On the Benevolence of Slippery Slopes: Women Taking the Lead

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/KimCampbell.jpgI had the pleasure last week of attending a public talk called “Women’s Voices: What Difference Do They Make?” featuring Canada’s first and only female prime minister, Kim Campbell.

Appearing at Vancouver’s Harbour Centre campus of Simon Fraser University, the former PM sat down with Shari Graydon of Informed Opinions to discuss women’s participation in government, business, and the media. She spoke with ease and humour about her time in politics, relating such anecdotes as the aura of stunned silence which prevailed when, having recently been promoted to cabinet, she disrupted the old boys’ atmosphere by launching into a graphic elucidation of some of her own personal struggles with birth control; or the way the press hammered her during the 1993 election over such irrelevancies as her choice of earrings, or whether it was wise for her to have made a proclamation she never actually made (i.e. “an election is no time to discuss serious issues”).

The moment I had been waiting for, however, came towards the end when, in response to a question from the audience, Campbell talked about a proposal for electoral reform she had outlined some weeks earlier at a women’s conference in Prince Edward Island. The proposal goes like this: every federal riding would elect two members of parliament — a man and a woman — instead of just one. Thus, the perennially out-of-reach goal of gender parity in the House of Commons would finally be achieved.

The plan is not without its difficulties. It would require either an increase in the number of MPs, a decrease in the number of ridings, or, most likely, some moderate combination of the two. I also worry that with the reintroduction of multi-member districts under what is still a plurality voting system, the problem of disproportionality would be exacerbated. In fact, Campbell herself admitted that gender parity might fit more easily with proportional representation, under which parties could simply be required to alternate female and male names on their party lists.

But it was not minor quibbles such as these which captured the attention of Canada’s newspaper commentariat. By way of critiquing Campbell’s scheme, the National Post’s Kelly McParland writes:

Once a law was passed requiring a woman MP in each riding, there would inevitably be pressure to expand the mandate. Gays have as much right to demand more gay MPs, as do transgendered Canadians, and all the colours of the Canadian sexual rainbow …¬†And if we are to introduce gender quotas, should we not also be making provision for aboriginals, the handicapped or any of dozens of significant ethnic blocks?

Trying to be cheeky, the Toronto Sun’s Adrienne Batra takes it a step further:

Create a special case for female candidates and where does it end?

Special seats for the left-handed? Dog owners? Those suffering from male pattern baldness?

The common thread seems to be that any proposal for gender parity in parliament will open the floodgates to other traditionally oppressed groups demanding fair representation of their own.

And this is a bad thing how, exactly?

Why shouldn’t our elected institutions reflect the broad demographic spectrum of Canadian society? Why shouldn’t we expect our representatives to be, you know, representative? Marginalized communities tend to bring with them lived experiences which differ from those of the rich white males who still largely hold sway. To bring about the greatest possible diversity in public office would benefit not just this or that group, but everyone.

Later on during the question-and-answer session at Campbell’s event, somebody mentioned the recently unveiled Up for Debate campaign, put forward by a coalition of more than 100 organizations calling for a televised leaders’ debate on women’s issues leading up to the 2015 federal election. The proposal has a precedent in the form of a similar debate held 30 years ago, and already, both Elizabeth May and Thomas Mulcair have accepted the challenge to give it another try.

Media coverage has been minimal, but once attention starts to pick up, it is easy to imagine the objections. Why a debate on women, the opinion page contrarians will crow, and not First Nations, LGBT issues, poverty, immigration, or the environment? Won’t other groups expect equal attention? Taken to its logical conclusion, this well-meaning proposal will produce an unstoppable proliferation of televised debates the likes of which a Canadian election has never seen.

As before, I fail to see the downside.

Leaders’ debates are some of the most substantive policy discussions that take place during elections. This is not to say they are perfect — their choreographed, over-rehearsed nature makes them about as stimulating as a Stephen Harper piano recital — but compared to the usual fare of self-congratulatory press conferences and BBQ photo-ops that constitute modern-day electioneering, the debates are practically paragons of intellectual vigour.

We need not fear efforts to raise the political profile of women. To pursue gender parity in parliament, to bring to the electorate’s attention issues like childcare and violence against women — these are just causes in and of themselves. But if these priorities also help to embolden others in their struggles for justice, all that does is make a strong case even stronger.

More than 20 years have passed since Canada’s singular experiment with having a female prime minister. Perhaps the time has come for us to think about giving it another shot.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

The Persistence of Misogyny

SuffragettesIt has been fashionable for as long as I can remember for bitter males, along with a few reactionary female allies, to claim that the feminist movement not only succeeded in eliminating the traditional gender power structure, but inverted it too. Women, they complain, are now on top, occupying the positions of privilege formerly reserved for men, while the latter, thanks to affirmative action and male-bashing, are reduced to the status of persecuted victim.

Never mind the impressive blinders one must sport in order to ignore the systemic discrimination women still face, such as a persistent pay gap and chronic underrepresentation in both government and corporate hierarchies. It is not even particularly hard to find misogyny of the non-systemic, consciously promoted variety, as in this month’s horrific assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan against fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai who dared to speak out for girls’ education, or, just this week in Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner opining that it is not “modest” and therefore forbidden for women to stand for election to the Knesset.

But these events are halfway around the world. What is happening closer to home?

Here in North America, the misogyny du jour usually finds itself not far removed from the issue of abortion. Thankfully in Canada, even with a Conservative majority, our Parliamentarians had enough sense to reject an underhanded attempt to ban abortion by redefining the point at which life begins.

In the United States, however, things are never so easy. Stephen Colbert was good enough to provide a montage of quotes from Republican politicians on the subjects of rape and abortion (click here to watch in Canada or here in the United States), which ranged from the insensitive (“even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape … it is something that God intended to happen”) to the ignorant (“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”) to the outrageously offensive (“some girls, they rape so easy”).

Then there was the case of Amanda Todd. Earlier this month, the fifteen-year-old committed suicide after sustaining years of bullying, cyberstalking, sexual harassment, and physical assault, which started when she was manipulated by a grown man into flashing her breasts on a webcam and blackmailed with the screen shot.

Todd’s death has rightly received a large amount of media coverage, but not always of a kind that puts her anguish in context. She was a victim of a porn-infused online culture that distorts the way people think about themselves and each other. In this world, men and boys feel entitled to sexual gratification, which women and girls are expected to supply without reservation.

Yes, boys are bullied too, and it is always a horrible occurrence no matter who is targeted or why. But what girls go through is pressure and torment of a qualitatively different nature. Sexist double standards are real. We must recognize them among the causal factors that killed Amanda Todd and others like her.

It is in this spirit of acknowledging the wrongs of misogyny that I end with a widely circulated video of a speech by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She may not be a perfect politician in every respect, but is it ever fun to watch her hold her head high while laying into the hypocrisy of her country’s Leader of the Opposition right to his face!