PLAYING GENDER POLITICS
On a drizzly morning before a day of door-knocking, Sheila Copps is talking about the way women are changing politics. The MP from Hamilton East and deputy leader of the Liberal Party of Canada argues that Kim Campbell has used her sex to distance herself from the deeply unpopular Brian Mulroney—but that old Tory policies are still Tory policies. “We need real economic change and she’s made cosmetic changes,” Copps says between sips of coffee. “That’s her problem. She’s done a makeup job on a party that needs openheart surgery.” Copps pauses and grins: “The guys would never touch a line like that.”
It’s rush hour on a weekday morning in September and Kim Campbell is spinning discs in the studio of Toronto radio station CHFI. The on-air game is called “Stump the Chump,” the chump being traffic reporter Darryl Dahmer, whose special talent is guessing song titles after hearing just a snippet of music. He guesses both of the Prime Minister’s selections—Bruce Channel’s Hey, Baby and Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love?— songs that Campbell likes to refer to as her “puberty music.”
“Boy, you’re good,” Campbell gushes. Without missing a beat, she asks Dahmer if he is single.
“Why? What do you have in mind?” Dahmer— who is—shouts back from the chopper.
“I could get interested,” the Prime Minister of Canada replies.
Man, has politics ever changed. No longer are the candidates a seemingly endless parade of men in suits, avoiding such topics as their sex lives and settling debates mano a mano. Never again will a politician be able to write a memoir, as Tory Dalton Camp did in 1970, called Gentlemen, Players and Politicians. In this election, more women than ever are running for office, and two of the three major national parties have placed their faith in women to lead them to power. The new faces are changing the style, the issues and even the language of politics. The litany is not so much about “leadership” anymore. It’s about “inclusiveness,” about “doing politics a different way.”
As the campaign unfolds, the rules of conduct are being rewritten, and no one knows what the final terms will be. Are women politicians the only ones free to talk publicly about their sex lives? Could a male politician flirt with a female reporter? More substantively, can men be as forceful in attacking the character of a female opponent as they could in dealing with a man? The shifting ground leaves some bewildered male politicians squirming and protesting, “No fair!”—-just when they thought they had a handle on the politically correct way to deal with female opponents. Jean Chrétien confessed to Maclean’s in July that he is still more comfortable opening doors for women than running against them. “I consider a woman different,” the 59-year-old Liberal leader told staff correspondent E. Kaye Fulton. “You have to be a little more guarded—you can’t be rough.” Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard, 54, shared Chrétien’s confusion. He had held off attacking Campbell, Bouchard explained last August, because he didn’t want people to think he was picking on her because of her sex.
Using Campbell’s gender has become a pillar of the Tory campaign. Traditionally, the Tories have done better among men than among women—creating a gender gap of about five percentage points. But the Tories now say their internal polls suggest that Camp-
bell will attract more votes from women than ever before. Her prospects appear particularly strong in certain demographic segments of the female population. Professional women—lawyers, doctors, engineers and others—may not be swayed by the sex of the leader, insists Ottawa lawyer Jennifer Lynch, president of the Tory women’s federation. But, she adds,
“Our polling shows that working women outside the home—the women who work in stores and offices— look at Kim and say, ‘Everything is open to me.’ ”
Liberal strategists privately agree that Campbell has neutralized the gender gap. They contend, however, that her sex may cost her an equal number of votes from men who are uncomfortable voting for a woman leader. Nor are women any more inclined than men to vote in a bloc. Some of Campbell’s harshest critics are feminists and younger women who are furious that she has so far failed to put women’s issues, including child care, ahead of deficit-slashing. “It’s disappointing that she isn’t fighting for women’s rights,” says Isabelle Helel, a 21-year-old University of Ottawa law student. “It’s almost as if she’s a traitor.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, some women who embrace more conventional family values are bothered by Campbell’s two failed marriages. “There is prejudice against women among both genders, not just men,” said one female Liberal adviser who requested anonymity. “Some of the harshest things we
hear said about Campbell in focus groups come from women who think she’s too weak to lead the country, or hasn’t got a husband. We hear that a lot in rural areas.”
