Long way to go


Belinda Stronach on women in politics.

We are of course long past the time when a woman entering politics prompted men to gasp at the audacity of it all. But we haven’t achieved equality of numbers. In fact, we’re not even close.

While women represent 52 per cent of the Canadian population, only 22 per cent of federal Members of Parliament are women; this ranks Canada 46th out of 189 countries in this indicator, behind countries like Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan.

We haven’t achieved the kind of progress that so many Canadian women seek in advancing social justice and improving the tone of political discourse in the House of Commons and beyond.

It’s possibly even worse than that.

Andrea Horwath, elected over the weekend by the NDP, is just the second woman to lead a major political party in Ontario. The last one, Lynn McLeod, saw party promptly trounced in the one election she was allowed to contend as leader. Only two women in Canadian history—Catherine Callbeck in PEI and Pat Duncan in the Yukon—have been elected premier of a province in a general election. (The current premier of Nunavut, Eva Aariak, was chosen via a legislative vote.)

Only three women have led political parties at the national level—Kim Campbell, Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough. Total number of seats won by their parties in four attempts: 45. (Does one have to consider the political context in addition to any influence of gender bias on those results? Sure. Do those results remain rather troubling precedents? Probably.)

Now consider the present situation. If you ranked the most high profile politicians in the country, how far down the list would you have to go to find the first woman? Would she—maybe Carole James in BC or Pauline Marois in Quebec—crack the Top 20? The Top 30? Where would the most high profile woman—Josee Verner? Marlene Jennings? Libby Davies?—in Parliament rank? If the four party leaders all quit tomorrow, how many women would enter the races to replace them? Better still, how many would have a reasonable chance of doing so?

The “Why aren’t there more women in politics?” question is maybe a tired one. But possibly only because no one’s yet provided a decent answer—either in the form of explanation or, you know, more women in politics.

In the meantime, this piece—by Sandra Tsing Loh in the Atlantic—is maybe the reigning best attempt to figure it all out.


Long way to go

  1. Where does the House of Commons rank among jurisdictions which have single-member districts and no quotas?

    • Diphallasparatus is so rare that they are always and invariably single-member districts.

      • I always thought Diphallics had double-member districts.

        • Not touching that one with two ten-foot poles…

          • LOL.

      • Never mind, archangel, I just got the drift of your post: Double-member districts are rare because Diphallasparatus is rare. I’d imagine triple-member districts are even rarer.

        • Would you agree that many of the male MPs are ducks with an eye?

  2. Rita Johnston!

    • She became Premier of BC when she won the Socred leadership following Bill Vanderzalm’s resignation, but then promptly lost the election to Mike Harcourt’s NDP. So she was Premier, just as Kim Campbell was PM, but she wasn’t elected PM in a general election, which i think was Aaron’s point.

      While not elected though, Rita was the first female premier.

  3. Why does it matter? Parliament shouldn’t be the product of social engineering. If women aren’t elected, maybe it’s because the female candidates in the running were not the best people for the job.

    • Spoken like someone who doesn’t realize that every system is the product of some sort of social engineering.

      • Well said.

        We are creatures easily influenced by hype and coercion. There’s also something very sad about our general reluctance to deviate from the status quo, no matter how little sense sticking with it makes.

    • Parliament shouldn’t be a product of social engineering. I’m just not so terribly confident that it isn’t that NOW.

      I agree that we shouldn’t systematically rig the system to result in a particular outcome, but that doesn’t mean we can’t investigate whether the system as currently established is ALREADY engineered (deliberately or not) to result in a particular outcome.

      Parliament isn’t some natural system that we may think of bending to our will or leaving in it’s natural “untampered with” state. It’s a system engineered by people, and the evidence seems to be that the way our system was engineered tends to exclude women. The important point though is that our system of politics and government is ALREADY an engineered entity. There’s no harm in looking at whether the engineering is faulty or not (or at the least not up to twenty-first century standards) .

      (It’s also important to note that it’s much broader than “Parliament”. If one wants to look at the under representation of women in Canadian politics, one needs to look at the party system, and politics more broadly, rather than just looking at the composition of the House of Commons).

      • I too think we should investigate possibilities. However if we think that we can somehow eliminate the element of competition that helps make politics a blood sport i fear we delude ourselves.

        • Could we perhaps keep a hefty level of “competition” while eliminating (or at least curtailing) “blood sport”?

