My persuasion can build a nation

With looming election, B.C. still lacks gender equality in politics.

By Samantha Thompson

[special to The Runner] 

In 1991, Linda Reid, newly-elected Richmond East MLA, had to fight for more women’s washrooms in the legislature. As preposterous as that sounds today, B.C. is still far from achieving gender equality in its political system.

When it comes to provincial politics, Canada is in an unprecedented scenario. As it stands right now, six women are premiers of a Canadian province or territory. Five of them are the first female premiers of their respective provinces/territories, and all, save for two, have now successfully won a general election and have been elected by the citizens they are meant to lead. The remaining two, Christy Clark in B.C. and Kathleen Wynne in Ontario, have not yet had the opportunity to run in a general election. Wynne will not face the polls until Oct. 1, 2015, but Clark’s date with the B.C. electorate is fast approaching: the general election for B.C. will be held on May 14, 2013.

“That’s a wonderful, wonderful breakthrough,” says Dr. Tim Schouls, a political studies professor at Capilano University, of the six female leaders. However, he acknowledges that it is still premature to know the impact that this situation will have on the Canadian political climate as a whole.

“I think it’s awfully early to know, it’s unprecedented … in fact, most of the time when we’ve had female premiers or prime ministers, they’ve come in as a result of having been elected by their party and assuming office, but not being successful in the first provincial or federal election that they’ve faced.”

In B.C., there are diverse problems facing women interested in becoming politicians: including the amount of time spent away from families, as a result of long treks to Victoria or Ottawa; the adversarial nature of the political debate system; and even just the nomination process to stand for election in the party — which becomes an all-consuming preoccupation, says Schouls.

“You put all of that together, and it’s not surprising that women are present in political life at rates of 25 to 30 per cent. It seems to be that we have to recalibrate the whole system in some way that invites women into the dialogue about how we structure the relationships within politics and the institutions associated with them, before we’re going to see significant shift or change.”

With a lack of women in the legislature comes an under-representation of women’s issues in policy as well. According to an article in the Vancouver Sun by Cathy Huth, Carolyn Jack, et al., the United Nations states that at least one-third of representatives need to be women in a government body in order to produce public policy in tune with concerns that are key to women.

In a province where there is not even a ministry for women’s issues, it is uncertain where B.C.’s priorities lie in terms of gender equality. Its history suggests that British Columbians are not the biggest fans of female leaders — after all, they have had five opportunities to do so and have yet to elect a female premier in a general election.
When it comes down to it, maybe they’re not ready to place a woman in a position of power.

MISS INDEPENDENT

When Christy Clark was elected leader of the B.C. Liberal party, and consequently the premier of B.C., the reaction was similar to when the Americans first elected President Barack Obama. “Look at us,” people would say, “We are so forward thinking because we have an African-American president! Racism no longer exists!”

With Clark, many British Columbians were overjoyed with how progressive they were, having a female premier for only the second time in the province’s history. The general agreement was that this was evidence gender equality had been achieved.

Schouls acknowledges that Clark being elected leader of the B.C. Liberals has had some positive impact on the political climate in B.C. “I think that from the perspective of optics … and from the perspective of indicating to girls and young women that women can assume the leadership of parties, and … provinces, this is a wonderful moment in our own political history.”

When discussing gender equality in politics, it is very easy to write it off as making a big deal about something that no longer exists. Perhaps it is simply a coincidence that female party leaders have never won in a B.C. election, but it is still a situation that warrants discussion.

“If we consider ‘equality’ to being half of the legislature as women, then we definitely haven’t [achieved it],” says Ashley Fehr, political organizer and member of the NDP. Currently, only 31 per cent of MLAs are women.

“For the time being, because we live in a patriarchal culture, I do think that men monopolize power in our society, there’s no question in my mind. Women have, through their own persistence over the course of centuries, begun to break that monopoly down,” says Schouls.

“[The] thing that concerns me is the structural barriers that exist, that women have to overcome to be successful in political life,” he says. “The game … of politics is set up according to the rules that men have generated, that they have traditionally felt more comfortable in.”

B.C.’s history towards female party leaders is short but telling. There have been 10 women as party leaders since 1903. The Social Credit party had Rita Johnston (1991-92) and Grace McCarthy (1993-94). The B.C. NDP had Joy MacPhail (2001-03), Carole James (2003-11) and Dawn Black (Jan. to Apr. 2011). The B.C. Liberals had Shirley McLoughlin (1981-1988) and now Christy Clark (2011-). It is worth noting that the B.C. Green party, although never forming government, had both Adriane Carr (1983-85 and 2000-06) and Jane Sterk (2007-).

There were also other women who ran in leadership races, but lost — often by a significant margin. In 1993, for example, Linda Reid was a candidate for Liberal leadership, but lost with 166 votes to victor Gordon Campbell’s 4141.