Even among Canadians who are not influenced by the leader’s sex, the gender card offers Campbell other benefits. For one thing, her sex is a quick and obvious way to dim voters’ memories of Mulroney. Female opponents, of course, resent that. “Kim’s whole pitch is, T’m a woman,’ ” says Copps. ‘Well, gender may be a part of who you are, but it’s not all of who you are.” Male politicians, however, confess they are perplexed about how to deal with a woman opponent (Well, welcome to the real world,” says Copps. We’ve always had to deal on men’s terms.”). Gender relations, as one male politician put it, are “dynamite”—and most men will only talk about the subject on the condition of anonymity.
Even the different language used by women throws some male politicians off stride. When Campbell attacked Ontario Premier Bob Rae in August for saying “mean things” about her, male Liberal strategists were puzzled by her choice of words. “Mean things?” said one adviser. “Who talks like that? It’s
not part of the political vocabulary.” It was left to a female Liberal adviser to explain: “She’s playing to the constituency that says women are victims—‘he’s mean to me’—and it’s quite calculated.”
Publicly, the Liberal line is to say that Chrétien is unfazed by the prospect of confronting two women during the televised leaders’ debates, and plans to
keep the discussion focused tightly on issues. But privately, they acknowledge that debating a woman is a problem for any man. “It really limits what you can do,” said one Chrétien adviser. “All the viewers see is a female, and they apply all the stereotypes— she’s more honest, more trustworthy, she won’t screw us around. So you can’t attack her. And you can’t launch a negative advertising campaign.”
That view is not confined to the Liberals. While preparing for debates against Campbell during the Tory leadership race, Jean Charest’s team studied videotapes of the Liberal leadership race—in which Copps went up against Chrétien and three other male candidates. “Our conclusion was that whenever a man is aggressive with a woman in a debate, the benefit of the doubt goes to the woman every time,” said a senior member of the Charest camp. “It is simply too easy to sound patronizing.”
That unwillingness to be seen as confrontational may take the thunder out of next week’s two leadership debates. In 1984 and 1988, John Turner and Brian Mulroney generated memorable moments with hot, nasty exchanges in which each man questioned the other’s integrity and patriotism—leaving the impression that both men would have preferred to settle their differences in a back alley. “A man can’t treat a woman that way—pointing fingers, being rude and climbing all over the other guy the way Mulroney and Turner did,” says Nickel Belt NDP MP John Rodriguez, who debated former Liberal cabinet minister Judy Eróla in Sudbury in 1980 and 1984. ‘"When you debate a woman, you can be firm and direct, but you must be polite.”
Just as that lesson was driven home to Charest during his leadership
run, Chrétien apparently has embraced the kinder, gentler philosophy. “My job is to deliver, not
‘I had a naïve view that the first worn leader would be the perfect mother’
demolish,” Chrétien has told his advisers privately. But the new era of
polite political debates has not dawned yet. Those restrictions do not apply to Campbell or McLaughlin, and both have showed that, when needed, they can leave “the new way of doing politics” at the studio door.
It looks more like a convention of stoics than a gathering of farmers, and there just may not be a tougher crowd for a politician anywhere. Several thousand visitors have come to a makeshift tent city on farmers’ fields outside Walkerton, Ont., for the opening of the annual International Plowing Match. And by midaftemoon, the crowds are pressing around the grandstand to watch the opening parade.
Nothing. No cheers, no waves, no reaction of any kind to the floats or the gaggle of local, provincial and federal politicians who pass by in vintage cars or on flatbed trucks. There isn’t even polite applause for the elementary school band that passes the grandstand bravely playing Old MacDonald. The first significant crowd reaction is a mixture of laughter and groans to the middle-aged, male, master of ceremonies, who flirts with the teenage girls who have come from across the province to represent their regions in a Queen of the Furrow contest. “I’ll meet you girls after the parade,” he says, “for some lunch ... or whatever.”
