“The only M.P. who can—Bake, churn, cook, milk, sew, hitch, teach, talk—and do ‘em all well!”
That was the headline from a Maclean’s feature from January 15, 1922, about the first woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons: Grey County’s own Agnes Macphail, a progressive who trekked to Ottawa to represent her farmer neighbours and fight “big interests.” The article pointed out that she was more attractive in person than in photographs, which made her look mature with “heavy features.” In person, she looked “no more than her thirty-one years,” had “regular features” and, thanks to a little armchair phrenology, the writer pronounced her forehead as “decidedly of an intellectual type.”
As patronizing as that was, it was surely a refreshing change from the “warped spinster” angle that appeared in other publications: Had she ever known romantic love? Was she a threat to her male colleagues’ marriages? Did her association with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints mean she was into polygamy? Could she be on Parliament Hill and simultaneously maintain her modesty and delicateness?
Macphail felt she was a sideshow attraction. Society columnists and male colleagues made cracks about her weight, mannish features and mannerisms, and lack of style, possibly stemming from the fact that, at least at the outset, she always wore the same blue dress. Maybe she was ahead of her time. After all, Obama went to work in one of two (grey or blue) identical suits, to avoid decision fatigue. For Macphail, it was more likely a matter of thrift. Regardless, she wasn’t going to get credit: “Everything I said was wrong, everything I wore was wrong, everything I did was wrong,” she recalled.
Most women, especially those in politics, can still relate to the idea that women can’t win. At least with Macphail, though, the attacks mostly stopped short of her intellectual abilities (possibly because of that “intellectual” forehead), and concentrated on her looks. Fast-forward to last week, when Conservative Party of Canada leadership contender Kevin O’Leary called Osgoode Hall graduate and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley a “toxic cocktail of mediocrity and incompetence” in need of “adult supervision.” She didn’t take the bait, possibly because it wasn’t her first circus sideshow. Notley had, after all, been the subject of “lock her up” chants at a rally late last year, at which Tory leadership hopeful Chris Alexander egged on the crowd with a smirk and a subtle nod of the head. If it weren’t for that, the 30,000 member-strong Facebook group “Kathleen Wynne for Prison” might take worst prize in the shame spiral that is quickly coarsening Canada’s political discourse. We’ll call it a tie—for now.
Wynne and Notley are hardly the first women in the political sphere where gender difference in public office has helped spur a call to arms—and even calls for imprisonment—thanks to a far more famous example: Yulia Tymoshenko. That may not have been the first name to spring to mind but, before Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tymoshenko had lost the tight 2010 Ukrainian presidential election to Viktor Yanukovych, whose campaign was managed by, wait for it … Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention, when potential Trump flipper/alleged immunity-seeker General Michael Flynn admonished Clinton for believing she was “above the law” and led GOP supporters in a “lock her up” chant, some online commentators noted that they’d heard that phrase before. Then, it would’ve been used in reference to Tymoshenko who, after the Ukraine election, actually landed in a female penal colony. After considerable activism (including her own hunger strikes from within prison), Tymoshenko’s prosecution and incarceration was deemed a politically biased frame job.
Here in Canada, we’re hopefully still a long way away from that kind of political violence. We shouldn’t get too comfortable, though, given that a random scroll through any “Ontario Proud” comment feed on Facebook will turn up a death threat against Wynne (usually in the first 20 comments), such as this one: “I seriously hope some crime family takes a hit out on this c–t.”
This should be shocking, since this type of angry, violence-encouraging discourse in a public forum against women is, essentially, new to Canada. Gender norms and inequality in Canada tend to be enforced through subtler means, such as relatively polite-sounding abusive language, unequal economic opportunities and systemic discrimination that keeps white, straight, cisgender men a little safer than other populations. A little over a century ago, when British suffragettes were being imprisoned and administered force-feedings, the Toronto Star was running letters from readers that characterized Canadian women’s rights advocates as guilty of not knowing their place, risking obesity from their shirking of chores and warning that it would “provoke only horrible disgust from manly men.” (“The Raggettes,” December 7, 1909, p.7) Then there were the Robert Pickton murders, in which the disappearance of First Nations women was ignored—and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women continues to persist. Or it’s enforced in the courts, when rape and domestic violence is, in a sense, sanctioned by light sentences that fall in line with the “friends and family” discount. Still, overt calls to violence based on gender difference remain rare.
The major exceptions to this have been in the battles over birth control and abortion. When Ottawa social worker Dorothea Palmer was arrested in 1936 for going door-to-door with information about birth control, she was the subject of much abuse during her six-month trial. At the outset, she was defiant, telling the arresting officer that “a woman should be master of her own body.” But by the trial’s end, she had given up on activism. Months of being a social pariah and being on the receiving end of threatening phone calls and physical incidents—one man threatened to rape her, saying “I’ll show you what it’s like without any birth control”—were likely responsible for her change in attitude.
Since reproductive-rights debates intersect with religion, ethnicity and—in the 1930s—eugenics, they tend to provoke more extremism. Although Notley and Wynne are both pro-choice, it’s carbon taxes and hydro costs that seem to be their hot-button issues. In that sense, it’s hard not to feel as if we’re in the midst of a pretty serious backlash, one fuelled by men’s rights associations and the hyperpartisans of today’s neo-fascist parties—a segment that treats every woman in the public sphere as a freak show, no matter what she does. Women, it feels like, cannot win.
But Macphail did. She was re-elected four times and expanded her platform to include fighting for the rights of senior citizens, workers, and prisoners—in particular, women. For Macphail, it seems, coming to terms with the idea that women couldn’t win was freeing. She put on her trusty blue dress and went to work, redoubling her efforts to fight for the rights of women, ultimately leading to substantive change in divorce law and the way women were treated by the legal system. If history repeats and the O’Leary types continue to overplay their hand, that might happen again.