OTTAWA—Much ado has been made about the strong participation by both women and men at the various Women’s Marches held after Donald Trump’s inauguration. There’s no doubt that the turnout took many by surprise, including some of the organizers. Aside from the thousands that showed up, the intergenerational and ethnocultural diversity was truly impressive, as was the participation of individuals from across the political spectrum.
Journalists have been keen to ask the question, “What comes next?” How does such mass mobilization—in response to a political moment—translate into sustained activism and increased civic engagement? The answer to that question is twofold.
First of all, there is already in Canada (and across the globe) an array of vibrant networks of women, and civil society organizations, that work extremely hard every day to address women’s economic, social, and political inequality. In Canada and the U.S., this network has been in existence for several decades, and those who are employed by or volunteer with these organizations do so not for the prestige, but out of their steadfast commitment and dedication to improving women’s lives. Many of these organizations punch well above their weight, providing invaluable services to their communities on woefully modest budgets, and with little recognition.
Yet, they persist and sometimes prevail in terms of shifting pubic dialogue on issues including violence against women, access to health care, women in the economy, matrimonial laws, and a myriad of other matters. The marches earlier this month are, in some ways, a testament to their strength and capacity to survive over many decades and in many different political environments, sometimes hostile.
So, while it may come as a surprise that so many women and men showed up at these marches, the underpinning of the movement, fragmented as it may be, for women’s human rights and equality is well-established, despite limited resources, a long standing anti-feminist backlash and burnout among those in the movement itself.
But there is no doubt that this “movement” has not reflected the values and perspectives of all women. It bears repeating that women, just like their male counterparts, are an incredibly diverse group (shockingly!) shaped by their life experiences, educational opportunities, family circumstances, and a range of other factors. Many are not motivated to be part of a collective movement advocating for women’s equality rights, and enact their own strategies to be respected and treated equally in their workplaces, communities and at home.
These women may be better resourced or less attuned to structural and systemic inequality, or fortunate enough to have experienced a relatively level playing field. Consequently, they have been indifferent to or rejected a formal “movement” for women’s equality and human rights, and waged any battles they have had to confront privately, if at all.
Regardless, all these women deserve a voice at the political table, and far more need to think strategically about how to engage in the woefully messy and imperfect system that we call democracy, on whatever side of the border they may be. Americans elected the exact same number of women to this current U.S. Congress as they did in the last one. Women’s representation is just under 20 per cent. (In Canada, it’s just 26 per cent, 88 MPs, in case you thought we were doing significantly better). These U.S. Congresswomen, Republican or Democrat, will have an uphill battle in terms of infusing debates and deliberations in the House or the Senate with their perspectives.
This reality is exacerbated by the heightened and often violent vitriol to which women in politics are now regularly subjected, via social media and other means. Last week, more elected women (this time Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath) shared with reporters some of the misogyny directed their way on a daily basis. It’s truly horrifying, and if you let it be, debilitating. These revelations are on top of equally troubling vitriol directed at Newfoundland’s finance minister, Alberta’s Rachel Notley and Sandra Jansen, among others.
One of the only ways to counter such misogyny is, quite simply, for many more women across the ideological spectrum to take up their rightful place in the political sphere. While it’s not easy, it’s time for more women to serve on their local riding associations, consider putting their names on the ballot, and/or support (badger!) a woman you admire to actually run for office. Whether or not you consider yourself part of the “movement” that came out in full force after Trump’s inauguration, your voice, as a woman, matters. Often more than you know.
But taking that great leap of faith into the electoral arena is crucial for that voice to really count, and to sustaining a vibrant democracy. What’s next after the marches? A new and exciting wave of women seeking and serving in elected office south of the border and here at home. Our job now is to pave the way.
Nancy Peckford is the executive director of Equal Voice, a national multi-partisan organization dedicated to the election of more women to all levels of government in Canada.
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