NI's Women Are Moving Mountains

Speaking with Monica McWilliams, Catherine Lynagh looks at landmark ladies

2007 was a busy year in NI, not least for its women. Anna Lo became the first politician born in east Asia to be elected to any national parliament or assembly in Europe and she was the first ethnic minority politician elected at a national level in NI. Lo’s achievements are made all the more significant given the history of the political arena she has stepped into. Anna Lo

Historically, women across the world have been marginalized within political and public office and NI is no exception. Lo’s win, you could argue, is symbolic of the new Northern Ireland.

Another key appointment was that of Professor Monica McWilliams as Chief Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2005. Since taking the role she has embarked on several high profile and highly controversial human rights campaigns. Previously Professor of Women's Studies and Social Policy at the University of Ulster, McWilliams served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in NI from 1996 to 2003.

She was the co-founder of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, an all-female political party involved in the Northern Ireland Forum from 1996 to 1998. She was an elected member of the Multi-Party Peace Negotiations and a signatory to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

A seminal figure from Northern Ireland is Irish President Mary MacAleese. The first Northern-born Irish President, MacAleese was voted 21 in Forbes 2005 top 100 influential women in the world.

‘I want to be President for all the people,' said MacAleese of her appointment. 'Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage who stepped out from the faded flags of the civil war and voted for a new Ireland and above all by the women of Ireland... who instead of rocking the cradle rocked the system.’

In the Northern Ireland Assembly four women sit as ministers of the executive; roles in the past predominantly held by men. Margaret Ritchie as Minister for Social Development, Arlene Foster as Environment Minister, Caitríona Ruane as Education Minister and Michelle Gildernew as Minister for Agriculture. Mary McAleese

This step for women is noted by McWilliams. ‘Four women in ministerial positions is very positive. And more women are now chairing more committees in the Assembly. I think it's great, for other women to see that it is not an impossible job.

‘I am particularly taken by the fact that the minister for agriculture is a woman, as was the case in the south and in a lot of other European countries,' she continues. 'When before would we have thought that a whole lot of women would be running the agricultural industry?

'Those women in Europe have come together to discuss what difference they can make. Although having role models is very important for me it is the substantive difference. For me it will be interesting to see the influence they bring to their decision making, based on the fact that they are from a different gender. Time will tell.'

2007 was also a year for smashing stereotypes with the triumphant Everest achievement of Derry woman Hanna Shields.

Shields, a Dentist, became the first Northern Irish woman to scale Mount Everest and for McWilliams, she is representative of the future role of women.

‘I thought Hanna said something that was lovely to hear. "I turned back four years ago, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to risk my life, because the mountain would always be there." I thought 'what a powerful statement, to acknowledge your limitations and recognise that there is a challenge that you can go back to'.

'It took strength to say that, and not to in any way feel diminished to say, "I can reach that mountain. It will be there." I thought that was a new voice.’

Being a woman no longer holds you back and with increased training and equality of employment, all boundaries will eventually become a thing of the past. Today women enjoy success in every male-dominated area.

Sport is a great example, with women encroaching on male-dominated sports. Women participate in everything from motorbike racing, trial biking, Gaelic football, rugby, soccer, golf and countless others. One of NI's most famous female sporting heroines is Mary Peters. In the Munich 1972 Olympics Peters won gold for Britain in the pentathlon.

Taking all these factors into account, does McWilliams think we are seeing a role reversal? Are NI's men stepping back from their traditional bread-winning roles to concentrate more fully on matters of the home?

‘I think many of them are,’ she says. ‘There have been some studies that have shown that when women move from part-time to full-time work, they only get an extra five minutes from the men at home, and that is the biggest difficulty they find.

'Although childcare can now be found, getting the domestic stuff done at home is difficult when mothers are coming home exhausted. That is where you need the man to give the biggest contribution. I do think men are contributing more, and that is good. The role models are changing, with, for example, the men in the supermarkets, the men at the health clinics. I even heard recently fathers as well as mothers are bringing their babies to dancing classes. However I also think women need to stop beating themselves up and stop being so hard on themselves.’

The roles of NI's women seem unique to each individual. Each woman plays her own important role and boxed stereotypes are there to be broken. One thing is certain, there are many Northern Irish female role models for future generations to look up to.