Canadian Politics

Canadian Politics: Women in the House

Okay, it seems like it’s time for a change of pace. There’s been quite a handful of both federal and provincial elections this year and women are increasingly in positions of power in various Houses across the nation. I thought I’d do a bit of a summary of where women stand in Canadian politics, and in the future do some writing about specific women.

The short answer is, depressingly, women are still poorly represented in politics at all levels of government.

The long answer is that politics are nothing if not fluid, and more women are holding positions of power (and straight-up seats) in the various legislatures. I’m sticking to federal and provincial legislatures, for simplicity’s sake.

Considering that it wasn’t until 1919 that women were even able to vote (and weren’t legally declared to be “persons” [and thus able to sit in the Senate] until 1929), we’ve come a long way. Agnes MacPhail was the first woman elected to federal Parliament, in 1921. She sat in a Parliament of 235 people, which had a gender ratio of 0.004. Today, there are 308 seats, 76 are occupied by women, for a ratio of 0.246. And that’s not consistent across party lines: a full 40% of NDP parliamentarians are women, while only 16% of the Conservative caucus is female. We’ve had a female Prime Minister, but she was only in office for 132 days, none of which were served in Parliament (Kim Campbell won the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives after Brian Mulroney stepped down and was roundly defeated by Jean Chretien’s Liberals in the 1993 election).

Women have made it to parliament in record numbers, but aren’t sitting in many of the top cabinet seats. Out of what I’d call the big five cabinet positions (Finance, National Defense, Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Deputy Prime Minister), just five women have ever held those posts: Kim Campbell was the Minister of Defense and Minister of Justice, Anne McLellan was Minister of Justice, Flora MacDonald and Barbara McDougall have been Secretary of Foreign Affairs (predecessor of Minister of Foreign Affairs), and Sheila Copps and Anne McLellan have been Deputy Prime Minister. No woman has ever been Minister of Finance, a position often seen as the Prime Minister’s right-hand man. While women are unequally represented in the House in general, we’re doubly unrepresented in the upper echelons of it. I don’t see that inequality changing as long as the Conservatives are in office, partially because they have so few women in their caucus as a whole, and partially because they’ve been no friend to women in other circumstances.

But this is starting to change on a provincial level. This year, Kathy Dunderdale was just the second woman to win a provincial election. (Catherine Callbeck was the first, in Prince Edward Island; other women have been premiers but have won leadership races, not elections). Alison Redford and Christy Clark both won leadership races this past year and are premiers of Alberta and British Columbia respectively. This is the first time that there have ever been four provinces or territories (Nunavut is led by Eva Aariak) with women as premier. Andrea Horvath didn’t win the Ontario election, but nearly doubled the seat count for the NDP (which is no small feat in Ontario, which still has an uneasy relationship with the NDP). It’s not going to change overnight, but it’s heartening to see that some women are pushing through to the top. I should note, too, that with the exception of Aariak, all of the women mentioned in this post are white, and while Parliament has come a long way in reflecting the racial diversity of the country, there is still much more work to be done there, too.

So, Persephoneers, I have a question for you. What do you think would help get more women in politics, and higher in politics? What tangible strategies would you suggest? I’m curious what you all think would be effective paths.

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

One reply on “Canadian Politics: Women in the House”

One of the things that really bothers me is the way women get politically assassinated over clothing choices and other miscellany that have nothing to do with their jobs. I remember Deborah Grey’s masculinity being a constant topic of discussion, along with Anne McClellan’s voice nevermind the fact that those women were two complete political badasses who completely changed our country.  I think the way we do parody in our country (Airfarce, 22 minutes etc) often is really bad for female politicans and mocks them for things that have nothing to do with anything. I feel like generally men get made fun of for ridiculous sound bites, policy, and maybe advertisements whereas with women it is much much more personal.

Anne McClellan was a huge inspiration for me growing up, she won and kept her riding for a long long time in my mostly blue province and she really changed Edmonton as a city. Hearing about her and all she did was a big reason (well that and my childhood friend’s father was a provincial liberal MLA) why I got involved in the young liberals, why I became a feminist, and partly why I am who I am today.

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