OTTAWA—As North Americans witnessed this past week, unforeseen breakthroughs for women in Quebec’s municipal elections and in state elections across the border, their wins signal a potential new (and better-late-than-never) era for women in politics.
And while there is no doubt that many women have simply had enough, thank you very much, the story of their electoral participation is not just one of anger, or frustration, but impact. Many of the women who have recently thrown their hat in the ring have done so from a place of deeply rooted advocacy and engagement in their communities. Their desire to run is partly out of frustration and anger, but more so by the difference they can make on the ballot, and in office should they be so fortunate.
These women—who are often little known to party apparatuses prior to their courageous entry into election campaigns—and who have been frequently written off by the political and media establishment—see the opportunity for impact very differently than a (male) political veteran would.
By virtue of their day-to-day lives as care-givers, workers, and community members, most women motivated to run understand, in a very human way, the lost opportunity when politics is not reflective of those who have little economic or social capital, and who are often the most negatively impacted by the policies that follow.
The widely celebrated win of Virgina’s first transgender state legislator is just one example of this. Asked why she ran, she did not refer to her gender or sexual identity but in fact stated “Because I’m fed up with the frickin’ road [sic] in my home town.” Yes, ideological considerations, no doubt, figured in her race, but the lived experience of ordinary citizens dependent on public services mattered just as much, if not more.
It’s a similar story for Montreal’s newly elected and first female mayor in 375 years, Valerie Plante. A long-time community advocate, parent, and one-term councillor, it was her bold ideas and grounded connection to her city (not its formal political institutions) that made her stand out. A flawless campaign, and a growing suspicion of her opponents’ priorities for Montreal figured as well, but Plante could not have pulled off her win without being regarded as “of the city and of the people.”
And that is the political moment we are in. Fortunately, for many female leaders who have toiled, largely invisibly, as volunteers and advocates in their communities, and who have never been asked to run by a person of political influence, the glass ceiling isn’t just cracking, the game appears to be transforming in fundamental ways. In this respect, the secret weapon to redeeming civic engagement may, in fact, be the commitment of diverse and dynamic women, often under-recognized as natural political “actors,” who opt to step up and run when it isn’t expected, and success is hardly guaranteed.
But the good news is that, when successful, these newly elected women are highly effective. Liberal MP Patti Hajdu is an excellent case in point. First appointed federal minister for Status of Women, and now as Minister of Labour, Patty Hajdu is setting a new standard for federally regulated industries and, notably, Parliament Hill employees, including those of MPs and Senators. Long overdue, innovative measures are being proposed that will finally provide better recourse for employees confronting sexual harassment and bullying.
Yet, for all of the heavy lifting, we must be cognizant of the price women continue to pay for challenging institutionalized and, to be clear, patriarchal power. The day after the American elections, the director of the Women’s Media Centre in the U.S. tweeted: “So many of the people who won elections yesterday withstood months of online harassment, threats and abuse. They are heroes for standing firm and overcoming the haters.”
Kim Campbell, Canada’s first female prime minister, said as much at an Equal Voice EVE Award event in Calgary last month when she noted that elected women serving today have a tougher go of it, given the pervasive use of social media to dish out incredible amounts of vitriol and sexism.
Unfortunately, contemporary female politicians bear a heavy toll for their participation in power structures that are threatened, or unfamiliar, with their presence. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna showed her nerves of steel when she personally confronted a Rebel Media reporter about their continued use of “climate barbie” and accompany derogatory descriptors. Despite extracting a commitment from Rebel Media to not use these terms, it hasn’t stopped a movement determined to deploy them anyhow.
At a recent reception with Status of Women ministers from across the country, the conversation quickly turned to how women not just get elected, but stay given the intensity of the hate and hostility that they must confront from constituents and detractors. Finding ways to truly curb that aren’t always obvious, and new and better strategies are desperately needed.
Addressing “toxic masculinity” and the roots of patriarchy are, frankly, also required. This is something Monique Bégin, a former federal minister who served at a time when less than two per cent of MPs were women, unequivocally called for this past week after being recognized with Maclean’s magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Undoubtedly, as more women rise to power, they are able to succeed thanks, in part, to those who trail-blazed the ground before them. But political parties and media establishment be warned—many of the elected women we see today won’t settle for the usual games, and with greater numbers, can push back. They know their time has come, they are prepared to publicly call out misogyny in all of its forms, and to leave the field much better than they found it.
Nancy Peckford is the national spokesperson for Equal Voice.
The Hill Times