© Jan 2001
Myriam VanlerbergheMyriam Vanlerberghe grew up in a political family. Her father was a socialist politician for many years. They were very much involved in the political environment of the socialist pillar, ie its civil society organisations and institutions. She was involved in socialist pillar's youth activities, mainly sports facilities. She was a member of the socialist pillar's health insurance's youth movement, became a monitor and for years was involved in training and monitoring monitors. Since the age of 16 she also was a member of the socialist party's women's movement.
"It has always been my hobby to participate in many activities organised by the socialist pillar, and it grew out of this commitment. It was actually something logic. I felt at home there and I continued in that track."
She became a member of the SP at the age of 18. She must have been a member of the party before, there were family membership cards and she supposes that her family had such a card. But she became a member herself when she earned her first own money during the summer holidays. The choice of the party itself was very easy, it was actually not even a real choice.
"At home we had such a strong relationship with that party, that it was evident that I would become a member of the party. I never really thought about it."
Her hobby and political career became one in the course of time, when she switched to party-politics for professional reasons. Vanlerberghe is trained as a teacher, and when finishing her studies she applied for the job as federal secretary at the socialist pillar's cultural cel, which was vacant at that moment. It was actually the first time ever that a woman applied for that job. This was in 1984. She stayed there for more than 10 years, until 1995, the year she got elected to the Lower House.
In the run up to the 1995 elections the party asked her to stand. She stood on what was considered to be an uneligible place but nonetheless got elected. At that time a political mandate was actually not really an ambition of hers.
"The children were very small at that moment and I said that it was not really what I was waiting for at that moment. I didn't have the urgent need to become a parliamentarian. People considered this to be strange, kind of 'is she not keen on this?', but no, I wasn't."
Neither did she really feel ready for it.
"We have been a very small circumscription. Due to the fusion of circumscriptions we became bigger and one year later there were the elections. I grew with this process, but I was still reconnoitring the field. And when they asked me I said' I'm actually not yet ready for this, but if you, the party, consider this to be appropriate, then I also consider this to be appropriate'."
Becoming an MP was not really a conscious choice, it was not really something she absolutely wanted to achieve at that moment. It were the others who opened the way for her, due to a conjunction of circumstances. She had a potential, her name, which was the name of her father. Her father was reaching the endpoint of his career. He had always gained a considerable number of votes. And from the party's point of view it would be crazy not to use the potential she had to recuperate part of her father's votes. There were other reasons, too, for sure. She had ten years experience within the federal party structures.
The situation was similar when it comes to the 1999 federal elections. The party d ecided to put her on the electoral list for the Upper House. She occupied the second place, and was the first woman on the list. This was an eligible place and hence since last summer she is a Senator.
It somehow all followed a certain logic. She had been involved in the party structures since long. First as a hobby, then on a professional level. For herself it is difficult to say when her political career started, because she actually never conceived it these terms. Now her function is different from before, but it is still a function related to the party.
She considers herself to be very lucky, because she got opportunities offered. It is true that she grasped then, but she must admit that they were offered to her.
And she thinks that the fact of being a woman did also play a role. There is for the moment a trend of positive discrimination. Since 1992 the party had guidelines in the statute stipulating that there have to be 25% of women in both the executive and on the electoral lists at all levels. After that came the gender quota law Smet-Tobback and more recently the party goes for parity. Now for the local elections lists on the basis of parity are the aim. And even if it is but an aim, it has a certain effect, because the local party branches now feel that they cannot allow themselves to book too weak results.
We should not feel guilty about quota.
"The difficult thing about women in politics is that they say 'we should give them more chances' and once the elections come and chances are given to women they say 'it is because she is a woman'. Well, it is obvious that if during three years you keep saying that you give women more chances you then do it. But it is the way it is done that gives you a feeling of guilt, it feels as if being a woman is the only reason. They do not come and tell you 'it is this or that which you did very well', that's not the way it gets explained. It is a fact that parties give women chances and we should not feel guilty about it. You choose to have more women in politics and if you are serious about it, well then you have to do it. It is kind of logic. There is a certain movement to make women catch up and if we now feel guilty about it, we're back to zero."
But we must be aware of the fact that quota might have counter-effects.
