the Political Subordination of Women

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Vivian Pencz
November 11th, 2009
POLI SCI 1125
Canada’s Democratic Failure:
The Political Subordination of Women
or
“I Am Woman, Hear Me… Mewl”
“The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of
woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.” 1
— Lucretia Mott, seminal2 women’s rights advocate
It would be frankly absurd, or naively positive, to argue that women are not at a
systematic disadvantage when it comes to participating in Canadian politics. By analyzing the
current status of women in Canada’s political society, and by delineating how sluggishly women
have progressed in it since the granting of Canadian women’s suffrage in 1918, the truth of the
this sentiment is brightly illuminated—however optimistic the situation might appear to the illinformed outsider. Furthermore, by looking at the political challenges aspiring females face, the
modern Canadian woman, and the special (and especially restrictive) environment in which she
is raised, the reasons as to why this is so are clarified. As for solutions to this strangely
controversial issue, they do not come easy, not even in this essay; nevertheless, they have a right
to be seriously considered.
It should be noted that in this essay, ‘systematic’ in ‘systematic disadvantage’ will refer to
both Canada’s political system and Canada’s societal structure, of which the class system and the
established stereotypes and division of gender are inherent. Also, for the sake of simplicity, this
essay will focus primarily on women who participate in Canadian politics on a professional level.
A term that will invariably come up when raising the question of the subordination of
women in any sense, political or otherwise, is feminism. Feminism can be defined as “a
theoretical project whose purposes are to understand the power structures, social practices, and
institutions that disadvantage and marginalize women, and to devise innovative strategies of
social transformation that will promote women’s emancipation”3.
1 BrainyQuote. “Lucrecia Mott Quotes”. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/lucretia_mott.html.
BrainyMedia.com. 2009.
2 No pun intended.
3 Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy: The Political Struggles of Canadian
Women. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 5.
To put things into perspective, allow me to pencil in a vignette of how female politicians
are faring in modern-day Canada. As of now, “women make up over 50 per cent of the Canadian
population but only [a little over] 20 per cent of legislators, [approximately] 25 per cent of cabinet
ministers, and less than 10 per cent of party leaders”4; and although “record numbers of young
women are currently enrolled in our post-secondary institutions, completing undergraduate
programs plus pursuing law and business degrees to an unprecedented extent” 5, “Canada’s
legislatures continue to be a poor mirror of the population” 6 since “women continue to be elected
to less than half of the seats that would be theirs in a genuinely egalitarian society”7.
“In April 2005, the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union [reported] that Canada
ranked 38th out of 185 countries in terms of the percentage of women in the national elected
legislature”8, and further studies have shown that “Canada has fewer elected women than most
of Europe, parts of Africa, and Australia”9. This is an unusual predicament for a nation that often
prides itself on being progressive, equitable, and exceptionally respectful of the voices and rights
of underprivileged groups, in comparison to other countries—and the statement that women are
indeed an underprivileged group (“Among the social groups most consistently excluded from
the political élite are the poor, minority ethnic and religious groups, and women” 10) will be
corroborated later.
It is also unusual, or would be to an outsider of our society peering in, that “regardless of
partisan stripe, all of Canada’s political parties have consistently reflected ‘the higher, the fewer’
rule: that is, the higher up the party echelon one goes and the more electorally competitive the
4
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting: Women in Politics Across Canada. Peterborough: Broadview Press
Ltd., 2003. p. xv.
5
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy. Toronto: Oxford
University Press, 2009. p. 3.
6
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics: Toward Equity in Representation. Toronto: Dundurn
Press, 1991. p. 9.
7
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting: Women in Politics Across Canada. Peterborough: Broadview Press
Ltd., 2003. p. xii.
8
Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy. p. 98.
9
Equal Voice: Electing More Women In Canada organization. “Mission” and “Research & Reports”.
http://www.equalvoice.ca (accessed 10 November, 2009).
10
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 3.
party, the fewer women are to be found” 11, and that, “with few exceptions, leadership for women
has been transitory. For many the post is best characterized as a revolving door. […] Women’s
leadership of political parties is typically precarious and short-lived”12. These phenomena can be
partially elucidated by “statistical analysis [which] suggests that women candidates still are not
afforded the same opportunities for election as their male counterparts”13.
