COLUMN

Where are the women in the House?

Allan Fotheringham December 14 1981
COLUMN

Where are the women in the House?

Allan Fotheringham December 14 1981

Where are the women in the House?

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

A female friend once explained a source of quiet rage that would surprise most Canadian males— who go through their three score and ten in a cocoon of contentment. It was, she said, sitting before the idiot box each night at 11 as her husband watched The National with its nightly clips from the House of Commons and seeing a sea of grey and blue suits. Male domination of society illustrated no better than by that cheek-by-jowl blur of blue and grey. Where is the other 50 per cent of the population?

Every night at 11, she explained with some bitterness, Knowlton Nash introduces to every woman in the land a reminder of why they are powerless politically.

A blue and grey advertisement for female impotence.

The strange situation, which future historians will puzzle over, is spotlighted even more with the evidence that Britain is about to acquire its second straight female prime minister. The victory of rumpled Shirley Williams in a formerly safe Tory riding in Liverpool cinches the surge of the new Social Democratic Party. All the polls indicate it would whip the suicidal Labour Party, lurching to its left, and the grim monetarists of Maggie Thatcher. Shirley Williams, easily the warmest and most trusted politician in Britain, is the first MP elected under the banner of the SDP and is favored to become its first leader. Of upper-middle-class roots, she manages to give the appearance of a hastily dressed, friendly Girl Guides leader. (Margaret Thatcher, with her Attila the Hen act, is the daughter of a grocer and attempts to emulate a grand dame with her imperious manner and concrete hair.) Nevertheless, they dominate British politics at a time when the sceptred isle has never been more in need of inspired, tough leadership.

The serious thumb-suckers theorize that the British voters leaned to Thatcher and now lean to “Our Shirl” because they have lost faith in the male

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

leaders. If Britain’s present monumental woes—antiquated industry, sullen work force, urban riots, a poisonous class system—were produced by men, could women at the top do any worse? It seems unlikely. What is so inexplicable is that if the hidebound Brits can take the large leap and trust women why can’t Canadians? Could any woman, with the legendary trouble with arithmetic, do as colossal a muck-up of a budget as Allan MacEachen? It is impossible to believe. Could any woman possibly be any worse than Pierre Trudeau in taking 13 years to steadily and effi-

ciently wipe out the Liberal party in the four western provinces, both federally and provincially? Obviously, no.

This is not the moment to go into, again, the phenomenon of Canadians liking not only male leaders but professional bachelors, i.e., Mackenzie King, Trudeau. (It has something to do with Presbyterianism, Jesuits and long winters.) More useful to contemplate the fact that an indication why the Conservatives and the NDPs are in almost permanent opposition status is that they can muster only four females in their combined total of 135 MPs. Even worse, three of those MPs—Pauline Jewett and Margaret Mitchell of the NDP, Pat Carney of the Tories—are from British Columbia, which for the past 50 years has had the strongest tradition of female politicians in any province. (It has something to do with warm winters.)

B.C. had a female Speaker, Nancy Hodges, 30 years ago, the first one in the Commonwealth, long before Ottawa

got so excited about its daring in appointing Jeanne Sauvé. What it means is that for all the women in this country who do not agree with the lofty Liberals, from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic, there is just one woman in the Commons: Kingston’s Flora MacDonald. It doesn’t strike you that any progress is being made.

Israel, the most perilous nation on earth, may trust its future to a Golda Meir, and India, the second most populous nation on earth, may trust the wily Indira Gandhi to guide it, but Canada, the most cautious nation on earth, still doesn’t trust its females. It’s interesting that North America as a whole, the birthplace of the liberated woman, has the least faith in (or most fear of?) women in politics. There is not a single woman in the country in danger of taking over the leadership of a party at the federal level or in one of the major provinces. Rosemary Brown gave it a rattle at the last federal NDP leadership convention, and Iona Campagnolo would add some spice at a Liberal one if Pierre Elliott ¡^Reincarnation ever leaves. ^Otherwise, silence, g The liberated ladies “stalk the corporate halls these days with gold-embossed pursecases. Their credit cards snap down smartly over the lunch cheque. They march off to Italy alone, they commandeer ski condos. They march most everywhere in self-confident trousers, everywhere but into Canadian politics. They almost dominate the Canadian electronic media, from Adrienne Clarkson to Barbara Frum, Elizabeth Gray, Helen Hutchinson, Barbara Amiel, and every local station you can find. Margaret Atwood and Marian Engel and Margaret Laurence and Mavis Gallant have made an international cult of Canadian female fiction. The real fiction of Canadian life—that women do not exist, do not form 50 per cent of the population—rests in Canadian politics. It’s one of the main reasons for the cynicism and indifference toward Ottawa, with its outmoded ways, its Victorian traditions and tired stratagems of avoiding reality. It’s why Canadian public life is so blue and grey.