Communicating or Just Talking? Gender Mainstreaming and the Communication of Global Feminism

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article analyses experiences of implementing gender mainstreaming, as narrated by policy-makers in the Republic of Ireland. The paper argues that language is central to the creation, development and proliferation of political ideas among groups struggling to create alternatives to the status quo (True, 2001, p. 1). Recent global appearance of gender mainstreaming policy-making machineries arises from feminist activities. Global feminist activity allows for exchange of ideas among women, with some freedome from expectations for them in national level political life (Dutt, 199, p. 307). Difficulty arises when gender mainstreaming leaves the safety of the margins (feminism) (hooks, 1996, p. 48) and enters mainstream policy-making, thereby transforming from feminist rhetoric to a policy-making tool. The paper concludes that in the absence of shared understandings of the goals and objectives of gender mainstreaming among policy-makers and feminist 'gender experts', no mutual vocabulary to facilitate the process exits.


Gender mainstreaming (1) is the idea that from inception all policies should be analysed for their gender impact. Launched at the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, 1995, it has since been adopted by the European Commission, and by all member states of the European Union (Verloo, 2001, p. 5). Established within national governments in over 100 countries, gender mainstreaming bureaucracies, which create structures that facilitate planning, monitoring and evaluation of the effects of policy on gender, utilize expert techniques such as gender auditing and gender impact assessment (Pollack & Hafner-Burton, 2000, p. 438), and now represent a significant challenge to traditional policy-making worldwide (True & Mintrom, 2001, p. 27). However, expertise in the area of gender equality is often unavailable within mainstream bureaucracy. The integration of 'gender experts' (2) into mainstream bureaucracy is integral to the 'mainstreaming' process, because they act as communicators and facilitators between the lobbying activities of the women's movement and policy-makers within the bureaucracy. In fact, the training provided by feminist policy-makers is often the only means that mainstream policy-makers have to understand and employ the gender measures involved in implementing the gender mainstreaming agenda (McKay & Bilton, 2000, p. 54). This article analyses experiences of implementing gender mainstreaming, as narrated by policy-makers in the Republic of Ireland.

The Irish Context

Prior to 1970 the position of women in Irish society was limited to roles as wives and mothers. The pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Irish society and politics is evidenced in the 1937 Constitution (Gallagher, 1999). For almost thirty years after the constitution was adopted, laws based on the premise that women's rights were inferior to those of men survived in and indeed even appeared on the statute books (Scannell quoted in Galligan, 1998: p. 30).

The evolution of Irish political culture from the values of conservatism and tradition to a more secular position is reflected in legislation regarding marriage and reproduction, particularly since the Republic joined the European Economic Community (EEC) (now the European Union (EU)) in 1973. Briefly, contraception was not legalised until the 1970s (Galligan, 1998). In the 1980s abortion entered public debate at the behest of the far-right who wished to copper-fasten its prohibition in the Constitution (Coakley, 1999). In 1992, following a case where a 14 year old rape victim was prohibited from travelling to the United Kingdom for an abortion, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion should be permitted if the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother (Gallagher, 1999, p. 86). The constitutional ban on divorce was finally lifted in 1995 (Gallagher, 1999). Birth rates have declined and female labour tbrce participation rates have increased since the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1970s (Galligan, 1998). …