Before expanding on the reasons as to why “in jurisdiction upon jurisdiction and time
after time, women legislators [in Canada] have struggled to take their place on an equal footing
and in equal numbers to men”14, it is vital to expand on how this phenomenon came to be and
continues to be today: “Looking far back to the immediate postwar decades, we see a House of
Commons and provincial legislatures with tiny fractions of women members, and perhaps one
woman at a time in cabinet. The second-wave feminist mobilization of the late 1960s and
following helped to boost these numbers dramatically. Numbers at the sub-national level also
increased to the point that women presently hold about 22 per cent of provincial seats, up from
roughly 6 per cent during the 1980s”15. Also: “The growth in women’s participation in federal
elections in the past 20 years has been significant. Women, as a percentage of federal candidates,
[had] increased from 6 per cent in 1972 to 19 per cent in 1988. During the same period, women
increased their representation in the House of Commons from 2 per cent to 13 per cent” 16.
In spite of these encouraging developments, and despite the fact that “we’ve had women
premiers in at least two provinces, plus a female prime minister, however briefly, in 1993”17, the
future for female politicians has begun to appear bleak: “Since the 1980s, we’ve mostly seen
stagnation. The proportion of female MPs has been stuck in the roughly one-fifth range since
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 29.
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting. p. 71-72.
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 6.
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting. p. 27.
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 4.
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 4-5.
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 3.
1993. The last time an elected women premier held office was 1996”18. According to professors
Linda Trimble and Jane Arscott’s research: “A relative steady increase in the numbers of elected
women since the 1980s obscures the fact that most recently, in several jurisdictions, the
percentage of female legislators has either stayed the same or actually dropped slightly” 19.
Making matters worse is the current Harper administration: “The 2006 elections brought
to Ottawa a Conservative minority government led by Stephen Harper, which was closer to
organized anti-feminism than any regime in the country’s history. […] At its core, Harper’s
victory provided an authoritative stamp of approval for a party that nominated and elected very
few women candidates and MPs. […] Federal funding for pro-equality court interventions had
been vulnerable in Canada since the early 1990s, yet Harper and his team set in motions [and]
procedures that altered the way federal judges were appointed, cut funds for a few remaining
women’s units, and generally pushed the already precarious women’s equality locomotive right
off the tracks”20.
Canada’s incumbent government’s passive refusal to acknowledge the severity of the
subordination of women in Canadian politics reinforces the popular contemporary idea that,
“Gender is no longer regarded in most quarters as an issue affecting balanced, equitable, and fair
representation. [In actuality,] a false sense of continuing achievement prevails, further stalling
progress for women, and complacency itself now contributes to the continued
underrepresentation of women in electoral politics in Canada”21.
The resounding question that should be popping into our heads as we inspect this
malfunction in Canada’s political machine is, “Why?” Why have women experienced such
difficulty in their attempts to rise to the top and act as leaders of our nation, and why are so many
women deterred from attempting at all? The answer is unquestionably complex and involves
numerous factors, being, most significantly, parties’ reluctance to award women prominent roles
18
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 4.
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting. p. 44.
20 Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 128-130.
21
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting. p. 43.
19
of leadership, male dominance in the workforce, the media, and—the deciding factor—the impact
of stereotypes and how women are mentally and emotionally conditioned throughout their
upbringing and into their adult years.
As one strain of thought asserts, “Women candidates are less often elected, partly
because the major federal parties continue to follow the long-established tradition of nominating
women to ridings where their chances of winning are low” 22; as such, “Canada’s political parties
[have] integrated women into the party structure in such a way as to reinforce an ideology of
sexual difference and political inequality” 23. It is no surprise then that “in study after study
women candidates indicate that [one of] the most formidable obstacles they encountered in their
pursuit for office [was] winning their party’s nomination” 24.
Because, as Nobel Prize-winning medical physicist Rosalyn Sussman put it, “we still live
in a world in which a significant fraction of people, including women, believe that a woman
belongs and wants to belong exclusively in the home”25, “most women are concentrated in lowwage sectors performing manual, support, or ‘nurturing’ roles—tasks deemed suitable for the
‘feminine’ character,” “few women are employed in jobs that produce ‘social capital’, the social
knowledge, contacts, and privileged access to culturally valued qualifications and social skills”,
“few have the personal financial security or access to moneyed networks, which are increasingly
necessary to launch a successful career in politics”26, and “women on average earn about 70 cents
for every dollar earned by a man”. Therefore, “there are stark monetary differences among male
and female candidates’ abilities to run for and compete successfully for elected office”, and
women’s “exclusion from elite networks denies them access to rich sources of political funds. It is
22
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 7.
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 26-27.
24
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 39.
25
The Feminist eZine. “1001 Feminist Quotes”. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/quotes (accessed 26 October,
2009).
26
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 15.
