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What the response to Christy Clark’s sex-assault story says about life for women in politics

By Nancy Peckford, Grace Lore      

The cynical reaction risks reinforcing sexism.

While some applauded British Columbia Premier Christy Clark’s courage, many others criticized the premier as playing the sympathy card. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Last week, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark waded into the broader discussion of sexual assault by breaking her own silence about her experience of sexualized violence.

She recounted her childhood, which, she noted, included not one but several advances from strangers who flashed her, groped her, and spied on her. Worse, however, was how, at 13, she was pulled into the bushes by an unknown man. When her attacker was caught off balance, Clark thankfully got away and ran the rest of the way to the restaurant where she had a part-time job.

Like so many other women, many of whom weren’t so lucky, Clark stayed silent.  Her silence, she said, was—in part—a product of the times. Except that, for millions of women, times have hardly changed since this incident involving Clark transpired almost four decades ago.

This was, and is, the point. Clark stated that in using her platform as the province’s first elected female premier, she hoped that she would not only encourage other women to share their stories but ensure that institutions better respond to sexual violence.

Further, Clark insisted that without an attitudinal shift that can only come about by bringing this discussion and these experiences from the private sphere into the public, very little would and can change.

Her brave statement is a testament to the reason we need more women in politics. Women’s personal experiences can and do influence political decisions. Having women and men in leadership improves public policy outcomes for everyone. Institutional responses to sexualized violence need improvement and Clark’s leadership based on her personal experience may help to change the way things are done, and the conversation more generally.

Clark’s willingness to pursue this dialogue using her own experience, however, is fraught. While some applauded Clark’s courage, many others criticized the premier as playing the sympathy card. Some asserted that Clark’s story was not believable. One women’s shelter representative accused Clark of an “opportunistic move.” Christie Blatchford of The National Post wrote “let’s be clear about one thing: B.C. Premier Christy Clark…wasn’t sexually assaulted.”

Many appeared to see Clark’s gesture as one intended to help her score points with women voters, not advance a policy agenda or support others to come forward. Even some who said they believed Clark indicated that they’d have to take her at her word—hinting, at the very least, to our society’s propensity to doubt or even blame survivors of violence.

The challenge with the varied responses that Premier Clark’s story garnered, much of which are profoundly cynical, is that it risks reinforcing a pervasive sexism that not only proliferates in the outside world but in the political arena as well. As the Stanford University sexual assault victim underscored all too well in her recent letter, accounts of violence are regularly minimized or ignored altogether. Those who are assaulted are often blamed, questioned, or doubted for what unfolded, and perpetrators too often avoid accountability for their actions.

Examples of how this also seeps into the political arena include, most obviously, the ongoing objectification of and preoccupation with women’s bodies. This is a recurring theme of many women’s everyday life in politics. MPs Ruth Ellen Brosseau and Michelle Rempel are but two of the women who have recently spoken out about their own experiences of verbal assaults and harassment on the basis of their appearance. In 2011, Christy Clark’s so-called cleavage became the subject of media discussion when political pundit and former MLA David Schreck questioned whether the premier’s attire was appropriate.

South of the border, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has been ridiculed with slogans including “KFC Hillary Special: two fat thighs, two small breasts, left wing.” There is campaign merchandise being sold with the slogans “Trump that Bitch” and “Bern the Witch.”

Equally troubling, however, is when the substance of women’s political choices is subject to such gendered and sexualized attacks. In 2013, one radio host labelled Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath a “whore” for dealing with the then-minority Liberal government.

When Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to join the Liberal party in 2005, much of the commentary focused on the implications for her relationship with then-Conservative MP Peter MacKay. One headline read: “Stronach leaves boyfriend as well as Tories.” In essence, Stronach’s decision was portrayed as a sexual one, not a political one. “I said that she whored herself out for power, that’s what she did,” said one Alberta MLA.

While that may seem a lifetime ago, anyone following the social media vitriol directed at Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne or the death threats against Alberta Premier Rachel Notley will see how quickly times have not changed.

Yet, the absurdity of such commentary is only evident by turning it on its head. Could any of us imagine, for instance, a tweet mentioning the tightness of a man’s pants in the House of Commons? Or a male MP being subject to relentless and sexualized verbal attacks from trolls on the basis of taking a strong position on a particular policy issue?

At its core, when women in politics are continually vulnerable and subject to these kinds of attacks, is it not surprising that they comprise only one in four MPs? If your dress/body/appearance/gender/right to life is continually questioned—if not used against you—as a public female figure, is it any wonder that many women regard politics warily?

In response to the so-called cleavage-gate in the B.C. legislature, Premier Christy Clark said, “we all want our daughters to be willing to step up and be leaders one day.” And she said: “I don’t think we can groom a lot of young female leaders if this is the level of comment we have.”

But the truth is that this reality is not only potentially limiting to future generations of women leaders, but it is also harmful to all those women serving now, in addition to those watching from the sidelines. It sends a signal to women more broadly regarding the cost they can expect to pay for saying too much, dressing too comfortably, or expecting the same respect as their male counterparts.

And if it is not challenged for what it is, we will—as Canadians—continue to pay far too high a price for its pernicious effect on politics and the policies it produces.

Grace Lore is a University of British Columbia political scientist and Equal Voice senior researcher. Nancy Peckford is Equal Voice’s executive director.

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