Women and the election

Carol Goar August 20 1984

Women and the election

Carol Goar August 20 1984

Women and the election


Carol Goar

For 10 years Ursula Appolloni was one of the hardest-working members of the House of Commons. The 5^-year-old mother of four was never a political star, but she served voters in her Toronto riding of York SouthWeston well—and she was known in Ottawa as a tenacious fighter for immigrants and the elderly. Last September, tired of “scratching around like a hen in a barnyard to get money to help people,” she decided to quit politics and subsequently turned down Pierre Trudeau’s offer of a patronage appointment as a citizenship court judge. “Frankly, I felt I was being insulted, ” she recalls.

Then, in July Appolloni began to look for a job. She got in touch with Ottawa’s Public Service Commission about the possibility of working in the federal bureaucracy. “Can you type?” the recruiter asked the flabbergasted Appolloni, who, after 10 years in Parliament, be-

lieved that she had other skills to offer. A few days later she received a call from the affirmative action branch of Canada Manpower. “I don Ï want to hurt you, ” the counsellor said, “but I should warn you straight away that women of a certain age who have been out of the labor market for a number of years can’t get exactly what they want. ”Appolloni, who was finishing her duties as an MP, was crushed: “I thought that maybe I should be looking for my wheelchair. ”

That humiliating experience, which will have a familiar ring for all too many Canadian women, served to underscore the inequalities that have made women’s issues, some of them deeply emotional, a central factor in this summer’s election campaign. Emphatically, if belatedly, women are in the ascendancy in Canadian politics. The three main federal parties have mounted their most concerted effort

ever to win the support of Canada’s 8.5 million women voters. An impressive 206 women are running for Parliament, many of them determined to promote the cause of greater social and economic equality for women. The need is both urgent and undeniable. Today, despite the era of women’s liberation and widespread reforms of the law and employment practices, six out of every 10 working women are still in low-paying clerical and service jobs. “It’s wrong that women like me, with so much to offer, only get asked if they can type,” said Appolloni. “The whole system is crazy.”

In all democratic nations, politicians are increasingly aware of the importance of the so-called women’s vote. Just last month in the United States the Democratic party nominated New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro to run for vice-president on the Walter Mondale ticket. And next month in Canada women will Have their best oppor-

tunity yet to use their voting power to create change. Each of the three party leaders has pledged to work toward economic equality for women, and the three main parties have set out to attract support from women—who make up 52 per cent of the electorate—by taking positions on a wide spectrum of “women’s issues,” ranging from government funding of day care to pension reform and tougher penalties for wife beaters and rapists.

The party leaders are also beginning to offer specific promises. One example: last Friday, in Sudbury, Ont., Prime Minister John Turner announced a new program to provide a shelter allowance for the estimated 100,000 single Canadian parents who pay more than 30 per cent of their income for modest accommodation. Turner said his government would make up the difference each month. He estimated the program would cost $144 million during a full year. Of those who would be eligible for the rent cushion, 93 per cent are women.

The mere fact that the three party leaders agreed to this week’s televised debate on women’s issues stands as eloquent testimony to the growing political power of women. Sponsored by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the debate could be crucial in wider political terms. It will almost certainly give voters their last chance before Sept. 4 to see Turner, Conservative

Leader Brian Mulroney and the New Democrats’ Ed Broadbent in a face-toface debate. A strong showing by Turner could help to erase voters’ memories of his halting performance in last month’s televised debates.

National Action Committee (NAC) president Chaviva Hosek, a University of Toronto literature professor, was determined to make the debate a sharply focused one. “Everybody is glad to hear all three leaders say that they are committed to the equality of women,” she declared last week. “Now we want to hear in precise terms what they will do to improve our position.” Hosek is convinced that by pressing the three leaders to flesh out their generally vague promises on women’s issues the debate will provide a major service to voters. “If someone wishes not to answer precisely, there’s nothing you can do to force them,” she conceded. “But I think frankly it’s to their advantage to be specific.” Among the key issues:

Equal pay for work of equal value: Although the principle sounds simple and eminently just, the issue is complicated by the fact that men and women historically have not performed the same kinds of work—and employers argue that a commitment to equal pay could impose a severe strain on the economy. Turner has promised to support the six-year-old equal-pay program for federal employees and to extend it to

women working in federal Crown corporations. He has also pledged to require private employers doing business with the federal government to give women equal pay. For his part, Mulroney has promised only to study the usefulness of the federal program and to consider a voluntary program in the private sector. Broadbent has been the most expansive, pledging to be more stringent in enforcing the federal program. He has also promised that, if elected, he would require both the federal civil service and the private sector to hire women through affirmative action programs.

