Profession/ Current priorities
Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments
© May 2001
Willie Swildens-RozendaalPvdA, Dutch Lower House
That went kind of automatic. I was very active in different things, like the student movement, the parent committee at the primary school of my children and things like that. With some people of the ASVA (the Amsterdam Student Union, mb*), we went quite often to the meetings of the PvdA. Then I moved to a smaller town and I became a member of the party. In 1971 and 1972 I was the ombudsperson for the party and was a member of the board of the local department of the PvdA. Yes, why? Because before that I worked in a legal aid centre, and in the village was no juridical help whatsoever. I thought it was important to give that activity substance for the political party. From that I went slowly but surely up in the party. The basis for my activities was that I had the need to do something for people. And that that got a political side has logic, because the motive for doing these things was the same as the principles of the party.
Do/did you have a role model?
No, not at all. I just fell from one position into another.
Does political involvement or policy making have a tradition in your family?
No. I know that my mother's brother and her parent were active in the SDAP (the precursor of the PvdA, mb). They were more acting on the social-democrat principle in daily practice, but no politicians. By coincidence my brother is active in the PvdA as well, and has a bit of the same career as I have, board of the local department, local council, alderman, and is very active in the VNG (Vereniging Nederlandse Gemeenten, Society of Dutch Communities, mb) at this point. So independent of each other, we both became very active in politics. There has never been a direct model in the family, but there were apparently fertile grounds.
What were important experiences you made?
The most important thing I learned is that you have to get along with your political friends, but also with your enemies. You need to create firm ground not only for co-operation but also for results. You have to take care to be on good terms with everybody. It is no use to keep your position at all times. You have to look for people who agree with you, because you need a majority if you want to achieve something. You need to build on trust. I also think that the ombudswork here is very important. Not only in the general way, when a structural solution is needed, but also in individual cases. It is important to keep on feeling with the people. I learned to deal with people in an easy way, for the people themselves, but also to do the work here in a better way, to intensify your knowledge about the political problems.
Where there disruptions in your political career path and why?
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In the student union ASVA we held a lot of political flavoured debates. And we visited the meetings of the PvdA in Amsterdam. It also coincided with my own political ideas and the ideas that I took over, consciously or unconsciously, in my youth.
Which party do you belong to? Since when?
PvdA (social democrats, mb), since about 1971.
Does your party have an equal opportunities regulation?
Yes, they have a quota of 50% for all representative bodies.
Which function/offices did you hold in your party at the beginning?
Member of the board of the local department and ombudsperson.
How long after your joining the party was that?
It was about the same time. They always need people in boards etc, and new and fresh ideas. I happened to have just moved there, and I was prepared to take that place.
How did you get into running for an office?
I criss-crossed through Northern Holland, bringing leaflets and publications for the elections around the region. I knew a lot of people. At that time, I was working as an ombudsperson in the town I lived, I was doing some translations for the Geillustreerde Pers and Kluwer, and I was making and selling graphic art. In 1981 I became the personal assistant of Aad Kosto (a former specialist and junior-minister of justice, mb). I did all the legislation for him. And I thought it was time not to stand at the sideline and say how it should be done, but to actually participate in making policy and laws. So I made myself eligible for the Provincial States of Nothern Holland in 1982. I really liked that combination, because in the provincial states I did politics, and here I had hot information. I accompanied Kosto until he disappeared behind the green curtains (the division between the civil servants and the politicians in the House used to be a green curtain. It's also an expression in Dutch- talking behind the green curtains, means to talk with influential officials which are not politicians, so you can prepare the political decisions, mb). And then he had to do it on his own. He was the one who said, why aren't you doing it yourself?
Did you have mentors within your party?
No. I didn't need one. I had the advantage that I worked as an assistant of Kosto. I not only knew all the procedures, but I also new all the people that worked in the House, from the cloak room attendants, the messengers, the employees of the canteen. And I didn't get lost in the old building with all the strange corridors and steps.
Did you ever change party affiliation?
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I have a degree in law, and I really like and am also good in making laws. But more important, as an ombudsperson I helped people with there personal problems. And here in the House, it is very important to listen to the people. When someone calls you or writes a letter, you always have to answer that person, and take their problems seriously, no matter how long they need. I don't want to call names, but there are persons here, that don't take that part of the work seriously. And I think that it's not very smart. Sometimes you hear about the gap between citizens and representatives, and we can do something about that feeling if we take everybody who knocks on our door serious.
What kind of vocational training, degrees or other professional qualification do you have?