“When I worked on the federal leadership campaign for a female candidate, I was told by many longtime members of the NDP that Canada isn’t ready for a female leader,” says Fehr. “If NDP members think that Canada isn’t ready, then I can certainly guarantee that voters in B.C. have felt the same way.”

There have been five B.C. elections in which female leaders were candidates. In 2003, the B.C. NDP had a female leader for the first time in history (MacPhail was an interim leader), Carole James, and it came after a 2001 election where they had lost for the first time in 10 years. It would be ignorant to suppose that gender was the only factor at play; it is well recognized that the NDP had been on the decline leading up to that general election. However, when Rita Johnston ran for the Socreds in 1991, her party lost to the NDP for the first time in 16 years.

“It’s just bad luck,” Schouls says of the losses. “But having said that, if I could speculate, it might be that parties are more inclined to elect female leaders when there’s this sort of downward drag in the party’s fortunes, than when there seems to be an upward climb that would put them in a position of power. Whether that is self-conscious and transparent and an actual motivation of the party membership … I can’t think that it would be. But it’s conceivable.”

“On the other hand, in politics the time between elections is still relatively short. And presumably you would want as a party the best person in the position of leader to begin to re-establish your credibility so as to make you a viable alternative government in waiting, as quickly as possible.” Christy Clark is now up for a similar battle as the one Carole James faced more than a decade ago. The B.C. Liberals have been struggling recently, particularly in light of their “ethnic vote” scandal, where the NDP leaked a memo detailing the Liberals’ plans to make a series of apologies for historical wrongs to assist in some “easy wins.” Clark is also up against a particularly strong candidate in her riding, David Eby. Eby was previously executive director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, and lost to Clark in the by-election by less than 100 votes.

TAKE THIS PINK RIBBON OFF MY EYES

Although election history can provide insight when it comes to gender and politics, it alone is not enough to demonstrate the inequality that exists in B.C.’s Legislature — and the opinions presented by some B.C. voters. It is nicely complemented by websites like Madam Premier, a blog dedicated to exposing the sexist discourse and comments directed at Canada’s female premiers. The blog is run by Diamond Isinger, a communications and online strategy consultant who has worked on B.C. Liberal and Vision Vancouver campaigns.

What becomes evident through the posts, is that the comments female premiers are receiving are much more explicit, violent, and personal than those made to male premiers. Included amongst them are comments like, “Christy hasn’t got me convinsed [sic]!!! Other than her big tits, she just hasn’t got it going for her !!!! [sic],” and “Send her on a date with me I’ll fuck her up real good.”

“Women are so often viewed as objects, that even women in positions of power are torn down based on their appearance or the sexist notion that women don’t belong in politics for many reasons, including hormones,” says Fehr. “You’ll never hear someone say, ‘Men have so much testosterone, what if Stephen Harper is just filled with rage one day and declares war on Obama?’ That sounds ridiculous, yet it’s one of the most common criticisms for women in positions of leadership.”

While Clark is far from the only politician at the receiving end of sexist comments, other concerns have been raised about how she reacts to them. In January, Clark was interviewed by Drex, a DJ on Courtenay’s JetFM. He asked her if she enjoyed being a MILF (Mommy I’d Like to Fuck). Despite Clark’s reportedly initially being “taken aback” by the question, Alex Tsakumis, creator of political blog Rebel With a Clause, reported that the DJ had received a phone call from Clark, thanking him for his apologetic letter and wishing him luck in his new job. Clark was criticized for responding to the question at all, with suggestions that she should’ve refused to answer (in her response, she said she’d prefer to be called a MILF than a cougar).

“Her retort was in keeping with the questions, which was almost as though to say, ‘if you’re going to play this silly game, I’m going to play it too,’” says Schouls.
The fight for gender equality in politics can become difficult when the victims themselves are laughing off the comments, and thereby seemingly validating them. Granted, Clark is not the first female politician to face discrimination on the basis of her gender.

“Female candidates are told to make sure they have their hair kept up and preferably pulled back if it’s long,” says Fehr. “They’re told to avoid bright colours and avoid certain types of jewellery — essentially they’re told to avoid looking ‘too feminine’ or ‘too much like a woman,’ if they want to be taken seriously — and if they want to win.”

“Like the rest of life, women are judged on their looks, their hair, their wardrobe and how they act,” says Jane Thornthwaite, B.C. Liberal MLA for North Vancouver-Seymour. “I am sure you have heard that if a man is assertive he is a good leader, but a woman may be deemed aggressive with the same behaviour. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

Thornthwaite notes that she has seen an increase in personal attacks since Clark was elected, including sexist comments on social media and from the mainstream media. “Rarely do people make comment on men’s clothes — or if they are overweight or not — but they certainly do make comments on what the Premier wears, and how she looks,” says Thornthwaite. “Also, all politicians make announcements and have photographers reporting, recording and photographing what they do. However, the Premier is accused of doing ‘photo ops’ when she is simply doing what all other politicians do during their jobs. Perhaps being ‘photogenic’ is a disadvantage if you are a woman.”