Day care: Thousands of women feel that they are being kept out of the work force by the absence of adequate, government-funded day care facilities. Although day care is primarily a provincial responsibility, they are looking to the federal parties for a clear signal that they would be prepared to give the provinces the funding and encouragement to provide the needed services. Turner is still waiting for the recommendations of a government task force on day care before setting out his policy. Mulroney has been equally vague, promising only to initiate discussions with the provinces, while Broadbent has promised to support legislation guaranteeing women affordable, accessible day care, but also without indicating how much such a program would cost or how it would be funded.

Pension reform: Statistics show that six out of 10 women over 65 are living in poverty, and women’s rights activists believe that the next generation could be in a worse predicament unless Ottawa gives nonworking women access to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). A parliamentary committee has suggested a formula under which homemakers would pay into the CPP and draw from it when they turn 65. Turner had not yet committed himself to the recommendation, but his advisers said before the debate that he was seriously considering it. Mulroney has endorsed the plan, and Broadbent has not only promised to expand the CPP to take in nonworking wives, he has indicated that, if elected, he would immediately double old age pensions as well.

The two-hour debate on those issues and others in the Canadian Room of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel clearly constituted a milestone in the political evolution of Canadian women. But women across the political spectrum are ambivalent about whether the 1984 election represents a genuine breakthrough. “We’ve become important because the media have become aware that women are important,” said Conservative MP Flora MacDonald. “It’s the ‘in’ thing. What we have to do is make that attention permanent—not like waves that wash in and out.”

Judy Eróla, the federal minister responsible for the status of women, contends that the campaign constitutes a

step forward simply because of the number of women who are running. All of the three major parties—with a total of 129 candidates among them—are running more women than ever before, while another 77 women are standing for various fringe parties. The NDP, with 65 (compared to 33 in the last election), has the most female candidates, followed by the Liberals with 43 (compared to 23 in 1980) and the Tories with 21 (up from 14 in the last election). A survey by Maclean’s Ottawa reporter Susan Riley indicated that probably less than a third of the women running for the mainstream parties have a serious chance of winning seats in the 33rd Parliament. The possible breakdown of winners: Liberals 15, Conservatives eight and three for the NDP. But that would still be a

substantial gain over the 14 women MPs elected in 1980, and a far cry from 1921, when Agnes Macphail took her seat as the first woman elected to the House of Commons. Said Valorie Preston, the NDP’s co-ordinator of women’s activities: “It’s a developmental stage. We will have a base of women to work with.”

As part of that development, a new breed of astute and politically polished female candidates is emerging on the federal hustings. One who is considered likely to win is Sheila Copps, a former journalist and member of the Ontario legislature who is running for the Liberals in Hamilton East, the riding held by former cabinet minister John Munro since 1962. The daughter of a popular

former Hamilton mayor, Copps, a 31year-old divorcee, speaks three languages and made a credible showing in her run for the provincial Liberal leadership in 1982. But she had to struggle to win the respect of her Queen’s Park colleagues. “When I first came to the legislature, there was no doubt that I was perceived as a sweet young thing,” she recalled. Although Copps eventually came to enjoy provincial politics, she could not resist plunging into the federal arena. “I have spent a lot of time talking with women across the province and saying, ‘Look, if an opportunity comes your way, do not be afraid to leave the safe seat, to leave the safe home,’ ” she said. “I thought that I should practise what I had been preaching.”

The Conservatives point to Mary Col-

lins, the Tory contender in the Vancouver riding of Capilano, as one of their star candidates. A 43-year-old public relations consultant, Collins broke new ground in 1970 when she became executive officer to the late Premier John Robarts of Ontario. Collins recalls that “great controversy” blew up over the appointment of a woman to such a senior job. A single parent with three children, Collins is aware that a political career will mean surrendering control of her life. “You have to be totally committed,” she says.

