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Review: Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy

Sylvia Bashevkin, Oxford University Press, 186 pp., $19.95

Since the beginning of parliamentary time in Canada (1867), only 216 women have been elected to the House of Commons; 3867 men have warmed those same seats. We are currently in the 40th sitting of Parliament, with only 68 of 308 seats occupied by women. Appalling, infuriating, don’t you agree?

Parliamentary time for Canadian women only began in 1922, when the redoubtable Agnes MacPhail from Proton Township, Grey County took her seat in the House of Commons, arriving in Ottawa “wearing a straw hat with a veiled brim and a blue serge dress, and [carrying] with her a  clutch purse and gloves,” [96] a costume deemed by contemporary accounts to be “severe, worn out, unfashionable, and downright dowdy.” [61]


Parliamentary time for Canadian women only began in 1922, when the redoubtable Agnes MacPhail from Proton Township, Grey County began a twenty-year stretch as an MP, followed by a term in the Ontario legislature (introducing legislation for equal pay), and service as the first woman appointed to the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations (serving on the Disarmament Committee). She was a founder of the CCF, although she is  described in The Canadian Encyclopedia as one who “distrusted partisanship and did not acknowledge party discipline.” MacPhail also founded the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada and was instrumental in the establishment of the Archambault Commission (1935) to investigate Canada's prisons.

Almost ninety years later, Canadians still are not really comfortable with the idea or the reality of women in power. Oh sure, we have our Hazel MaCallions and…lots of other small-town mayors; we’ve had women valiantly run for the leadership of parties (and lose); we’ve had women become party leaders and then immediately lose elections or run their party’s numbers into the ground, fulfilling worst expectations. And there are a number of women who have quietly come in, done a sterling job as MP for years, some have held cabinet posts, some have been become Senators. But the record, 216 vs 3867, is shameful (although the current 22% not that different from the numbers in other Western democracies).

Bashevkin’s modest little book, Women Power, Politics, is almost a pamphlet (described as “no-nonsense and witty” on the back cover), with this to say about women in political life in Canada: women plus power equals discomfort.  These are Bashevkin’s italics, used insistently throughout the book, every time she throws out her signature equation which is frequently.  With reference to a range of journalistic and academic sources—Bashevkin has another book out this year, as editor of a collection of essays: Opening Doors Wider: Women’s Political Engagement in Canada (UBC Press)—the book rolls out in a lively, colloquial manner  the dismal record of women in Canadian politics and some of the reasons for that record, dishes some analysis of the current situation and, without a huge degree of optimism, it must be said, runs through the usual recipes for improvement: “without a systematic revaluing of mainstream involvement, few creative or energetic people will want to get involved in formal politics at any level.” [143]

Sadly, it seems that almost everyone agrees that it would be a good thing to have more women politicians, but it simply is not happening, and the Canadian public does not care enough to make it happen. That rankling, italicized discomfort is apparently in our DNA.
Bashevkin began writing the book during the summer 2007 campaign for the Democratic nomination, when “Hillary” ran against Senator Obama. She of the well-articulated, solid policies and inconvenient husband, the terrible pantsuits and single, fatal tear-up; this was  the most closely and widely observed defeat of a woman in history. It was also, interestingly, a time when many smart female journalists turned vampiric: “…Hillary is a woman? Who’d have thought that under those beige pantsuits so shapeless they would meet with Taliban approval there lurks a real, live female?...Stop campaigning as if you’ve been neutered and have the balls to run like a real girl…stand up straight and show us your claws…and your cleavage.” (G&M, Karen von Hahn, 28 July, 2007)  [59-60]

Bashevkin certainly faults the media for their role in pandering to the public taste for scandal, gossip and the old-fashioned mockery that women in politics seem to attract, if not actually invite, simply because they aren’t middle-aged men in dull suits, safe ties and sensible shoes. But she seems somewhat resigned to this scavenging which the most righteous among us admittedly cannot resist reading (and writing), on occasion, and certainly does not hesitate to find it useful. (The weakest section in her “What to do” final chapter is that dealing with the media—apparently infuriatingly unstoppable.)

