Marie Thérèse Coenen
© Jan 2001
Marie Thérèse CoenenMarie Thérèse Coenen decided to get involved in party politics in 1989 and the direct reason for this was the settlement of a definite statute for Brussels and the creation of its institutions.
"When in 1989 the Brussels Capital Region was set up I considered it to be a great challenge that a region set up a new structure, a new government, a new framework for the Brussels population. And I wanted to participate in this and decided to commit myself to ECOLO."
She had been politically active since long, although her family was not at all politically active.
"We are political illiterates. My grandmother always told me that you vote for the one who enables you to earn your money."
In her family the children went to the scouts and were part of the youth movement, but in terms of entertainment and not in terms of a political commitment, even in a loose sense.
Coenen's political commitment started at the university where she studied history. Apart from going on strike like all the others, she was active in a group reflecting on the contents, methodology and role of history, on the role of historians, on the role of university in society.
"I was already in contact with society and thought about all this."
During that time she always focused on the importance of social history, on the working class' history. After her studies she started to work at CARHOP, a centre on social history, which she had set up with others. In 1984 she became the director of that centre. The year before she had also become active in a NGO fighting against social exclusion. This work made her meet many blue collar workers, she got involved in the trade unions, where she met trade union women, with whom she started to collaborate, which made her join activities of the 'université des femmes' (Francophone NGO promoting feminist research), and so forth. That is the way it goes: you meet people, start to co-operate, and hence meet more people.
She also had a lot of contact with the people who were politically active in her local community. At that time she lived in Schaarbeek and the greens as well as the entire left was very active in fighting the establishment, in questioning issues of racism, etc. There were several political pubs and even if she was not active in party politics, she went there and had many friends among the local party activists.
Until 1990 her political activity consisted in being to a larger or looser extent actively involved in civil society, to be a member of pressure groups that reflect on society and fight for a more equal society. When the definite statute for the Brussels Capital Region was established in 1989 she decided to switch over to party politics. She joined ECOLO in 1990. Joining the party signified a big change.
"As long as you're in associative movement and part of big movements such as the enormous public demonstrations against the missiles or against racism, you are in a movement where one tries to establish platforms, and to influence the political world through these platforms. But the political world is 'they' and 'we' are the civil society, which is based on an open thesis. Whereas the card of a political party involves the commitment to reflect the party programme, to influence the party, to contribute whatever you can contribute, but also to follow the party line and to no longer consider ALL the parties. That was a difficult step for me, because I then had a colour, and not only did I have to heritage everything I did not like, I simultaneously became kind of an opponent for the other parties."
Besides her choice for the party was not necessarily obvious. Ten years ago ECOLO spent much less energy considering issues of employment, working time, social security, health insurance, the position of the workers, etc. But on the whole it was the party that most convinced her and she wanted to contribute to the party's development in these fields.
And she thinks that it is crucial for the associative movement to get involved in party politics. There is too much of a gap between the associative movement and party politics, the dichotomy is impressive. Other lobbies do not hesitate to place their people in the political arena in order to valorise their efforts, whereas the associative world is scared of loosing its independence. They have to maintain their independence but this should not hinder them to get involved in party politics.
When Coenen entered the party she did not really have a role model, nor did she afterwards have one. But many of her friends were members of ECOLO and she also met again with the people whom she had known at the local level.
Within the party she got involved in women's issues and since 1994 led th e party's women's group. This group was very active, which gave her a certain credibility.
In 1994 she was put on the list for the local elections. They were four at the local level and it was clear that they would all be on the list. The issue was more one of knowing who would occupy which place. She did not want the first place because next to the fact that she already had a lot of work and too little time, she was not really interested in local politics. Her work took place at a much higher level, covered for example the entire French Community, and she considered the local level to be less important.
"For me the local level was not really important. This is wrong and I admit that, because an enormous amount of things is done at the local level. It is a level which does not have a lot of power, but area planning, mobility policy, youth policy, cultural policy, the pleasure of living, of living in a community, it is the local power which steers that. Very good work can be furnished at the local level. You can also obtain much more easily a participatory citizenship at the local level than at the federal level."
In 1995, for the regional elections she also occupied an uneligible place on the list, being the seventh out of eight successors. She had asked for a low profile position: CARHOP was associated with the more Christian-democratic branches of Belgian society, and given the degree of pillarisation, her political commitment might not be very advantageous. On the whole, however, her political commitment and her formal job have both had a considerable impact on each other in terms of content.