YOU OUGHTA KNOW

One of the biggest problems currently facing female politicians, says Fehr, is that, “We are viewing gender equality as a ‘women’s issue.’” At some levels of government, cross-party women’s caucuses have been established for elected representatives to gather and discuss issues particularly pertaining to women.

“It’s like the fact that they share that fundamental attribute, namely being women first, is what motivates them to do the work that they do,” says Schouls. “The fact that they are divided politically, by virtue of their party allegiance, is very much secondary to their initiative. It suggests that women don’t have to be of a particular political ideology in order to be validated as women in political office.”

There are other projects similarly working to increase the amount of women in the province’s politics. A project out of B.C., the Women’s Campaign School, worked to get more women involved in the political process. With its participants, instructors go over what it takes to be elected, and issues that are specific to women.

Thornthwaite, a graduate of the school (along with politicians like Joyce Murray, Jane Sterk and Ellen Woodsworth), points out that there are many factors that come into play when a woman is deciding whether or not to run for office.

“The difference I noted was that men do not have a problem being confident that they can win. Women do,” she says. “They question whether they even have the time to serve in elected office.” One of the first things she asked MLA Linda Reid, a director of the Campaign School, was about running for office while still having time for her children and family. Reid was lucky in that her husband and mother were able to support her, but unfortunately not all potential candidates have this support network. The nomination period, when potential candidates have to collect signatures of support to show enough people would vote for them if they ran for office, is “a very good test as to whether you can handle the time and commitment required,” says Thornthwaite.

In addition to the Women’s Campaign School, there are also organizations that are advocating for greater representation of women in politics. Equal Voice BC, for example, calls on political parties to put forward more women as candidates.

THANKS FOR MAKING ME A FIGHTER

Going into the 2013 provincial election, the B.C. Liberals and B.C. NDP are each running approximately 25 to 30 female candidates, so far. The Green party is running around 10, the Conservatives, one, and there are two independent female candidates as well. However, having female candidates in the election race can only go so far. We live in a province where, sadly, gender equality is not always a priority. B.C. is a province without a Minister for Women’s Affairs. Yes, the NDP has a critic for women’s issues (Sue Hammell), but there is no one assigned to a portfolio where actual money is being spent to explore and advance issues that are unique to women.

“In one respect, we might say, yes it’s important that you have someone responsible for looking at all issues through a woman’s perspective,” says Schouls. “But on the other hand we might say, that if you have someone specifically designated for that, it suggests that women’s issues are separate from every other issue that has been identified as worthy of cabinet attention.” He suggests that the way to go may be to have each minister equally sensitized to different gender perspectives for their portfolio.

There have been many suggestions regarding potential methods to get more women involved in politics, although the effectiveness of each is heavily debated. Schouls suggests one approach, which is guaranteeing representation for women, through a system restructuring to proportional representation, establishing party quotas for nominating women, or trying the Nunavut proposal of having one female and one male representing each riding.

“I think that there is general acceptance that women can do what is required, and certainly have the education and business experience that men do,” says Thornthwaite. “I don’t believe in quotas because women need to get elected on their own terms — not just because they are women. However, there is still a gender inequality regarding how women are judged once they are elected.”

The solution for gender inequality in the province’s politics is not going to come easily – but it won’t come at all unless we acknowledge that there is in fact a problem.

SO TAKE ME AS I AM

“We think we have equality,” says Fehr. “We have a few strong female voices in provincial politics so we think we have an equal representation, but when we actually take a moment to consider who is doing the talking, it’s the same few women.” She points out that unless voters are realizing this and making it an issue, it won’t become part of political discourse.

“Because our politicians aren’t talking about the social infrastructure needed for these issues, women are staying out of politics,” she adds. “Until we talk about these issues [that matter to women] and create a society where we value these issues, the political arena will be unwelcoming to women.” With the provincial election coming up quickly, B.C. voters have the chance to create change in the political sphere. They can demand respect for all candidates, regardless of gender, and they can vote for someone based off of their qualifications, not because they are a man or a woman. In the end, it is everyone’s job to fight for gender equality.

“The point we ultimately want to arrive at,” says Schouls, “[is] that the fact that one is male or female is utterly and completely irrelevant — that what one is concerned about, is that the credentials of the candidate are strong and solid, and that he or she will be an excellent MLA.”

“But I think we’ve got a long ways to go on this one, still.”

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