16 years of law school: From '64 until '68 I studied quite quick. When my second child was born, in 1969, I already worked in the legal aid, I did translations and I made and sold graphical art. So I thought, why bother to finish it quickly? I had to finish two exams, and I thought, well, those will follow. But then the curriculum changed, I had to change my optional subject, and so on. That is impossible nowadays. It was nice, because I did a lot of extra subjects. And after a while I did the exams and wrote my thesis, to be finished with it.
Are you linking both your professional and your political career?
Yes- ombudswork. (But in this case her political career is her professional career. She did some other work like translating and arts- but her main career IS politics. She used to work as a personal assistant, and at the same time climbed higher and higher on the political steps, mb).
In which areas do you see your special competencies?
Besides listening to requests of citizens? I am good in being the chair at meetings. I have been the chair of the committee of Justice, and am the vice chair of the committee of Public Health, Welfare and Sports at this moment. It is not something I want to swank about, but when you are asked because you keep the meetings quite, clear-cut and pleasant, you are a good chairperson. Further, I am good in designing laws. It seems that you only can work broadly outlined here, but making laws is very precise and detailed work. You don't want to make a law where everybody has to go to the courtroom, do you? What I also like is lectures - to make a very short, condensed speech, indicate what the problem is, and what the dilemmas are. And then have a good discussion with the public.
Which are your main fields of action?
Designing the New Civil Code, and work on the edge of Public Health and Justice (like euthanasia, abortion, etc), and on the edge of Agriculture and Public Health, like genetic manipulation.
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What we all have as our goal, I think, is make a better world. Of course we can't make the whole world a better place, but every step counts. You see that small steps are made. For instance, when I started environmental protection was not very important, and nowadays there is even attention for the economic value of nature.
How and why did your objectives change during your political career?
They didn't. I just worked very hard, and saw some results over the years.
Do equal opportunity strategies - in your opinion - have an impact in your country to promote women in decision-making?
Yes. It shouldn't be, but it is. I think that it is necessary. Not that I had any trouble with it, but that is a luxurious position. My parents didn't make difference between me and my brother. When I became part of different boards, I thought it was very normal. I didn't ask the question if it was different or difficult. In about 1974 I was invited to hold a lecture about women in politics. They chose me, because I was not known for my feminist attitude, and they thought that men would participate in the discussion if it wasn't a feminist who talked about the subject. Then I started studying the material, and I was very furious and shocked about the things that happened to other women. I was ashamed of the things that happened to a colleague of mine in the city council! I think that if you are not a victim of sexism, you don't see it. That is the case with men as well. And so, I didn't make the speech as they expected from a non-feminist, but told them that it was a shame, especially that women like me, and men, who were not a victim of discrimination don't actually know what it means. From that moment on, I was conscious of it. That is expected from women politicians anyway, that every decision you make is made in that light. When men recognize that there is discrimination, than it is possible that men also behave in the interests of women. I think it is good that we strive for parity, because we have a society with two flavours. And you see that decision-making is different in a context with only men or in a context of parity. The way discussion is held is different, and that correlates very closely with the decisions that are made. And not only is it important that issues of emancipation- not even women's issues, but emancipation issues- are of interest of both men and women, it is also important in what way they are treated.
How do you judge these strategies?
Necessary evil. There are a lot of people who dislike the women's movement, because they want to reach something, and ask too much. With that they created a lot of resistance. And I do understand that position- because I wouldn't want to identify myself with this picture, although the goal they wanted to reach was very reasonable. If we are with a lot of women, you don't have to yell so loud that people are going to dislike you. You can just be yourself.
Do you see direct or indirect discrimination in conventional policy making?
Yes. When there are no women or only one woman in a meeting, the men tend to forget the women's standpoint and can make decisions that are not in the women's interests.
What is it that keeps women from committing themselves to politics?
Do they? I don't see that. In my department there are a lot of women- even more women then men.
What are the major obstacles that women need to overcome in their endeavour to participate in political decision-making?
I think that that is very personal. I know that the women that entered through the women's department Rooie Vrouwen (Red Women, mb) had more trouble than women like me. The first group of women are constantly aware of the obstacle they have to conquer, while women like me don't even see them. They choose to look at it that way. But in practice, here in the House, I don't see it at all. Also not in my past. I heard from a colleague, that she had to do the work for 200% to be taken seriously in the local council, while the male colleague opened his mail at the meeting and everybody listened to him. But I also think that has to do with the differences in political parties. This man was a member of a local party, and his power was not in knowledge but in social contacts in the community. In our party knowledge is the most important thing.
Which are the obstacles you had to fight in your own political career?
* mb stands for Milja Bos, who interviewed Ms. Arthie Schimmel. She gives brief explanations in brackets.
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