"The danger consists in the fact that it might become pure symbolism, and we really have to make sure to put the right man and woman on the right place. (…)I'm really scared that we only consider the sex of the woman in question. You have to dare say honestly, not all men are good candidates but neither are all women."
What you see with women, especially at the local level, is a much higher turnover. This is partly due to the fact that quota do not always attract the right woman.
"You sometimes get the problem that you find women with the wrong ambition. You really have to want to do it, you really have to like to do it. You cannot just go into politics because you get the opportunity to do so."
But there are other factors, too. Vanlerberghe cannot see any direct discrimination of women. But there are serious thresholds for women to enter politics or to remain in politics. A first element is the lack of time.
"A prerequisite to have more women in politics is to provide them with the time to do so. And, well, providing time, there are not ten ways to do so. Women in politics are mainly women who have children, which are old enough to stay alone, so you wait very long. This is not always an advantage, but this is the way it happens. I think, in order to really make young women enter politics, you have to provide them with time, so that they can sit in a meeting without feelings of guilt."
This is linked to a second threshold for women: women get more remarks on the issue of combining a political career with family duties than do men.
"A second form of discrimination is that you have to get over the bridge of feelings of guilt. This eternal question of whether everything is alright, of where the children are when you are late because the small one is ill. The fact that they continuously refer to your home situation. Men are not asked these questions, so they do not even have to think about it. Since all these years I experience that they ask me other questions than men. That cannot be done! (…) They often ask it out of pure sympathy, but I feels heavy, this continuous reference to your home situation, your mother function or your woman function."
However, on the whole the opportunities for women are not bad for the moment.
"But on the other hand we also have to be honest, I think that young women who today the day start in politics with real motivation, get more opportunities than young men."
And that is a real problem, because you can feel that men, and especially young men fear for their career chances and form groups.
Vanlerberghe thinks that it is very important not to loose sight of new women who enter politics, nor of the general position of women within the party.
"In that sense I'm sometimes considered to be too mild within the women's organisation. I do not feel for radical positions and claims. But that is perhaps also due to the fact that I do not feel that men really want to discriminate me. Because, it is true, once you've been in there for a while you don't feel it anymore. But you then still have to think of those who come after you and who still have to get started. I've been in there for such a long time now, and I have my place in that group. I'm over the threshold and then you easily think 'is it really necessary, all this positive discrimination, because I also got there. Then I have to realise that others have certainly fought for me and now it's my turn to think of those who will come after me, because the fight is not yet over."
Something very important in this context is to have people around that can advise and support you.
"You need people with experience who support you, that is important. Personally I did not have a mentor, I cannot say 'THIS person has brought me where I am'. My mentor, that was to a certain extent my father. He was very happy that I entered politics and I did not have to ask a question twice in order to get an answer. I think that it is important to have someone experienced around in order to find your way in politics. But I cannot say that someone has told me like a teacher 'you have to do this or that', no that did not happen. However, what I see is that certain people of the elder generation do not impose themselves but are nonetheless very happy if they feel they can help. And that did happen, at certain difficult moments I especially got support from elder colleagues. And I think that is important. I fully realise that you need people with experience."
Vanlerberghe's political activity is something that grew out of a general concern for #equality. As a child she was easily shocked, she quickly considered situations not to be fair. Her choice for the socialist party might in that sense have been a logical consequence of this.
"It might be too general, but the basic idea is: this is not fair and what can I do about it in order to make the situation a bit fairer?"
She considers that politicians look too much at the facts and figures and think too little of the human being. There is too little heart in politics. She sees that an evolution is taking place, that a new vision on society is evolving, that the human being is more and more considered, but this goes very slowly.
The topic she wants to focus most on reflects this issue. Her main concern consists in redistributing work between people who have a lot of time and those who do not. It is especially the reconsideration of the statue of the entire set of reproductive tasks, the way this work could be redistributed and financed. Nowadays a lot of this work does not get properly done and is financed through a parallel circuit. But people start to realise how much work reproductive tasks form because the traditional distribution of roles is becoming less evident. A redistribution of these tasks and a proper regulation on how to finance this would improve the situation a lot.
Her strong point is that she tries to place the human being central, that she tries to be present, to feel what is going on and than to work out problems in co-operation with others. She is not the theorist. For that she seeks the help of others within the party. And that is important, too. The more you co-operate the more you suggestions get supported.
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