BEHAVIOR

Gender power in politics

SHERRI AIKENHEAD December 1 1986
BEHAVIOR

Gender power in politics

SHERRI AIKENHEAD December 1 1986

Gender power in politics

BEHAVIOR

The election of Agnes Macphail as a member of Parliament from rural Ontario in 1921—the year that women won the right to vote— promised a new era of equality for women in Canadian politics. But 65 years later that time has yet to arrive: since Confederation, Canadians have elected just 53 women to the House of Commons. Early in November more than 300 women gathered in Toronto to consider strategies to redress that imbalance. The two-day session was co-sponsored by the Committee for ’94, a group working to see women elected to half the seats in the House of Commons by 1994. It featured prominent feminists, among them Barbara McDougall, the federal minister responsible for women’s issues, who called for help from women of all parties. Said McDougall: “We are on the verge of giving this social revolution a whole new phase simply by increasing the number of women in politics.” Conference participants noted recent political successes, including increasing attention to day care, pornography and other issues of special interest to women, as well as the growing influence of a national women’s lobby. In 1982 that lobby ensured that equal rights for women were entrenched in the Canadian Constitution. And Chaviva Hosek, former president of the powerful National Action Committee on the Status of Women, said that persuading three federal leaders to debate women’s issues on national television during the 1984 election was a historic breakthrough. In the Conservative sweep that followed, women captured a record 27 of 282 possible seats—just under 10 per cent. But other speakers noted that such successes do not indicate enormous political change. Said writer Christina McCall, president of the Committee for ’94: “What we have gained is influence, not power. Women are still clients of the state rather than full partners in the political process.”

McCall said that women who seek political office should remember that although men are increasingly supporting them, sexism is still a real threat to their progress toward power. But she added that an even greater impediment for women nominees, if they do not have access to corporate funds, is the difficulty of raising money. Said McCall: “One male Liberal MP actually told me it was embarrassing to be a bagman for a dame.” Added McDou-

gall: “Once the men say, ‘My God, this broad might actually do it,’ they start writing cheques.”

For her part, Elinor Caplan, a Liberal member of the Ontario legislature, said that as a result of those attitudes, many women settle for stuffing envelopes and answering phones rather than running for office or managing a campaign. Said Caplan: “If women accept that role, then they will wait a long time. The most important advice I can offer is don’t wait to be wooed.”

Still, the major political parties are

eager to dispel any notion that politics is a man’s world. Instead, they are actively seeking female candidates. But some delegates said that the parties’ efforts may amount to no more than token gestures. Said Toronto Aid. Barbara Hall: “Frequently women get approached to run when there is no chance of winning and are too often being used.” Hall was a New Democratic Party candidate for the Ontario legislature in 1985. She ran in a Toronto riding against two prominent lawyers—the Liberals’ Ian Scott, now provincial attorney general, and the Conservatives’ Julian Porter—and few observers gave her much chance of capturing the seat. Indeed, she finished with 4,878 votes compared to Scott’s 13,120.

Another problem that many speak-

ers noted concerned so-called Queen Bees—female politicians who do not pursue feminist goals. Iona Campagnolo, president of the federal Liberal party and the first woman to hold that office, called such politicians “pseudo-males” and said that if they are the only kinds of women ever elected, “we have lost the war.” Noted Alexa McDonough, who has led the Nova Scotia NDP through the past two provincial elections: “Because running female candidates has become the in thing, we may end up with more women elected but less of a commitment to issues of concern, and the result is mere window dressing.”

For her part, Campagnolo said that she has learned from two decades of experience in public office that there are limits to what women can do to

further feminist goals, even when they have assumed positions of power. She added that women must be prepared as a group to abandon partisan positions and unite to promote the women’s movement. The former cabinet minister, who has announced her intention to retire from politics when her term as party president expires at the end of November, declared that among the young people she has addressed, only the boys seemed interested in politics. And she predicted that it will likely take another 35 years, or about 10 federal elections, before the Committee for ’94 achieves its goal. “While it may take the same time as it will take to have a female pope,” she added, “we must not despair.”

SHERRI AIKENHEAD in Toronto