THE GILDED GHETTO: WOMEN AND POLITICAL POWER IN CANADA
By Sydney Sharpe (HarperCollins, 272 pages, $27)
During her decade-long career in the piranha pit of Ottawa politics, former B.C. Liberal MP Iona Campagnolo was admired for her aloof elegance and brisk resolve. It was Campagnolo who, as party president, had the nerve to tell Pierre Trudeau in 1984 that it was time for him to go. Even as the unlikely minister for fitness and amateur sports in Trudeau’s cabinet, the self-described “hothouse flower” appeared to be a self-assured woman who had it all. So much for that illusion. In Calgary journalist Sydney Sharpe’s new book, The Gilded Ghetto, Campagnolo reveals that her “bows and ribbons and scarves” camou-
flaged painful political insecurities, and that she wore spike heels “so I could fight eye to eye with men”—the bigger the battle, the higher the heel. Like other women before her, she viewed Parliament as a hostile men’s club, disdainful of the women who attempted to invade it. “It wasn’t made for us,” says
Despite many gains, women in Parliament face discrimination
Campagnolo, “and in many ways it still isn’t.” Since the doors to Parliament were pried open to women in 1919, when they won the
right to be elected, most of the 120 females (compared with 3,656 men) sent by voters to Ottawa have accumulated more than enough reason to bitterly complain. In 1921, Agnes McPhail, Canada’s first female MP, was hailed outside the House of Commons by a guard who hollered, “You can’t go in there, Miss.” Forty-seven years later, the late Judy LaMarsh, brilliant and bombastic, scathingly observed that in politics “the little dirty details of life” were left to women so that men could “accomplish the big shiny jobs unimpeded.” With a record 53 women in the present 295seat Parliament the numbers have improved. But according to Sharpe—and to a startling number of the contemporary female politicians who shared their views with the author—not much else has changed. “Deeply rooted in the Canadian psyche,” writes Sharpe, “is the contrary notion that women should stick to the private sphere of home and family while men do the public work.” There are those who undoubtedly will say, enough already. In fact, Sharpe admits with surprising candor in the book’s footnotes that a testy Ellen Fairclough—the Hamilton West Tory MP from 1950 to 1963 and, at age 89, the dean of Canadian female politicians—refused an extended interview because, Fairclough says, “everybody’s writing a book about women in politics.” In its grim march to an inevitable conclusion, The Gilded Ghetto at times descends into the uncomfortable whine of a self-help group session, invoking the very victim syndrome that many feminists deplore—but still often use—as an excuse for the lack of action by both male and female politicians. In fleeting moments,
Sharpe seems all too aware of this trap. “One problem,” she notes,
“is that no Canadian woman has yet appeared with the charisma to set a style, a way of leading, that the voters can accept and that other female politicians can absorb and use.”
Naturally, Sharpe’s study includes the rise and ignominious downfall of Kim Campbell—the quixotic symbol of the Canadian feminist movement’s greatest political triumph and, at the same time, its most crushing embarrassment.
Sharpe mercifully contains her analysis of Campbell’s disastrous spin as this country’s first female prime minister in one chapter, aptly titled “Tinkerbell Spell.” History has yet to measure the effect of Campbell on the advancement of women to the pinnacle of power.
There is weighty evidence that the former minister of justice and defence was done wrong, by the media and her Tory colleagues alike. But Sharpe clearly overstates her case. “Kim Campbell,” she writes, “caught Canadians with their stereotypes exposed as vividly
as pink pantaloons in a Victorian windstorm.” Also questionable is Sharpe’s criticism of media inquiries into whether the publicly prochoice Campbell had, as falsely rumored, an abortion: it was Campbell, after all, who steered the Tory government’s failed attempts
to recriminalize the procedure. What makes The Gilded Ghetto stand out amid the groaning bookshelves of so-called women’s studies is its cast of strong supporting characters. One is Alexa McDonough, who is stepping down as Nova Scotia’s NDP leader. Arguably one of Canada’s canniest politicians and certainly an articulate advocate of women’s rights, McDonough tempers her frustration with the male-dominated blood sport with a wry acknowledgment that “politics is one of the few areas where women get equal pay.” Alberta MP Deborah Grey, one of seven
women and the only veteran of the
last Parliament in the 52-member Reform caucus, even manages to find humor in the joyless task of fighting sexism. Seated on a plane next to a man who initially refused to believe she was an MP, Grey responded: “No, I am the MP. But I do have a secretary and his name is Robert.” The sad fact is that, 76 years after suffragette Nellie
McClung helped to wrest the women’s vote from a reluctant male establishment, the joke is still at the expense of more than half the Canadian population.
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