          I certainly would hope that politics remains somewhat of a crucible, but the nature of the crucible is worth examining, imho. I don’t think women are at all dissuaded by “competition”, but “blood sport” could turn anyone away.

          Then again, perhaps my wishful thinking is like hoping to get fighting out of hockey. (i.e., I should dream on!).

    • uhmm if you look at the numbers the problem persists in examining who runs and who does not (or at least not as much).

      the problem is systemic.

  4. Sad irony there (canada vs. afghanistan/iraq/rwanda)…

  5. Women definitely play a more significant role in Quebec politics than the rest of the country (Pauline Marois, Monique Jerome-Forget).

    In Ontario, I would have to scratch my head to think of anyone other than Elizabeth Witmer.

    The last high profile female federal politician was Anne McLellan. Lisa Raitt in time may come close to her prominence.

    • Back in the day Flora McDonald had a heavyweight portfolio but that government lasted less than a year. Under Chretien, Sheila Copps had prominence but little actual power (or so was my impression).

  6. Stronach herself having done her best to give the impression of being flighty, unserious, and easily-bought in the course of being an Official Woman in Canadian Politics™ makes the cited paragraphs heartwarmingly ironic.

    • You mean unlike Mackay right!

    • as KC points out we can easily find far more egregious examples of the same behavior by male MPs.

      congrats on attempting to make a discussion about a serious issue about bashing a particular individual who had the audacity to raise the issue.

    • “flighty, unserious and easily-bought (sic)” are all of these accusations made because she crossed the floor to defend gay marriage rights, which she clearly believed in (she did say this when she campaigned as leader for CPC) and then went on to win her seat back as a Liberal and became a cabinet minister?


      I find it hilariously ironic that your comment reminds me of some remarks aimed at Ms Stronach’s work as a MP (harper called her a whore; McKay called her a dog, and you say she was easily bought). Kind of misogynistic, eh? Kind of proves her point, eh?

      I don’t see anything ‘unserious’ about her at all.

      • Really? I thought the way she bought her way into national politics was profoundly unserious, and her floor-crossing was a reflection of that. I don’t mean that she isn’t a smart, capable person, the kind we need more of (from both genders), but the idea that you can just write a cheque and get a nomination is profoundly discouraging; and that one take one’s responsibility to one’s volunteers and constituents so lightly as to cross the floor for an obvious bribe is profoundly corrupt. Smart, capable, corrupt — hardly incompatible qualities.

        Which is not to say that she wasn’t the victim of disgracefully misogynistic comments from Harper and MacKay. But still, on this issue I’d rather hear from female politicians who haven’t themselves traduced etc. etc.

        • But Jack, come on, people buy their way into politics all the time, sometimes with money, sometimes with influence or connections. I don’t know that too many ministers start out as aldermen then gradually work their way up. Most are prominent people in their field who get recruited by the parties. In this sense, Stronach was no different – she was the CEO of a large and successful corporation, much like Ignatieff was an influential scholar and professor. Yet somehow Stronach became a special object of media scorn.

          I’m not sure why you think she abdicated her responsibility to her constituents by crossing the floor, either. If anything, she upheld it, which they duly confirmed in the 2006 election.

          Honestly, living in Ottawa all these years, I’ve never seen a politician, not even borderline-retards like Rob Anders, singled out for so much undeserved contempt. Apparently, that continues even when she raises a salient point about a crucial issue she happens to know a lot about. Go figure.

          • Well, I couldn’t agree more about her being the object of undeserved contempt, on an appalling scale. And you are quite right about people buying their way into politics, but wasn’t this a fairly egregious case of that bad habit? FWIW I thought Ignatieff’s Grand Return from abroad was equally cavalier, at least at the time. IMHO a politician should have shown some interest in public service before taking up politics; otherwise it just looks like a vanity project and we have every right to not take them seriously.

          • Ok well at a minimum, let’s agree that her “silver-platter” entry into politics isn’t enough to disqualify her from raising alarm about a long-standing deficiency in Canadian politics.

            I sympathise with your desire to see this same point made by a high-profile female politician less afflicted by the taint of “unseriousness”. But that is itself a problem – we don’t have too many of those kicking around. So my view is that the message is welcome, no matter the source.