23
much easier for a respected lawyer or financier to raise the thousands of dollars needed for a
contested nomination than it is for a teacher or a nurse” 27.
The media—that is to say newspapers, the internet, television, etc.—undoubtedly plays
its part as a political challenge for women very well, smearing the dignity of female politicians on
a day-to-day basis with its negative portrayals and magnifying-glass scrutiny. “Given their
ongoing low numbers in our city councils and legislatures, female politicians are viewed as
unusual creatures and museum-like specimens”28 and are frequently treated as such by the
media: “Male candidates are able to speak as if gender is irrelevant. Not so for female candidates,
as their sex continues to be highlighted and stereotyped by the media, other candidates, and
political parties. Female party leaders’ performances during leadership debates are still described
as ‘shrill’”29. This word and others like it are often used to describe women who speak out
passionately or heatedly in public forums, and brings to mind this quotation by radical feminist
Susi Kaplow: “[Society] calls an angry woman unfeminine, because anger takes the woman out of
her earth mother role as bastion of peace and calm, out of her familial role as peace-maker, out of
her political role as preserver of the status quo, out of her economic role as cheap labor, out of her
social role as second-class citizen. It takes her out of roles altogether and makes her a person.”30
The shallow concerns of femininity are actually constantly imposed on female politicians
by the media itself: “Much of the coverage women do attract focuses on personal style and
private life matters rather than on public policy views. This ongoing fixation with matters
unrelated to political substance effectively converts women politicians into physical commodities,
treated as if they are involuntary contestants on an extended, and very high-stakes, makeover
show. Within this strange public spectacle, very few demographic characteristics, visual images,
27
Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy. p. 122.
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 90.
29
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting. p. 6.
30
The Feminist eZine. “1001 Feminist Quotes”. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/quotes (accessed 26 October,
2009).
28
or communications styles are viewed as acceptable.”31 Under this harsh public perusal, “Female
politicians [can never] seem to get things right: whether they are assertive and confident, or
consensual and team-oriented, they are found to be lacking in whatever it is that constitutes ‘the
right stuff’ of public authority.”32
The issue that underscores everything in this essay is that of the sexist stereotypes that
run through the veins of Canada’s societal and political system like a virus, and the
indoctrination of these stereotypes that every modern Canadian woman has been exposed to or
has experienced firsthand during their personal upbringings. To quote Shirley Chisholm, the first
black woman to be elected to the United States’ Congress: “The emotional, sexual, and
psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: ‘It’s a girl.’” 33. To elaborate:
“Women are gendered in a subordinate position relative to men based on their definition of sex
in opposition to the male: male/female, mind/body, aggressive/nurturing, scientific/natural,
rational/hysterical, centre/margin, normal/peculiar. That men are defined as normal and
women as peculiar is significant because it denotes that men are the ‘universal norm’ or the
‘subject’. Women are by definition not men; they are ‘unmen’. They are the ‘other’ and thus
outside the norm”34.
This idea that men are ‘the norm’ as opposed to women, especially within the dusty
pages of political history, is further enhanced in the words of poet Adrienne Rich: “When
someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world, and you are not in it, there is a
moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. It takes some
strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this
void, this nonbeing, into which we are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and
31
32
33
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 58.
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 10.
The Feminist eZine. “1001 Feminist Quotes”. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/quotes (accessed 26 October,
2009).
34
Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy. p. 12.
heard.”35 Again though, it must be said, the majority of women do not “stand up, demanding to
be seen and heard”. The majority of women instead opt to fill their expected roles as “dependant,
politically impaired creatures” and “personal supports for the rational male actor known as
‘economic man’, at his side to encourage him, comfort him, and bear and raise his children”, not
as the same “self-seeking individualists as males”36.
The stereotypical feminine roles (the gentle and motherly homemaker, the soft and
delicate caregiver, the simple and innocent elementary schoolteacher, the nonaggressive and
obedient follower, the inoffensive and romantic dilettante, the fashionable airhead untroubled by
and taciturn about the messy goings-on of the world outside her comfortable private sphere, etc.)
that women are taught are acceptable as career or life choices from a very young age limit their
horizons, and condition them to think of themselves as capable of achieving only what has been
deemed appropriate for them by a male-dominated society. Furthermore, women generally take
on the traits attached to these roles as they form their identities, since these are the traits that have
been deemed “ladylike” by society. I would argue that stereotypically male attributes include
assertiveness, boldness, courage, strength, intelligence, etc. and that these are not the qualities
girls are brought up with and the ones they are taught they should assume. If they were, I believe
more women would be inclined to venture into the world of politics, where these qualities are
explicitly valued.