The real commitment came with the federal elections in 1999. It was in the run up to these elections that the party came and asked her for the list. She was ready to accept a visible but uneligible place. This would leave her another four years to really establish CARHOP but allowed her to go for a real electoral campaign. The party finally made her accept the third place on the list, which was not safe in terms of getting elected, but neither was it in terms of not getting elected. Given the political crisis that broke out two weeks before the elections and the good results ECOLO booked, she was elected, something that was not at all guaranteed.
"At eight o'clock I was elected, at ten o'clock I wasn't anymore, at two o'clock in the morning I was not elected, at four o'clock we knew that we had a third seat but we didn't know whether it was for Brussels or for Brabant. Therefore, I waited until Tuesday, until the journal published the names of the three elected candidates. I didn't want to believe it before. It was a real gamble."
After that came the cold shower: she was not ready for it, she had not prepared a junction, there was nobody to replace her at CARHOP.
As an MP she works very much on the same issues she dealt with before: employment, social security. She also deals with issues of mobility and infrastructure. She further is a member of the parliamentary committee on petitions, considering these to be an important democratic tool, a link between the State and civil society. She is also a member of some smaller committees such as the one on the regulation of the Lower House, something that can be important, too, when it comes to developing democratic mechanisms.
She further is the vice-president of the advisory committee on emancipation. Within the parliamentary group she does, together with a colleague, a lot of work on gender issues. It is actually her competence in matters of equal opportunities between men and women that made her get placed so high on the electoral list in 1999. Whenever there is a more global plan, like the one on security, or the one on sustainable development, she and her colleague do a gender impact assessment. Whether this concerns the Lower House, the party or the work in the Ministerial cabinets.
"A gender analysis has to be horizontal and the thinking of everybody has to integrate a gender dimension."
At the beginning they had to suggest it themselves, now the others spontaneously bring them documents and ask their comment from the point of view of a gender expert. Things are slowly moving and she hopes that this gets a habit by the end of the legislature.
The same goes for the attitude of the party towards women. In 1995 ECOLO's general assembly refused to accept parity between men and women as a general rule. In 1999 it was accepted as the general principle. So parity is what the party strives for, but it is not compulsory. The same goes for placing two candidates of the alternate sex at the top of the lists and for placing a candidate of the alternate sex in the position of first successor. Coenen considers that establishing rules to achieve parity democracy are useful and necessary instruments given the fundamentally patriarchal character of society.
"It is not an issue to promote women, it is an issue of giving them fair place. Up until now they do not have their equitable place, I mean, they make up half of humanity and they represent 10, 15, 20 %, it is the entire discourse on parity. And everybody thinks this is normal, but it isn't. Why do they make up 50% of the human kind but are not represented?
There is another measure stimulating parties to improve the position of women within their ranks, which she would like to see approved:
"I had a different idea, I think there exists a fabulous tool which we could adopt here in parliament: it consists in giving parties a financial bonus in proportion to which they respect the equality between men and women. So, the more women are elected and up until parity is attained, the higher the financial bonus. Part of the party endowment could be modulated in this regard. Parties would be entitled to a certain amount and the rest is put in a common pot, and parties receive from it in function of their electoral results. This would only go for the directly elected representatives, not for co-opted members nor for successors."
On the whole things are slowly changing, especially since this legislature, where women make up 2/3 of the ECOLO faction. Certain things do no longer happen, women can no longer be ignored. On the contrary, Coenen and the others see that the men do not feel at ease with the high number of women. They fear to loose control and underline at many occasions that the women, too, have to respect the party discipline rather than to co-operate with the women MP's of other parties.
However, there are still many barriers for women to overcome. The main obstacle to overcome is the gendered repartition of tasks within the household.
"I think it is the repartition of tasks, the sharing of tasks at home. And that is a question of the relation between men and women. Here we have an enormous job to educate because as long as we do not change this relationship, as long as people do not discuss what can be done by one partner and what can be done by the other one, it remains hard for women. It is they who swallow."
Men consider their job first and then the rest, whereas women combine it all.
"Do the shopping, prepare the meals, control the children's homework, make sure that the ironing is done, that the laundry is hang out, that the whole family can organise it's life: and all this while having a professional career and wanting to be excellent in what you do or in your militantism. Men, when at a certain moment they start to militate, they become 100% militants."
Coenen does not want to say that women should necessarily do the same, on the contrary.
"One should accept that one cannot be everywhere. We tell the women: you tell your local party that you will be here and there and there and that is it. You have the right to have to have a family life, you have the right to say no, you have the right not to be present. We finally work in a group and the aim of teamwork is that everybody can be replaced. Teamwork involves that you can drop out at certain moments."
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