We are back with the 50:50 NI Interview series. This week 50:50 NI meets Rachel Woods. Rachel is the Green Party MLA for North Down and served on Ards and North Down Borough Council before becoming a Member of the Legislative Assembly.
Have you always been interested in politics?
No, I was not always interested in politics. In school, I studied politics as part of history and then went on to study it at A-Level.
My family always talked about politics at home but that was just the news to me. There were debates at the kitchen table about the news and politics. I was aware that The Good Friday Agreement was a really important thing because I’d heard my parents discussing it. I was also aware that Mo Mowlam was really important.
When I was younger, my school decided to have a ‘mock’ election and that was the first time I really became aware of party politics and how you can be seen to be different from other people in that way. Other students were asking about things like ‘what party your parents vote for’ and that kind of thing had just never occurred to me before. I didn’t know!
At university, I got involved in politics in terms of going to protests and caring about social justice issues. When I was 18 there was an election and I was so excited to get the chance to vote. I thought it was amazing that I could vote and didn’t understand why other people didn’t vote. Like I really couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t so excited to put an ‘x’ in a box!
My undergrad Involved a bit of politics and after that, I did my masters in terrorism and security so that was very political. I then joined the Greens and got involved in volunteering and helping out in the endless elections we’ve had over the last few years. Then our councillor stepped down for personal reasons. I was asked if I want to run to be co-opted in. I certainly never saw myself being an elected politician. But yeah, the rest is history!
That’s great to hear. I also was not interested in politics when I was young. So that is nice to hear. I also remember being so excited to vote the first time I voted.
Is there anything in particular that inspired you to join a party and get into politics?
I was fed up screaming at the TV. So fed up with politicians in my area who were supposed to represent me and who just didn’t. They had a completely different experience and narratives. I would hear these politicians saying what was best for my area and I realised that was just not what I thought at all. The division as well, the orange and green narrative and divisive community politics. I just thought, where is the youth voice? Where is the social justice? Where is the green, environmental voice?
So I got into the party because I cared about social justice issues. I got involved and felt like I really belonged in that party and that helped me feel more empowered to get involved in community issues. When the opportunity came along to be an elected politician I was like “Yeah sure, I’ll give it a go”. You know I had kept telling everyone that we were not representing certain sectors of the population, that there weren’t enough young people or women in politics so when the opportunity came along I, a young woman, couldn’t turn it down. Four years later, here we are.
Great, so what did you do before becoming a politician, work-wise?
So my entire life was in the hospitality industry. I started working in hospitality when I was 15. I have worked in catering, cafes, pubs and restaurants. I still technically worked in a pub up until this year. I worked Sundays up until we had to close due to Covid-19.
After I completed my Masters I went to work for the Financial Times. I worked as a research analyst for Analyse Africa. I did data, statistics and reports on Africa. Which was great. Apart from that my whole life has been in hospitality and I absolutely love it.
That’s amazing when I was a student I worked mostly in retail but I also worked as a barista during and after my masters and I loved it!
It’s one of those industries, you either love it or hate it but I cannot sing hospitality’s praises enough. Like it is tough, the hours are long, treatment by customers can, at times, be bad but also the camaraderie, the stories you hear, your work family can be really great! I can’t fault it.
I’m sure that definitely prepared you for your life as an elected representative.
I have done every level of the hospitality industry, cleaning, chef, behind the bar, everything. It teaches you a lot of teamwork and how everyone has to work together. You need to teach yourself patience and how to listen in this industry.
As an MLA I’m dealing with people every day who need help or sometimes just a shoulder to cry on. Behind a bar that’s what you do every day! You definitely need people skills to do this job. These are not things you can learn from doing a degree. No course can teach you that. You just have to learn them through practice and 100% that industry has helped me so much.
Is there one particular issue that you are passionate about?
I mean broadly I am passionate about the climate crisis.
It’s linked to everything. As I said earlier I got involved in party politics because I was interested in social justice and there is no social justice without climate justice. The two things are completely linked. It affects every single person in our society and in the world. I know we are dealing with covid right now and also trying to figure out Brexit but climate justice is the defining issue of our time, it’s going to eclipse everything and it’s not going to go away. It is something we have to deal with. We have to have a just transition to deal with it. We have to decommission from carbon and we can do that in a fair way. It doesn’t have to be at the detriment of the lowest paid. We can create jobs, we can build homes, we can have good quality, local, sustainable food, and we can have a thriving environment.
