Few would quarrel with the idea that we could use more women in politics. Only 27 percent of legislators in Canada’s federal Parliament are female, and things are even more skewed in the United States, where women make up less than one-quarter of the American Congress. It is a disappointing divide, especially since more than 25 years have passed since Progressive Conservative Kim Campbell won the leadership race after Brian Mulroney retired, and was appointed Prime Minister by the Governor-General. Exactly what benefits would flow from narrowing the gender gap in politics is a more contentious question. We are frequently told that women’s political virtues lie in bringing a more constructive and collaborative political perspective to the table.
Yet recent history hardly bears this out. This year’s controversial Daughters of the Vote (DOTV) event was an unruly example. DOTV seeks to tackle low female representation in Parliament by bringing 338 young women from across the country to Ottawa for a morning to symbolically occupy every seat in the House of Commons. Delegates hear from the main party leaders and receive training in campaign skills, exposure to the political process, and the opportunity to network with politicians.
The DOTV delegates did all that in Ottawa last month, but dozens added protesting to the list of regular activities. Several left the room during Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s address, levelling the preposterous claim that he condones white supremacy. Many others turned their backs on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, protesting his treatment of former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould. Delegates also disrupted the dinner address given by Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Community and Social Services, with 50 of them walking out and others holding up signs and voicing their anger at the Ontario government’s policies on autism and education.
Worse yet, the delegates turned on each other. On a Facebook post that went viral, Hannah Dawson-Murphy, who at 22 is running for the Conservative nomination in West Nova, related the “harassment” she felt at the hands of other delegates. “After the word got out that I was a conservative and that my friends were conservative, it went downhill from there,” Dawson-Murphy wrote. “Some delegates refused to call me by name. They would call me white woman; they would call me racist and fascist; they would call us colonizers. Just these hateful, hateful terms…One girl told me that my cross necklace that I always wear was offensive to her and that the next time that she saw me, she might do something about it.”
The protest instigators themselves, however, also claimed the mantle of the victimized. Six of the delegates complained to the online National Observer that the event “traumatized” them. They reported receiving Facebook messages calling them “disgusting” for turning their backs on Trudeau and “characterless” for walking out on Scheer. They also claimed that other delegates “bullied” them, that the mere presence of conservative politicians such as Kellie Leitch, a former Minister for the Status of Women, and Senator Linda Frum made them “uncomfortable”, and that organizers were unsympathetic to their concerns. This, despite the presence of a full-time staff equity coordinator, a full-time staff Indigenous coordinator, anti-racism and anti-oppression training, support workers and elders on site 24/7, and a decompression room to boot.
Judging by their later comments, it seems free speech and diversity are meant to be all about them, while others should not be free to push back or take issue with their tactics, and conservatives should just plain remain out of sight. “I feel like I’ve been tricked into coming into something that would empower me. Instead, I have been emotionally and mentally attacked every single day,” Indigenous delegate Autumn LaRose-Smith told the National Observer, which reported that she was crying on the phone. “The only thing that Daughters of the Vote has given me is real trauma.” Rubab Qureshi, a delegate who asked Trudeau what he was doing to counter Islamophobia, claimed that organizers were critical of the protestors’ conduct. “There were all these uncalled-for accusations about how we weren’t showing professionalism and the characteristics of politicians,” said Qureshi. “[But] we were silent. There was no disruption. It was powerful. And the point was to be disrespectful.” The disruptors, however, proved too delicate to face disruption from others.
Natasha Kornak witnessed the DOTV protests firsthand. A fourth-year student at Queen’s University and co-founder of storyofatory.ca, Kornak had participated in DOTV in 2017 and found the experience invaluable. Returning this year as a speaker, she was initially confused by the delegates’ actions when Scheer began making his remarks. “I saw two dozen or more girls get up and walk out, and they were not too courteous about it,” Kornak said in an interview with C2C Journal. “They were making a big scene. I was a little confused – why are they doing this? It made no sense to me at the time. Then Trudeau came out, and I saw about 12 to 20 girls stand up and turn their backs. It started with one, then two, then three, they popped up and up.”
