© Jan 2001
Trees PietersTrees Pieters' political commitment is already about 25 years old. In 1977 the CVP asked her for the first time to stand. That was for the national elections and due to the fact that another woman retired. She did not give it two thoughts, considering that it was important that this woman would be replaced by a woman, and that if she would not do it, a man would certainly occupy that place on the list. It was an uneligible place and hence she did not get elected.
None the less it was then that she entered the party. Her choice for the party was a conscious though not evident one given her middle class family business background. What she appreciated - and still appreciates - in the CVP is the fact that the party considers both the employers and the employees. The pary does not unilaterally defend the interests of the employers. Actually, the branch of the party focusing on the employers is not very strong and from this point of view Pieters' choice was not evident.
Before 1977 and her entrance into the party she had never been politically active. Her own family was not at all politically active, the larger family yes, but in her own family there was no political commitment, they did not even discuss politics at home.
However, she had already been active in the CMBV, the organisation of the middle classes belonging to the christian-democratic pillar. In 1969 she had become a member of its local branch and quickly got involved in the development of the CMBV at the local level, entering the local board. Two years later she had become active at the national level and the president of the CMBV's women's group 'Vrouwen en Beleid'.
When in 1977 the CVP asked her to run for the elections, it was actually a woman with CMBV signature that retired and whom she was asked to replace.
Even if she did not get elected in 1977, one could say that her political career started at that moment. It followed the classical pattern, making her clim up the ladder through the party institutions. She became an active member of the local party's branch, moved to the party bureau at the level of the constituency and became the president of the local party section in her hometown Tielt five years after entering the party. She remained in that function from 1982 to 1988.
Meanwhile she has been elected for a first time in 1987, which was at the provincial level. She occupied this function until 1995, when she got elected at the national level. It is difficult to profile yourself at the provincial level. This was easier at the local level, where she occupied an electoral mandate for the term 1988 to 1994.
All these activities were however secondary in the sense that during most of these years she had a 'real job', too. Pieters has a commercial training. She spent the first ten years of her professional career in the family company of her husband. In 1978 she made a switch, exchanging the family business for a ministerial cabinet in Brussels. If she exchanged the commercial world for the political one, in terms of content there was continuity: she became responsible for the policy regarding small and medium-sized entreprises. She was also responsible for the relations with the CMBV. These topics, as well as regional economy and development have always been the red thread through her political work and are still her main fields of action.
With a small break at the turn of the nineties she worked at ministerial cabinets until 1995, the moment she got elected to the Lower House. It was the place of the first successor, which led her into parliament. However, towards the end of the legislature she had to leave her seat for the Minister, whom she replaced in the Lower House resigned because of a political scandal.
"For me that has been a very difficult moment because you have to bridge a year in which you cannot disappear from the field of vision, in which you also have to keep up to date in terms of content."
During the 1999 federal elections she got an eligible place on the list and was directly elected to the Lower House.
Her topics and priorities in parliament are much the same as before, to the extent that she is able to choose them herself. Now, for her second mandate she had more possibility to choose and can focus on economy and social affairs, leaving the health aspects of the second to a colleague of hers. She considers that her topics bring together the statute of the employer, the statute of the employee, looking at issues of employment from a broad perspective.
One issue she considers to be very important is the simplifcation of legislation, and the simplification of the public administration. Coming from the field she has an idea how difficult it is to manage a family business. But it is not only family businesses. Society is getting increasingly complex, and not all her colleagues do realise the complexity of legislations' implications in daily practice. So, one of her absolute priorities is the simplification of legislation and public administration.
However, on the whole it is difficult to define political priorities. You have to be open towards what is living. During the preceding legislature she was a member of the parliamentary committee 'Dutroux', in the wake of the political and other scandals of 1997. That was a completely new topic for her.
"Anyway, as a representative you have to - next to your own fields of activity and expertise - have a minimal knowledge on everything that goes on at the political level. (…) And it is finally this that I consider to be the most exciting of this mission here. The fact that you look at the country's problems and issues at large, that you study them and that you can actually also help to steer - to a small extent - the country."
In this sense, for Pieters, a political career is very much an opportunity for a personal development.