It’s so important, it’s something everyone should care about. It’s massively on the agenda thanks to young people, it is phenomenal what young people are doing. There really is no social justice without climate justice. These two things are completely linked and they have to be seen in that way.
There are other more explicit issues I’m passionate about such as domestic abuse which I am working on at the moment.
The Green Party was the only party that was taking climate change seriously when I was at uni which is why I joined the Greens. They were also the only party looking at it through that lens of rights and justice.
Amazing, it’s just so much more useful to frame it in terms of rights otherwise it is a problem that people find it hard to relate to reality, right? And it’s so gendered which people don’t realise.
Yes, in terms of food supply and weather patterns and the cost of food. Who doesn’t own land? who doesn’t have security? Women! It’s massively gendered.
In your experience what do you think is the toughest thing about being a woman in politics?
Well, lots of things. It’s hard work. In terms of gender, the vile comments that are made about women in the political arena, especially in party leadership. What they wear, what shoes they are wearing, what they look like, their hair, makeup, personal life, what age they are. Like, you would ever ask a male politician is he married or does he have kids. You’d never see someone online commenting on a male politician’s appearance.
I understand that being in the public eye does gain comments. The misogyny is tough though. For me, there are issues like men expecting me to go to their house for house visits or phoning me at inappropriate times. There is an entitlement there. Social media is pretty bad and I personally don’t even get it that bad. I tend not to engage as much. I know some female politicians who do engage and they get so much back.
I think back to my time in council and it was very different from my experience as an MLA. My council was very male-dominated and some of these men had very questionable views on women. You know, they think that women should be at home, having babies and looking after their man. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be asked would I make the tea or asked you know ‘Rachel you clean that up, you should be used to it anyway’. I would be there to chair a meeting and I’m being asked to make tea. It’s all said as a joke but it’s not.
My experience in the assembly has definitely been better, in council older men would come up and touch you inappropriately but that hasn’t happened in the assembly.
Do you think that could be because the assembly is more in the spotlight?
I’m not sure, the Council is just very different. It could be. It could be because I am new to the Assembly.
For me the nerves and anxiety and the lack of confidence are tough. The internal voice telling you not to speak out, but you just have to ignore it.
Do you think women have imposter syndrome maybe?
Oh definitely, well I do anyway! That’s something I have to work on. I’m not going to be scared to put my position out there.
So it’s definitely tough to be a woman in politics. What do you think is the best part of being a woman in politics?
Oh, all of it!
I’m really, really privileged to be in this position. You have a platform to help people and raise issues. You give people advice, you listen to their stories. You get to make legislation and policy. That is a really big privilege. I’m so grateful because this is not something the majority of people get to do and I really enjoy it.
There are ups and downs and the ups far outweigh the downs.
There are a lot of barriers to women getting into politics. You know, what we’ve talked about, harassment, long hours etc. If you could do one thing to make it easier or increase the number of women in politics what would it be?
Running more female candidates. The green party always has 50:50 during an election and we were the first party to run a trans candidate. Ideally, we wouldn’t need this but we aren’t there yet because we don’t have enough women.
Childcare as well, the long hours are just not family-friendly. We need a proper childcare strategy for everyone here. I find it hard to spend time with my family and my partner at the moment and I don’t have children.
In terms of more women in electoral politics quotas definitely need to be looked at. Ideally, we wouldn’t be in a situation to need them.
That’s so important, especially that you mentioned your trans candidate. At 50:50 NI we are obviously passionate about getting 50% representation of women but we want those women to represent society. You know, we need queer women and women of colour and working-class women and everything in between.
Ok, so this is the last question. If a woman reads this or is just generally interested in getting into politics. What advice would you give her?
Go for it! If that is something you want to do, definitely try it.
My advice for anyone wanting to get involved in electoral politics – scope it out first. Go and speak to friendly politicians, speak to me! You could shadow a politician if you have the time. Communities are very important, so get involved in your local area. You might not want to get elected, but you may want to volunteer, to work on policy, or internally – there are so many areas to look at. I am happy to talk to anyone about it. But if electoral politics is something that you want to do, go for it!
If you are interested in getting into politics or are even just curious about how it all work get in touch with 50:50 NI at firstname.lastname@example.org