Criticizing Foster isn’t misogyny— it’s just treating her like any other leader

Posted By: March 14, 2017


Mary Kenny. Irish Independent. Dublin. Monday, March 13, 2017


 Arlene Foster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Arlene Foster certainly broke a political glass ceiling in Belfast when she became the first woman chosen to lead the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 2015, a movement whose founding father, Ian Kyle Paisley, seemed the very epitome of an Old Testament patriarch.

But there she was, emerging as the leader of Paisley’s party, this mother of three from a rural background in Co Fermanagh, whose RUC father had been the target of an IRA attack. Within the politics of the United Kingdom, Arlene joined a grouping of other women – Theresa May in England, three women party political leaders in Scotland, and the forceful Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru in Wales.

But we cannot claim that Arlene has made a success of her stewardship. Her handling of the absurd ‘cash-for-ash’ (Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme) scandal prompted an election, which her party came within an ace of losing.

Another woman, fellow-unionist Jo-Anne Dobson, has savaged Mrs. Foster for the damage she may have done to the Unionist family, blaming her for losing Unionist seats, including Jo-Anne’s own.

Mrs. Foster, she said, had done more “against Unionism” than anyone else in her living memory.

“She projected an atmosphere of fear during the election. She has weakened Unionism and helped the Irish Nationalist cause,” she said.

Mrs. Dobson said that Mrs. Foster should simply have stepped aside, rather than plunging Northern Ireland into a vote which, indeed, saw Sinn Féin (and the SDLP) make such gains.

Sisterhood, eh? Aren’t women supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other when they get through these glass ceilings? That was the theory, but when it comes to party politics, or even internecine party struggles, the political animal takes precedence over the claims of feminist solidarity.

This is a sign of progress for women in the public realm. A female leader is being assessed – and judged – not on the grounds of having two XX chromosomes, or even managing to juggle a career and motherhood, but on whether she delivers on what she is pledging to do.

At 46, it would be unfair to say that Arlene Foster has failed as a politician – she may well learn lessons and revive her political career – but she has surely failed to show successful leadership in this phase of her career. Her party has lost ground because of her maladroit fluffs, and she has allowed herself to be outmaneuvered by Sinn Féin – led by the media-friendly Michelle O’Neill – which has shown a much more sophisticated touch in the chess game of political combat. Gerry Adams, that wily old operator, is not only calling for Arlene’s head (metaphorically) but is managing to insinuate, to the London media, that the Brexit problems arising from the Border are all her fault.

Yeah well, that’s politics. You find the weak point in your opponent and go for it.

At one stage, Mrs. Foster (pictured inset) claimed that those who exposed her political weaknesses were guilty of “misogyny and male chauvinism”. No, dear, they’re not: it’s the rough and tumble of politics, and in any case, some of the sternest criticism is coming from other women. That’s not bitchiness or starting a catfight: it’s normality.

Yet I hope Mrs. Foster will be comforted by the idea that she has done us a perverse kind of favor: she has shown that it’s also a woman’s right to fail. In politics, as in all other endeavors, there must be a failure, because society progresses only through the process of trial and error.

Scientists say that failure is the most instructive path to knowledge and information.

And sometimes women, and young girls too, can be so anxious to succeed, and so fearful of the embarrassment of failure, that they’d rather not take a risky path.

The veteran BBC broadcaster Esther Rantzen – who attracted huge TV audiences during the 1970s and 1980s – has said that she felt an intense pressure to succeed in her career because she was in a privileged position for a woman at that time, being a presenter/producer of a prime-time show.

“Since I was one of the few women given the opportunities in those distant misogynistic times . . . I had to make sure I didn’t fail. I had to prove women had something special to offer,” she said.

Esther remembers the pressure, because “if your (TV) program fails, the humiliation is public and intense”. And all the more public and intense if you are there as a token woman.

But allowing women to fail shows that they are no longer there as token figures. They are doing a job, and if they don’t succeed it’s not because of their gender: as with a man, it’s about character, ability, judgment and quite often luck and timing as well.

And anyway, before you can get really skillful at any job, you may have to experience a few setbacks and debacles.

It’s sometimes claimed that if women ruled the world there would be more consensus and fewer adversarial clashes.

But the welcome increase in the number of women politicians demonstrates that this isn’t so —because of women, as politicians, are individuals and differ from one another as individuals.

It is known that the atmosphere between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon is icy since they have different political objectives and the personal chemistry isn’t harmonious.

Michelle O’Neill’s entry onto the scene in Belfast clearly irked Arlene Foster, and might not have been helped by Mrs. O’Neill’s blonde glamor—in a visual age, looks can matter. That’s the lottery of politics and of public life.

Whatever Mrs. Foster’s future in Northern politics, she did become the first woman to lead what was a very traditional political party, and others will follow.

Because having either a male or a female leader is just normal.