One could say that during her entire life there has been a strong link between her professional and political activity. The first has been a good preparation for the second. Her work at the ministerial cabinet has been a prolongation of her former activity in the family business. During her political career she extented the expertise that she had built up before. And during her political career, her ctivity within the party structures and at the ministerial cabinets helped her to prepare her actual function. And led her to a parliamentary mandate. It all finally merged into one career, a career that has not always been easy.
"Actually it has been a not evident career. On paper it looks nice, but it has absolutely not been evident. One has to fight until the final moment, you're never sure."
"The business is hard and many politicians think that politics is the only important thing in life. I also lived like this for a while: I have to do this, I have to do that, I have to go there, because otherwise I won't be part of the game. And you forget all the rest: you forget your family, you forget your children, you forget your partner, you just forget the normal context, because, if I will not be present, they might interprete it in a negative way. Finally it is a continuous hunt."
Pieters thinks that the rules of the political game are rather tough. A political career is a very demanding one. However, it is not only a question of the rules as such. Pieters also thinks that it is not easy for women to conquer a place in politics. Especially at the beginning. Once you manifested and proved yourself, things become easier. But time and over again, women have to fight to obtain a place in politics and structural measures are needed to book a result. Pieters finds this very frustrating.
"I found it frustrating that time and over again we had to fight to get women on the lists and that we needed quota for this. I considered this to be denigrating for women. (…) Quota are in fact anti-emancipatory, they go against the idea that women can manifest themselves. (…) It should not be this way, but it is the way that it happens. (…) Therefore, I am convinced that quota are a necessary evil. They are a useful tool, and up until today they are still a necessary instrument. Because, until we do not achieve parity, and until parity is considered to be a normal thing we are not where we have to get."
Without quota we would not be where we are. She herself has certainly benefitted from the quota, which were applied within the party. However, especially the law Smet-Tobback has had an impact, but it is not enough, given the fact that it only prescribes a quota without stipulating how to fill this in.
"The party had counted on more than one third of women elected, and then you see that here in the Lower House the number of women drops by half, from eight to four, because the party underwent a backlash. You can draw only one conclusion from this, which is that women still occupy the weakest places on the lists. From the moment parties loose it is actually the women who loose. You can also see that among the liberals the number of women rose, because they occupied the place of first successor and several liberals entered government."
Women do not occupy the really safe places on the list and the only remedy consists in the introduction of a zipper principle.
Another thing to do is to focus on the executive.
"The law Smet-Tobback is a good law, but it is not far-reaching enough because it does not consider the executive. It does not define the composition of your local executive, it does not define the composition of your provincial deputation and of your government. In my own city they started without a woman after the last elections, which I consider to be a scandal. A woman came in because of a death. That is the way you get in, but that is not correct. There needs to be a legislative embedding for all executive structures. It is fine if they want to start with ¼ and then raise it to 1/3 before reaching 50-50 which is the normal proportion that has to be achieved. But it has to be legislatively embedded."
The most important obstacles for women are the combination of work and family: the issue of time. In her own life she had to find a balance between what is required by the professional code and remaining yourself. However, there was more:
"The fact that you are the wife of the manager of a family business with a decent income makes people think: why does SHE has to enter politics?"
This attitude existed both outside and inside the party. Actually, within the party it was mainly women that played an important role for her. She never had a mentor who was geographically around. The only woman had retired and among the men she never met a mentor. But the women's political organisation of her party was a very important support for her and she learnt a lot in there. Some of these women, like Miet Smet, were a real mentor. The political women's organisation of her party was and is very important in bundling the strength and efforts of women.
However, on the whole the tresholds for women are getting less high and the attitude towards women in politics is changing. Women are gradually, very gradually entering politics in a larger number and this will be a continuous trend. It will take women a long way before they achieve parity, but we will get there.
Pieters thinks that women have to fulfil an important role in politics, that women have an added value. She thinks that women are different, that they are not as hard as men, whereas politics is a hard business. And that the added value of women consists in the fact that they might help politics to become more human. The political world will not gain anything if women follow the traditional patterns and rythms. But women can only do this if they are numerous.
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