Another newcomer is the NDP’s Lissa Donner, who is running in the riding of Winnipeg-St. James. The 29-year-old executive director of the Manitoba Federation of Labor’s occupational health centre has a tough battle on her hands, against Liberal Dianna Ryback and Tory George Minaker. The NDP won the seat by only 438 votes in 1980. “It’s tight, but it’s winnable,” she says. Donner, who is unmarried, is aware that women now have the freedom to choose careers that were closed to them in the past. “I’m especially touched,” she says, “by the older women who grab my hand, smile and say ‘We need more women there, dear.’ ”

One consequence of that new political freedom has been the emergence of the “gender gap,” an American term that refers to the distinct difference in party preferences between men and women. But even though the gender gap is a novel political phenomenon, Jill Vickers, a political science professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University, argues that the concept is still poorly understood. After two years of studying women’s voting patterns since 1944, she concluded that there are, in fact, two different gender gaps. The first, evident almost since woman won the vote, shows that men and women have divergent views on certain key issues. Women are stronger supporters of social security programs and have always been more strongly opposed to war. But in the past five years political analysts have also noticed that women and men tend to support different political parties.

That pattern shows up in several recent surveys. A poll conducted last month after the election call by Carleton University journalism students for Southam News indicated that the Liberals draw more women supporters and the Conservatives more men. Among voters committed to the Liberals, 50 per cent were women and 41 per cent were men. Conservative support broke down the opposite way: 39 per cent women and 46 per cent men.

But Vickers warns that the trend may have shifted in recent weeks because of Turner’s much-publicized bum-patting and Mulroney’s strong performance in

last month’s televised debates. Indeed it has, according to last week’s Southam News poll. The results of the survey, taken after the debates, indicated that the Liberals’ support among women had dropped to 34 per cent from 50 per cent, while Conservative support increased to 49 per cent from 39 per cent and the NDP went to 15.5 per cent from eight. But in advance of this week’s debate, 27 per cent of the women—compared to 18

per cent of the men polled—remained undecided.

Still, Vickers doubts that gender-gap voting in Canada will ever be as significant as it is in American politics, where some feminists are urging women to join a large pro-Democrat voting bloc. “It is easy to know which party to vote for if you’re a progressive woman in the United States,” she said. “But in Canada it is hard for the women’s movement to know which party to go to.”

So far, the differences among the three party platforms are more in emphasis than in basic philosophy. And some women resent the fact that child care, pension reform and equality in the workplace are lumped under the heading of women’s issues. Said Flora MacDonald, an MP for 12 years and the Tory critic on women’s issues: “It is great shorthand for the headlines, but the impression it leaves is that these are the only issues women are capable of discussing. All the rest are men’s issues.”

Less subtle, and more troubling, is straightforward discrimination based on sex. Many women say they have encountered discrimination simply because they tried to enter politics. One of them is Brenda Robertson, wife of an independent businessman, who became New Brunswick’s first female member of the legislature 17 years ago. Robertson, who now serves as the province’s minister of social programs, recalled her early days as a cabinet minister, saying, “A lot of men really didn’t want a woman to intrude on the men’s club.” After serving as minister of youth and minister of social services for four years, she dropped out of politics in 1974, exhausted. But two years later a rested Robertson returned to the arena determined to be a much tougher politician.

At the opposite end of the country, Iona Campagnolo, president of the Liberal party and one of the most visible women in federal politics, said that some voters resent her because of her sex. At first she thought her main critics in North Vancouver-Burnaby were strident antiabortionists who opposed her long-held pro-choice stand. But lately she has come to a different conclusion. “It is becoming clearer that the campaign against me is not so much about abortion as about women and power,” she told Maclean’s Vancouver bureau chief Jane O’Hara last week. “I represent a woman who is close to power. That is why I am dangerous to them [the ultraconservatives].”

Other women, however, dismiss such conspiracy theories. Ontario Minister of Education Bette Stephenson, for one, said she has never encountered discrimination or paternalism. The 60-year-old former family doctor suggested, in fact, that women are better suited to politics than men. Said Stephenson: “I think that because they are biologically, anatomically and endocrinologically superior to men, they have advantages. They really are the stronger vessels.” As if to prove her own theory, Stephenson took only three weeks off work when each of her six children was born.

