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|Written by Kendall R. Giberson|
|Thursday, 02 July 2009 08:34|
Periodically, some journalist or academic will bring up some statistics regarding the degree of gender equity in Canada. Mainly, these numbers reflect the amount of women in certain employment or educational fields compared to years past, and their pay rates or educational levels compared to their male counterparts. Right now, women are increasingly gaining executive positions in the private sector, make up a majority of the civil service and are attending university to such an extent that Maclean's magazine published an article that showed that women made up two-thirds of the student population at most Canadian universities and most new professors were female as well. However, the field of politics remains a great obstacle for women whose ambitions bring them to the halls of power.
Since Agnes Macphail became the first female politician ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1921, women in Parliament have not enjoyed much influence. Women who have shown promise early in their political careers have often fallen short of higher posts due to what has been termed "The Flora Syndrome." Named after former member of Parliament Flora MacDonald who ran for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives in the 1970s, the term applies to female politicians who are seen as dynamic rising stars but suddenly fizzle out due to reasons unexplained by anything except sexism. MacDonald was viewed by many as a driven and capable person who served in several cabinet posts, but when it seemed that she was poised to win the leadership of the party at its 1976 leadership convention, several of her own delegates abandoned her suddenly. Despite the efforts of a few female politicians, women have not really held true power in Canada.
Sure, women have had high-profile positions, such as Deputy Prime Minister (Sheila Copps and Anne McLellan), Speaker of the House (Jeanne Sauvé) and Leader of the Opposition (Deborah Grey), but these are largely symbolic positions, and Grey was only an interim leader for a short time. Women have currently lead most of Canada's fringe parties, such as the Green Party (Elizabeth May), Communist Party (Sandra Smith), Canadian Action (Connie Fogal), but they do not really have much influence. Even the women who were elected as provincial or territorial Premiers, Catherine Callbeck in Prince Edward Island and Pat Duncan in the Yukon Territory, lead jurisdictions which are largely politically insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
The truth is this: the higher-profile a female politician is, the more likely she is to be a target of insults, and women tend to be subject to different kinds of smears than male politicians, ones that get quite personal and downright disrespectful. For example, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson was scrutinized in Parliament in 2003 for her costly trips around the world, and was portrayed by many as a spendthrift shopaholic, despite her budget increase being approved by parliament years in advance. Certainly, a male would not be subjected to this kind of criticism to the degree that a woman would. Consider the following:
In addition to putting up with disrespect from colleagues and the media for simply being a woman in pursuit of political power, female politicians often have special attention paid to their personal lives and appearances while such aspects of male politicians' lives are often ignored or overlooked. Belinda Stronach's four years as an MP stand out as a classic example of this phenomenon. Some would argue that with her background as the daughter of Magna founder Frank Stronach, she subjected herself to this kind of treatment by putting herself in the public sphere.
First criticized as a political opportunist for her running for the leadership of the newly-founded Conservative Party despite no previous political experience, her appearance and her relationships with fellow MP Peter MacKay and later, hockey player Tie Domi and rumours of a dalliance with former U.S. President Bill Clinton later became hot topics of note in the news. Even provincial politicians got in on the act, with Bob Runciman of Ontario saying that she "defined herself as something of a dipstick" and Alberta's Tony Abbott saying that she "whored herself out for power," in reaction to her jumping to the Liberals in 2005.
More recently, MP Helena Guergis regularly gets lampooned in the media for her past as a beauty pageant winner and her marriage to former MP Rahim Jaffer. Rumours abounded in the media when she changed her hair colour from blonde to brunette, as some pundits claimed that this was an attempt to shake the blonde stereotype and get taken more seriously. She was criticized in an Edmonton Journal column in May of 2009 after it was claimed that she was responsible for sending out pro-Conservative Party mailers to homes in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona despite the fact that she represented Simcoe-Grey in Ontario. Edmonton-Strathcona was her husband's riding before he fell to defeat in the 2008 election.
Also in 2009, several stories surfaced about another beauty pageant contestant-cum politician, Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla. It was reported that she was attempting to block the release of a film that she made before getting into politics because her images on the promotional material were altered and she did not want to suffer the embarrassment of distribution of a film containing sexual scenes while attempting to carve out a career in politics. In May of 2009, it was alleged that Dhalla mistreated two caregivers who were illegally in her family's employ. A formal complaint filed against her stated that she seized the passports of two Filipino women who were charged with the care of Dhalla's mother and verbally abused them while forcing them to do things such as wash the family's cars, shine shoes and clean the family's chiropractic offices. Dhalla, considered a rising star in the Liberal caucus, said that this was an effort to discredit her.
So began the media storm. A subsequent Globe and Mail story said that she was a "high maintenance" self-promoter, demanding on her staff and unwilling to engage in the mundane details of parliamentary life. The story made the front cover of Maclean's magazine, where it was reported that Dhalla was very hard to work for on Parliament Hill, and even brought up other aspects of her past, such as when she was the victim of a purse-snatching in India and showed insensitivity to the children who were seized and punished in connection to the incident.
The most recent female politician to end up in the news for not-so-good reasons is current Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, whose audio recording of her making controversial statements regarding the isotope shortage in Canada due to a mishap at the Chalk river reactor wound up in the hands of the Ottawa correspondent for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. The tape included comments from Raitt where she criticized Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and called the situation a "sexy" issue that she could use to take credit for solving. When the content of the tapes were made public, Raitt offered her resignation but the Prime Minister refused to accept it; instead the assistant who misplaced the tape quit. She is still a Cabinet Minister, but it appears as if her political career has peaked.
The purpose of these preceding examples is not to discredit the respective female politicians, nor point out the flaws of female politicians in general. Rather, the aim is to point out how the media in Canada seems more ready to jump on them instead of their male counterparts. People who run for public office know that they are subjecting themselves to public scrutiny regarding their public and private lives, but it seems that females are held to a different standard than their male counterparts. The current numbers show the following:
It appears as though the numbers are stacked against women who seek public office in Canada. There are two main theories as to why this is so. One is blatant sexism and the unwillingness of the public to take women seriously as political leaders, even though they may have positive impressions of them as people (see Flora Syndrome). The other is that women see the kind of treatment that other female politicians receive from their colleagues and the public and the media compared to men, and are discouraged from entering the public sphere (at least at high-profile levels). It can be ruled out that it is not the system that makes it hard for women to reach the highest public offices of Canada, but the political culture of the Halls of Power that hinders progress in that area.
This column is perhaps written from both a feminist perspective as well as a populist viewpoint. No one should be left out of the political process, whether deliberately or tacitly. No one should be discouraged from any level of participation in the system. It is only a matter of time before some women find themselves occupying the highest offices of the country, as they have in other parts of the world for decades. More inclusiveness means more input, which means better policies and laws.
However, when it comes to Canadian politics today, sex does matter.
Links and Sources:
Gatehouse, Jonathon. "Mad About Ruby Dhalla: The Beleaguered Star MP has Both Passionate Defenders and Detractors." Maclean's, Vol. 122, No. 19, May 25, 2009.