”.
Kathleen closed the conference by saying, “Before I die, I have one wish. I want to be able to vote for a mediocre woman”.
While Enda won’t be getting a free kick for his remark, there is a burning question – did Olivia kick an own goal?
For those of you who prefer to laugh this off, as our Minister Lynch has, here’s a little something from Wayne’s World to help!
Christine Allen is a journalist with the Cork Independent (http://corkindependent.com/) newspaper, as well as co-presenter of The Local, on Cork FM Community Radio 100.5FM (LINK: http://www.corkfm.ie/) where she will be discussing the conference between 9-11am on Sunday morning.