It is not an auspicious introduction to the arrival of Canada’s first woman Prime Minister. Campbell, on hand to open the plowing match, still gets the first polite greeting of the afternoon as she walks through the crowd to the grandstand. But there are doubters here. “She’ll set the cause of women back 25 years,” Ema Whetham, a retired conservation official from Hamilton, Ont., tells a woman friend after they shake hands with Campbell. “I don’t think she’s ready for the job,” Whetham
explains later. “And if she fails, men might not be willing to vote
for a woman again for a long
What little enthusiasm there is wanes as the number of introduc-
tory speakers reaches seven. And attention wanders further when
Campbell lapses into convoluted jargon, pledging to “preserve our capacity to create food,” when all she really means is that she will work to save farm jobs. But this Prime Minister has one new wrinkle in an otherwise age-old pitch to the farm vote: Campbell speaks for several minutes about the important role of farm women and their special concerns. It doesn’t win over everyone. “She’s divorced and has no kids; that’s an issue for a family woman like me,” says Mary Brown, a farmer from nearby Arthur, Ont., who gives her age only as “over 50.” But Campbell’s line represents a departure from campaigns of old—and a challenge to the once-male arena.
Ten kilometres away, across rolling fields to neighboring Grey County, is the tiny town of Neustadt and the rickety house where John Diefenbaker was bom. In Diefenbaker’s time, the political world was almost exclusively a men’s club; the Chief himself was given on occasion to uttering the once-fashionable platitude that “if the women could determine the future of the world, there would be peace.” Considering the women who have held power and waged wars since then—Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher—that notion now seems quaint. But there is still a vigorous debate over whether women must emulate men’s aggressive behavior if they are to be successful in politics.
The contrasting styles of McLaughlin and Campbell offer clues to the verdict “The attacks I’ve had are that I do not act enough like a man,” McLaughlin told Maclean’s recently. “I am a feminist. That has been interpreted as a negative.” With McLaughlin as leader, the New Democrats operated under the belief that the sour national mood offered a chance to mark out a new approach. “In the past, women in politics have had to become surrogate men, politics had to be played the male way,” Sandra Mitchell, McLaughlin’s principal secretary, said last
week. “But people are disillusioned with the old-line parties which practised a kind of backroom political
sport And people, for the most part, do not perceive women to
practise one-upmanship or backroom games.”
With that philosophy in mind, the NDP nominated a record 113 women candidates this fall—more than either the Tories (68) or the Liberals (64). But McLaughlin barely registers in opinion polls on leadership, and she presides over a party that is in danger of being crippled as a national political force. “This was supposed to be innovative, the first national party with a woman leader,” said one unhappy male New Democrat incumbent last week. ‘We were told by the women in the party that Audrey would attract votes from the 52 per cent of the population that share her gender. But Campbell projects more concern for women.” “That,” he added mournfully, “was supposed to be our strength.”
Campbell has, in fact taken a more forceful tack. “The rap against women,” said one Liberal party adviser, “is that they are not perceived to be tough enough leaders or sound on economic issues. Campbell has done remarkably well at overcoming those stereotypes.” To Copps, who honed her reputation as a Rat Packer willing to leap over tables to pursue a political argument, that suggestion signals that times have changed. “I was aggressive, and I got called a bitch,” she says curtly.
But many women lament that path. They argue that the need to show toughness has encouraged Campbell to put economic conservatism ahead of her feminist instincts. “It is a bitter pill for all of us who expected to see women’s issues dealt with,” says Toronto novelist Susan Swan, who still wrote a favorable profile of the Prime Minister for Mirabella magazine in August. “I had this naive view that the first woman leader was going to be more virtuous and more caring, the fan-
tasy of the perfect mother. In the real world it doesn’t play
out like that.”
The politics of gender are in transition. As long as double
standards exist, there will be politicians of both sexes
savvy and ambitious enough to exploit them for an edge on opponents. And the playing field tilts both ways. “Sure, Campbell has the freedom to be coquettish and flirtatious that men don’t enjoy,” says Swan. “But nor does she have the freedom to pick up someone and sleep with him on Sussex Drive, as Pierre Trudeau did, without provoking scorn and disapproval.”
The reaction to Trudeau’s dating habits might be somewhat different today. And many women expect that, over time, the public will also alter its opinion of female politicians. We are two elections away from throwing the whole issue of gender aside for good,” predicts Copps. “Once the number of women in politics approaches that of men, it stops being an issue. The fall of Kim Campbell,” she adds in full partisan flight “will not be the fall of womanhood.” But the belief that such a day will usher in a new brand of genteel political behavior is Pollyannaish. For the moment, certainly, the inherent brutishness of politics—no matter which sex is playing it—still prevails.
With E. KAYE FULTON, NANCY WOOD and CHRISTINA WOLANIUK in Ottawa