            I can’t think of a developed country, other than maybe Australia, that has a similarly marginal presence of women in positions of political power and influence as Canada.

          • Good point about the lack of other voices. And, well, like Ignatieff, now that she’s here and has been on stage for a while, by all means let’s hear her, on this issue and others. She is, after all, rather more savvy than most on the issue of the day. In fact, why doesn’t she run again? I’d probably vote for her — this time around.

    • Oh! A Belinda Stronach shot.

      Not only lame, but more than a little tired.

      She certainly proved in her latter time in politics (particularly the Liberal Opposition) a commitment to women’s rights and to philanthropy.

  7. Aaron,

    Reading this just cemented my reader’s crush on you.

  8. I think we can’t answer the question of why the women in Parliament are so few until we’ve figured out why the fools in Parliament are so many. Seriously.

    • agreed Jack.

      I think it is hardly surprising that so few women (and for that matter so few Canadians in general) aspire to office given the current parliamentary culture. just look at the treatment of the few women already in Parliament on both sides of the aisle.

      Ambrose has been derided and more talked about re her hair than anything else.

      Stronach was, as avr does a fine job of above, run down for a range of transgressions, in manner that was, at least qualitatively, different (e.g., no one called Emmerson ‘flighty’ for jumping parties) than male MPs who engage in the same behaviour. Further she was allegedly pointed at and called ‘a dog’ in the House by McKay after she jumped parties and broke poooor Pete’s heart. She was also called a ‘bitch’ by
      that all around gem Norman Spector on a radio show.

      ” Spector told a Vancouver radio talk show that Stronach’s breakup with Conservative MP Peter MacKay, as well as a role she is alleged to have had in the marital problems of former Toronto Maple Leaf Tie Domi, means she is a bitch.”


      Yeah it is hard to imagine why we don’t have more female MPs.

      • Quite right, seaandthemountains. The tone of criticism was profoundly sexist. It’s incredible that people can still use language like that in this day and age. I mean, I wish the tone of our political culture were respectful all round, but it’s more out of control with regard to sexism than in any other sphere. Imagine if, mutatis mutandis, that benighted tone were used of MP’s who are visible minorities — we’d (quite rightly) guillotine the offender. But apparently you’re allowed to call a female MP “my dog” in the House and not be keel-hauled.

        Anyway, presumably if you had more MP’s who are not emotional basket-cases you’d see more basic decency, thus getting rid of sexism. Seems to me the basic problem is a system which favours assh*les, for lack of a better word, and though I hate to generalise in a sexist manner I have to say that empirically there are far more male assh*les out there than female.

        • I just hope our parliament’s not just a reflection of our juvenile society!

      • Yeah it is hard to imagine why we don’t have more female MPs.

        I don’t buy it. MacKay is given attention for being the “sexiest MP”, Myron Thompson was the butt of many jokes for his unique “look”, Bernier is considered more for his handsomeness and dramatic personal life than his actual competence, and there was superfluous coverage of the PMs weight fluctuations, etc. etc. etc.. Belinda Stronach was treated differently for a number of reasons, not least of which because she was a heiress to a massive fortune, was a CPC leadership candidate and was a prominent aisle crosser.

        The thing is, the prospect of being called an evil prick, Bush’s lackey, fatso, a warmonger and what have you hasn’t detered Harper from seeking office. Politics is a messy business, but I don’t see why people imply that women can’t handle it.

        • I almost feel sorry for the PM, until i remember that he set the tone. It’s probably true that you can’t do much to take the bark out of the house dogs, so the ladies will have to cope. I don’t feel that absolves the men from common courtesy to the female MPs, others may differ.

        • Olaf,

          I am not implying that women cannot handle the sharp edge of politics; I am suggesting that they likely recognize that there are other means of influence and the sexist BS that comes with this particular instrument is not worth it.

          As ar for not buying it, just look at your own retort.

          you suggest that the PM is derided for whom (Bush) he aligns himself ideologically with, which i would argue is part and parcel of politics.

          you suggest that other male MPs are derided or praised for their appearance.

          you should notice that nobody is claiming the problem was that people talked about Belinda’s appearance (indeed I beleive she was at one time named sexiest female MP)….. the distinction is you cite no male whose sexual behaviour was addressed by no less than the PM, nor subject other specifically sexist attacks.