The book is primarily a scan of the issues confronting women who seek political office: they will be mercilessly judged on their appearance, wardrobe, voice, sex appeal and marital status; they will be found wanting in myriad, contradictory ways. Too dowdy? MacPhail, McDonough—An Ottawa Citizen headline: Alexa McDonough, Call your dry-cleaner. [70] Too glamourous? Stronach —“She wore Gucci and Prada and…four-inch stilettos.” (G&M, Jan Wong, 2004), Ambrose  and now Dhalla—“She is young, single and fond of stiletto heels and figure-hugging pencil skirts - not what you'd expect to see on someone who sits in the House of Commons.” (G&M, Jane Taber, May 16, 2009.)
Voice too high, or “strident”?  Copps, Carstairs. Voice too low, too soft—McDonough. Suspiciously affluent, too well-dressed— Stronach and the magnificent Rosemary Brown. Too aggressive—Campbell, Copps. Too meek—McLaughlin. Too cold (unfeminine and spinsterish)? MacPhail, MacDonald. Too hot (divorced and dating)? Campbell— Madonna, “perky, smart, sexy,” [101] and whoring, Blond Ambition Stronach.

Too young? Copps, running in 1982 for Ontario Liberal leadership at 28. Too old? Pauline Marois, running in 2007 for PQ party leader at 58—Jeffrey Simpson called her “almost grandmotherly”…suggesting that if she represented renewal “then the federal Liberals should bring back Herb Gray.” (then 76). [67] Too many sequins? Elsie, of course. Yes, most  reporters are on a first-name basis with Kim, Belinda, Sheila, Rona, Audrey, Alexa, Sharon and now the hapless Ruby….

Bashevkin does not diagnose the systemic, endemic discomfort that makes it so difficult for women to get into, stay in and succeed in politics. But her analysis of the current situation is deftly done; she looks at the pincers constraining women, from both left and right. She documents the slide of NAC into oblivion, and the simultaneous ascension of REAL Women. She notes the complicity of the left in the marginalization of traditional political action in the name of large causes like globalization and global warming, and the strategic emphasis by the right on the centrality of individual rights over communal rights, hence downgrading the role of government. Harper’s Conservatives have managed, through a series of pieces of legislation and budgetary sleights of hand, to neutralize or dismantle key elements in the strengthening of rights for women: the undermining of child care programs, the shutting down of regional offices of Status of Women Canada, wiping out the Court Challenges program, described by REAL Women as a triumph for democracy: “The elimination of the Court Challenges program will go a long way to promoting democracy in Canada.” Bashevkin, who has resisted scorn for the most part to this point, comments: “If there were ever a contest to reward Orwellian double-speak, I’d nominate that statement for top prize.” [137]
The book ends with a chapter called What to Do.” (I am not sure who the intended audience of this book is, possibly students, or activists; there is a determinedly jocular, populist tone; perhaps it is simply meant to be non-academic.) Out come the familiar  solutions: mandatory voting (“could go a long way toward getting more citizens involved”); legislative quotas (“Gender quota discussions would also spotlight the politicial representation of other groups…”); electoral reform (talk about discomfort!), fight the media, monitor the media and form new umbrella groups. Probe anti-feminism. Get political… [150, 155]

I’m sorry, but I cannot imagine who will be stirred to action by these homilies. Young people are not drawn to politics, but to issues; they care about the environment and global warming and injustice, but they do not see joining a political party, running for office, being a backbencher in the Opposition, or worse, as the way to (the current mantra) “make a difference.” They do rallies and concerts, not conventions; they twitter and text and blog but they do not vote. Nobody votes! We see the 2008 American presidential election as a shining example of an invigorated, engaged populace putting ours to shame, but in fact there was not a huge difference in voter turnout: 61.7 % of eligible Americans voted; 59.1 % of eligible Canadians voted.

To run for election, you must belong to a political party. A 2006 study for the Institute for Research on Public Policy by William Cross and Lisa Young concluded that, on a year-to-year basis, only between 1 and 2 percent of Canadians belong to a political party, placing Canada at the bottom of the list of Western democracies. (And the average age of a party member is 59.) Young Canadians do not respect traditional, fusty (middle-aged) hierarchies, like those of political parties. (Women have never been really comfortable or welcome in those fabled backrooms; MacPhail’s instincts were sound.) Are political parties the backbone of an inviolable  parliamentary system or an anachronism, a convenient mechanism to be exploited? And no wonder young people are skeptical about political parties; why vote for someone who crosses the floor before the first sitting of Parliament? Or, maybe that pragmatism is attractive; why not put the principle of action above loyalty? Where is this debate taking place?

Watching the inauguration of President Obama (the dream of a woman president utterly vanquished, for now), Canadians could not help but think: who is our Obama? What would she or he look like, what would be the perfect cocktail of gender/age/ethnicity/experience/message? But do we even have a model of “public service” in this country that includes being a candidate in a federal election?  What would convince someone like Naomi Klein or…(insert your Canadian leader-idol here) to run for political office, and would she dare to wear Prada and stilettos?