More often than not, family responsibilites or money problems—not discrimination-bar women from the politi-

cal process. The NDP’S Valorie Preston has lost count of the number of women who have declined to run for the party. Their reasons: they felt they could not deprive their families of the time needed to campaign or ask their husbands to move to Ottawa if they won. Still others could not afford to take a two-month

leave of absence from a low-paying job. Even among women who do enter the political arena, some confess to having doubts. Joan Duncan, Saskatchewan’s minister of consumer and commercial affairs, who went from being the wife of a drugstore owner in Maple Creek to the provincial legislature in 1978, said, “At first I took on a feeling of guilt,” and tried to compensate by “being a supermom and a superwife.” After an exhausting year in which she tried to excel in all aspects of her life, her husband and four children convinced her not to try so hard and relax occasionally.

Despite the individual adjustments, juggling public and private lives is still difficult for women. Tessa Hebb, 31, is one of four women NDP candidates in Nova Scotia and the former YWCA worker has the formidable challenge of trying to defeat Energy Minister Gerald Regan in Halifax. Her party encourages women to run by giving each female candidate a $500 grant for household expenses, and Hebb has used the money to hire a housekeeper. Despite that assistance and support from her husband, who is self-employed, she has had to impress on her three sons, aged 14, 12 and 7 that she is busy. “They know that I am not on call until after the election,” she said. And Janet Norgrove, a farm wife who is also making her debut as an NDP candidate in the P.E.I. riding of

Malpeque, has a placard on her office wall that defines the dilemma of the politicially minded mother. It reads: “I wanted to go out and change the world, but I couldn’t find a babysitter.”

But times are changing for some of those who have made child care arrangements or taken leaves from work to run for office. Election day could prove rewarding. In Quebec 56-year-old

Sheila Finestone, married with four sons, the Liberal candidate who is running to succeed former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in the riding of Mount Royal, is the odds-on favorite. Another is Lucie Pépin, 48, the former president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, who is running for the Liberals in nearby Outremont, a riding

held by retiring Finance Minister Marc Lalonde. The other main parties also fielded women candidates in both affluent ridings. And in the Eastern Townships, southeast of Montreal, Gabrielle Bertrand, the 61-year-old widow of former Quebec premier Jean-Jacques Bertrand and mother of PQ communications minister Jean-François Bertrand, has a good chance of returning Missisquoi to the Tory fold. Meanwhile, in the Tory stronghold of Alberta, where winning a Conservative nomination virtually guarantees a seat in the House of Commons, Bobbie Sparrow, a 49-year-old businesswoman and mother of four, is running in Calgary South and is expected to become the first woman MP elected in Alberta.

Still others, now running as incumbents, hope to welcome a new wave of women MPs to Parliament Hill. They include Pauline Jewett, who is expected to retain her seat for the NDP in New Westminster-Coquitlam, and Tory finance critic Pat Carney, who is fighting to hold volatile Vancouver Centre. Flora MacDonald will have no difficulty holding Kingston and the Islands for the Conservatives. But Eróla, who holds the women’s portfolio, is not assured of reelection in Sudbury Nickel Belt, nor is Lynn McDonald, an NDP member trying to win a second term in the Toronto riding of Broadview-Greenwood. That small band of female parliamentary veterans, scattered through the three major parties, shares another distinction: they are all single women.

Even if the the party forecasts prove true and roughly 40 women are elected next month, they would still constitute only 14 per cent of the membership of the Commons. Parliament, for the immediate future at least, will remain a male-dominated institution. Saskatchewan’s Duncan says she doubts that she will live to see equal numbers of men and women elected to legislatures in Canada. Of all the women currently in federal politics, Eróla, the only female co-chairman of the four-member Liberal election committee, likely wields the most power. Eróla, a 50-year-old widow, who is fighting to keep her Sudbury seat, initially said that her four-year rise to political stardom had been achieved without damage to her private life. Then the minister paused to reflect. “You know,” she said, “nobody dates a female cabinet minister. How many men are going to ask a female cabinet minister out to dinner?” Still, Eróla and the other women trying to enter Parliament want the chance to sit some day at the cabinet table. They are no longer willing to settle for the dinner table alone.

Jane O'Hara

Gordon Legge