          • Sean,

            you should notice that nobody is claiming the problem was that people talked about Belinda’s appearance

            Many, many people have claimed that, just not here.

            the distinction is you cite no male whose sexual behaviour was addressed by no less than the PM

            How was the attention Bernier got for his relationship with Couillard any different from the attention Stronach got for her relationship with MacKay? It’s high drama, acted out by handsome men and pretty ladies, with undertones of sex and intrigue, and the public eats it up.

            And can you imagine a reporter scrutinizing the weight of a female MP? It would undoubtedly be called “sexist”, and that reporter would be subject to seven worlds of hell before he/she could live it down. Likewise, if someone called the Prime Minister a “prick” (which is an insult that is rarely directed at women, in the same way that “bitch” is rarely directed at men), no one would care, and it wouldn’t be considered sexist in the least.

            All I’m saying is that if someone can be deterred from entering politics because another of their gender was called a “bitch” one time on the radio, they probably don’t want to be in politics very badly.

          • dude clearly you don’t get it.

            if you chose to remember things less selectively you would remember that Bernier came under scrtiny when he screwed up and lost secret documents at Couillard’s place and compromised hie ability to do his jjob. remeber the part where he resigned.

            look, the PM called her a whore.

            nut you are right that is not a sexist attack.

  9. I think there are tons of decent answers out there about the lack of women in politics. Most of the ideas that are usually put forth from every quarter have some degree of truth to them, even the ones we don’t like. The trouble is weighing them appropriately.

  10. Hey, you forgot Nellie Cournoyea, the Premier of NWT, 1991-1995 (before which she was instrumental in negotiating the Inuvialuit Comprehensive Land Claims Agreement).

    Wikipedia counts her as the first female Premier in Canada:


    As to the other question about why there aren’t more women in politics? I’d go back to Paul Wells’ discussion of Question Period. It’s gross. Also, all that frat boy politics between Warren Kinsella and Ezra Levant and the usual suspects is really off-putting.

    • True. I did forget her. Sort of. Like Nunavut, in the NWT the legislature picks the premier, so she wasn’t elected premier so much.
      I still should have mentioned her though.

      • ;-) At the risk of starting that whole coalition constitutional thing again, *none* of them were elected premier, really.

        But I do see the distinction you were trying to draw between, say, Catherine Callbeck who won a mandate from the electorate, and Rita Johnson who won a mandate from her party but failed to win a mandate from the electorate.

        Still, the legislatures of the Territories have a different system, that is no less legitimate, and may be just as difficult to rise to top in. Perhaps there was some other distinction you thought worthy of drawing out that I missed.

  11. To suggest that women have the superior ability to avoid gutter-politics as the reason few women are in politics is a shamefully sexist claim to some gender-based monopoly of the alleged high road.

    I would suggest that any study of this issue that fails to explore, in parallel, the underrepresentation of women in upper levels of management in both the public and private sectors generally, is not a serious study of this issue.

  12. Uh, myl, I never claimed it as a reason women in general don’t want to run … it’s just why *I* don’t.

    • 3+ hours ago: As to the other question about why there aren’t more women in politics? I’d go back to Paul Wells’ discussion of Question Period. It’s gross. Also, all that frat boy politics between Warren Kinsella and Ezra Levant and the usual suspects is really off-putting.

      10 minutes ago: Uh, myl, I never claimed it as a reason women in general don’t want to run … it’s just why *I* don’t.

      Well, if by third person plural, you meant first person singular, ok then. And don’t worry, you’re not alone with that estrogen-is-smart-enough-to-stay-away argument; my lament was not directed at any one hypocritical high-road claimer in particular.

      • Sorry, myl, I didn’t see the two statements as inconsistent. They’re off-putting to me, I probably should have continued. I didn’t mean to offend you.

        • Don’t worry. myl frequents both male and female mud wrestling matches – he doesn’t discriminate.

      • myl, if you were srs i would have expected that you note the significant difference between women running for office and women progressing to the upper ranks of management in both sectors.

        • A: I was serious. B: My point is this is a general societal question, not a flaw limited to our political system.

          • there are significant differences between the route to the top of the management hierarchy and to running or MP. while some foundational commonalities might exist between the two, there are other factors that are likely specific to each and distinguish the two.

  13. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women hold 18.3% of the seats across all chambers of parliament. So, Canada ranks slightly ahead of the global average, but only slightly. The IPU report is worth reading.


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