While Kornak believes that politics “is always going to draw differences from people,” she adds that it is important to approach these situations “in a constructive way.” She cites the protesting of MacLeod. “I would have advised these girls to approach the minister after her speech and explain their concerns in a more polite way,” says Kornak. “I am not saying women should be nice and accommodating, tiptoeing around the issues, but if you want to have something done, you need the person who holds the pen to be on your side. I don’t think that you can start yelling at a minister and really expect to be able to achieve anything that way.”
Delegates would indeed have been better advised to look to Canadian history for role models of political women who were vocal, strong, and independent-minded – and who effected real change. They range from Judy LaMarsh, a lawyer who in 1963 became the second woman ever to serve as a federal Cabinet minister, to feminist Charlotte Whitton, who was the mayor of Ottawa in the 1950s and again in the 1960s. These highly capable women faced great obstacles to becoming successful politicians, but they did it regardless, and did it well. As Whitton, a star of her women’s hockey team in university, put it, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”
In the 1970s, Flora MacDonald became Canada’s first female secretary of state for external affairs and one of the world’s first female foreign ministers, navigating both the Vietnamese boat people refugee crisis and the Iran hostage crisis with courage and level-headedness. And in the 1980s, former Liberal politician Sheila Copps, whose long career was crowned by serving as Canada’s deputy prime minister in the 1990s, grew famous for more than holding her own in a series of epic rhetorical battles with Progressive Conservative John Crosbie, the acerbic Newfoundland firebrand who habitually wiped the floor with his opponents. In their most infamous exchange, Crosbie told the then-Opposition MP Copps to “just quieten [sic] down, baby”. Copps fired back, “I am nobody’s baby.” The remark became her trademark and title of her autobiography.
Women in politics aren’t a ready-made source of Kumbaya and consensus, nor should that be their goal. The value added by female politicians, observes former Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, is different skills and approaches based on their unique life experience. “A lot of women become involved [in politics] just by the fact that they are women in a community,” Ambrose said in a phone interview from Calgary. “They may also be corporate leaders, but there is that whole other aspect where they did volunteer work in their church or community, and that adds a different perspective. A lot of guys may have helped with their kids’ hockey team but not volunteered in a soup kitchen. The kind of volunteer work you do might bring a different perspective on how you approach politics.”
And then there are the issues themselves. Different experiences lead people to champion different causes, and one lived experience for many women is unfortunately still sexism. And for women of color, prejudice as well. “I remember door-knocking for my good friend in Calgary two years ago in the municipal election and having her called a Muslim bitch,” Kornak said. “Other voters said they wouldn’t want her to be their alderman but they would want her to be their daughter-in-law. There is a mountain of crap men don’t have to deal with. We have to teach women how not to let that get you down, but also to stop telling girls that they are victims of oppression. Yes, there are various obstacles you may face as a woman, a person of colour, a sexual/gender minority, or a person with a disability. However, we have to start building up women’s confidence and resilience if we want them to be involved in politics for the long haul.”
That is one reason initiatives like DOTV remain important to Kornak, despite this year’s drama and identity politics. “Connecting young women with people who are likeminded, encouraging mentorship, that would be a really good way forward,” she says. “The problem is that systemically, girls are a lot more competitive with each other than with men. I think it’s because historically we have seen so few of them at the table. We feel there are only so many positions for us; there are only so many women who will get on. So why not add more seats to the table?”
For Ambrose, who spoke at the first DOTV as a leader in 2017, representation is key to encouraging participation. “We want young women to look at Parliament and see women,” she says. “It’s like seeing a woman CEO or pilot or doctor and knowing that as a girl, you can do that too. Representation research shows that seeing your gender in that role is important to creating a pathway for yourself.” She added, however, that “There is still a lot of nuanced sexism right below the surface.”
Advancing female representation, then, is not about “cleaning up” or “softening” politics, but about getting the best and brightest of both sexes at the table, creating space for issues that matter to everyone. Women are not the soft-hearted, sentimental angels who will save politics from itself. They are skilled and principled individuals who will enrich politics with their perspectives, perseverance, and talents. Louise McKinney, elected to the Alberta legislature in 1917 as an independent MLA, and the first woman elected to sit as a member of a parliament in the British Empire, put it memorably: “The purpose of a woman’s life is just the same as the purpose of a man’s life: that she may make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living.” Politics can certainly be a pathway to that aspiration. And it will benefit all Canadians if women remember it.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a not-so-quiet political woman.