As a result of sexist stereotypes, in twenty-first century Canadian society “we [still] have
a deep-seated psychological discomfort with accepting women and political authority
together”37; and as a result of the abovementioned conditioning, the average Canadian woman is
detached from the political world to at least some noticeable extent: “[Past studies have] found
that women in Canada tend to be less likely to pay attention to politics, to follow political news,
to discuss politics, or to try to convince others to vote a certain way. Recent studies confirm that
35
The Feminist eZine. “1001 Feminist Quotes”. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/quotes (accessed 26 October,
2009).
36
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 122.
37
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics. p. 18.
women are less likely to be as knowledgeable about politics in Canada as men—for example, able
to identify party leaders. They are also less likely to pay attention to election news or watch
leader’s debates, to be members of political parties, or to contact a parliamentarian. In addition, in
Canada studies have revealed that women have a slightly lower [voter] turnout rate than men.”38
This trend can be attributed to early stereotypical conditioning, which can be referred to
as “political socialization” as well: “Political socialization is the process by which society teaches
its members the political values, traditions, norms, and duties that it deems desirable and
acceptable. It is through political socialization that generally accepted ideas like ‘politics is a
man’s world’ can be passed on from generation to generation. Agents of political socialization
may be the family, educational, and religious institutions, the mass media, and the state itself”39.
Of course, “undoing the fact that men are predominantly power-holders, elected or
otherwise, will not change as the result of any study” 40, and there have been various solutions to
the underrepresentation of Canadian women put forward over the years. For example:
“[Canada’s Single Member Plurality electoral system] means that women’s parties have less
chance of success since it [is] difficult to concentrate women’s votes regionally.” Thus, “Many
scholars advocate a Proportional Representation system in which seats are awarded based on the
proportion of the popular vote a party receives in an election.” “PR tends to support the creation
of multi-member districts, and therefore voters’ votes do not go to one candidate alone but rather
to many candidates, which can include women and minorities. […] PR also allows parties to
practice an explicit affirmative action by placing women’s names high on party lists”, and there is
evidence that suggests that “countries with PR or even mixed PR/SMP systems elect more
women than countries with SMP systems”41. Even so, “the type of electoral system alone is not
the sole barrier to women’s electoral successes”42.
38
Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy. p. 108-109.
Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy. p. 107.
40
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting. p. 6.
41
Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy. p. 124.
42
Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy. p. 125.
39
Because the issue runs deeper than what we see on the surface, the only truly viable
solution (no matter how impractical and dreamily idealistic it sounds, which I am certain it does)
is to transform the way women think of themselves and what others think about women, so that
the political world does not seem so alien and out of reach for aspiring female politicians. As
accomplished feminist activist Gloria Steinem said, “The first problem for all of us, men and
women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”43 I do not mean by this that women should remove
aspects of themselves that are feminine so as to become masculine, but that society as a whole
should learn to blur the lines differentiating one gender from the other, so that gender becomes
more of a fluid and abstract conception, and less of a concrete and constrictive vise.
Although this is admittedly a radical and lofty proposition to make, it must be
remembered: “Women are a subordinate group in Canadian society, and as for any subordinate
group, the issue of political representation are critical for the socially disadvantaged” 44, and, “The
credibility and political legitimacy of representative institutions are diminished when gender
deficits are not corrected as a matter of public policy. Uncorrected gender deficits undermine
both democracy and the values that support it.”45 Therefore, in order to salvage Canadian
democracy, we must correct them.
43
The Feminist eZine. “1001 Feminist Quotes”. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/quotes (accessed 26 October,
2009).
44
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia. Women in Canadian Politics. p. 9.
45
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting. p. xv.
Works Cited:
1.
Bashevkin, Sylvia. Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished
Democracy. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2009.
2.
Brodie, Janine and Chandler, Celia, among others. Women in Canadian Politics: Toward
Equity in Representation. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991.
3.
Newman, Jacquetta and A. White, Linda. Women, Politics, and Public Policy: The Political
Struggles of Canadian Women. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006.
4.
Trimble, Linda and Arscott, Jane. Still Counting: Women in Politics Across Canada.
Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd., 2003.
5.
Equal Voice: Electing More Women In Canada organization. “Mission” and “Research &
Reports”. http://www.equalvoice.ca (accessed 10 November, 2009).
6.
The Feminist eZine. “1001 Feminist Quotes”.
http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/quotes (accessed 26 October, 2009).
7.
BrainyQuote. “Lucrecia Mott Quotes”.
http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/lucretia_mott.html. BrainyMedia.com.
2009.
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