Does Justin Trudeau’s feminism shut conservative women out of the conversation?

Does Justin Trudeau’s feminism shut conservative women out of the conversation?

Around the world, Trudeau is praised for being a champion for women’s empowerment. But here at home, Conservative women are asking: Who made Trudeau an expert?

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Illustration, Rachel Tennenhouse.

In a convention hall in downtown Ottawa, five influential conservative women are on stage, talking about feminism.

It’s the first time this topic has been addressed in any formal way at the Manning Networking Conference, an annual gathering of conservative politicos and policy wonks from across the country, now in its 10th year. The subject never felt urgent before. But more than halfway through the term of a self-proclaimed feminist prime minister, things have changed.

“I don’t know what’s happened in the past eight years,” says Lisa Raitt, deputy leader of the Conservative Party. “Up until then, I was celebrated as a champion of women and a feminist in this country. Now, because I carry the capital ‘C’ behind my name, suddenly I’m no longer worthy of having that title.”

Those eight years have brought a pretty fierce leftward swing of the political pendulum in Canada. In 2010, the Tories were on the cusp of winning a majority government, with the Liberals, under Michael Ignatieff, lagging a distant third. But when Justin Trudeau took over as party leader in 2013, his message of elevating the middle class and working for women’s equality resonated with voters, and it won the party a majority government in 2015.

By then, he was known for having a strong focus on feminism and gender issues: He brought in a rule that Liberal MPs can vote only in favour of pro-choice legislation, built relationships with women voters (who can forget that infamous Ladies’ Night in Toronto?) and actively sought women candidates to run for his party. One of his first moves in office was to install a cabinet of 50 percent women, the first gender-parity cabinet in Canadian history, and his stated reasoning — “Because it’s 2015” — catapulted him to global fame. Within weeks of his election, Trudeau had become a spokesperson for women’s empowerment, and, to the rest of the world, his stance — that to be a feminist is to be pro-choice, pro-quota and pro-leaning-in — became Canada’s stance.

It grated on Raitt and her colleagues: All of a sudden, it was as though the prime minister had a monopoly on caring about women’s welfare. Women who previously self-identified as feminists — many of whom had spent their careers advocating for women — found themselves recast in relation to this one man, Justin Trudeau.

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They tried to force their way back into the conversation; the interim Conservative leader at the time, Rona Ambrose, consistently referenced the Tories’ history as the party of the first woman prime minister. But Trudeau’s Liberals kept the volume turned up on gender issues (announcing, for example, that budgets would be informed by a gender-based analysis) and held fast to their principles, especially on the issue of reproductive rights. Last year, they blocked Conservative women’s critic Rachael Harder from becoming chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women because of her anti-abortion leanings; more recently, they stood behind a policy to disqualify organizations from the summer jobs program if they didn’t hold a pro-choice position.

And that’s why the conservative women at the Manning conference in February spoke so bluntly: They worry that diversity of thought on issues like merit versus parity, reproductive rights and other hot-button topics has been devalued. For many of them, this isn’t purely political; it’s personal too.

Up on stage, Raitt tells the audience she was raised to be a feminist in Cape Breton with the assurance that she could succeed at anything. She grew up to become a lawyer, then the first woman harbourmaster of a Canadian port, then CEO of the Toronto Port Authority, working in rooms populated mainly by men and never making her gender an issue. “And then I get to where I believe is a very equal place — the House of Commons — [where] we’re all paid the same, and suddenly I find myself being told by ideological factions that I’m not a feminist because I am a Conservative,” she says, nodding toward her co-panellists, former Tory MP and government relations strategist Stella Ambler, conservative strategist Denise Siele and Harder.

Raitt sounds exasperated. “I’m glad we’re having this discussion today because if I’m feeling frustrated, I can’t imagine how other people out there are feeling,” she says.

The margin of women who’d vote Trudeau over PCs is shrinking

Liberals, for their part, deny that they have a monopoly on anything — Conservatives are welcome to wave the feminist banner if they choose. “Is [Trudeau] saying that no one else should speak about it? Is he saying that somehow Liberals hold the brand on feminism?” asks Patty Hajdu, the Liberal minister of employment, workforce development and labour. “No, he is actually acting as an ally — not just nationally but internationally — and saying, ‘Look, we should all be talking about the equal empowerment of women.’ If Conservative women and men want to stand up and talk about women’s right to equal pay, [they’re welcome to].”

But Trudeau’s reputation as feminist-in-chief is not necessarily enough to reliably shore up support among women voters, who made up 52.4 percent of the electorate in 2015. In the last federal election, the Liberals handily won all female age groups — by an overall margin of 17 points, according to Abacus Data, with 42 percent of women voting for Liberals and 25 percent voting Conservative. But a March 2018 Forum Research poll saw that gap narrow significantly, with only 37 percent of women saying they would vote Liberal if an election were held this spring, compared with 30 percent saying they would cast a ballot for the Conservatives.

Harder, an Alberta MP, says she thinks Trudeau’s full-frontal feminist stand is shutting down discourse, dividing women and preventing rigorous debate. “We have a prime minister who has been very clear that there is one right way to be a woman, and he has defined it,” she said in an interview after the panel. “If you don’t fit in that box, shut up.”

One thing is clear: As we inch closer to the 2019 election, tensions around who gets to frame themselves as the pro-woman party are ratcheting up ever higher. It’s the age-old debate about feminism, writ large in Canadian politics: What makes you a feminist, who is feminism for, and who gets to decide? With the Liberals having staked such a massive claim on women’s issues, is it even possible to be a Conservative and a feminist in Trudeau’s Canada?

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt: “I was celebrated as a champion of women and a feminist in this country. Now, because I carry the capital ‘C’ behind my name, suddenly I’m no longer worthy of having that title.” Photo, Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Trudeau’s election dovetailed with a global surge in progressive, inclusive, social-media-driven feminism. His credibility on this front was in place long before Donald Trump’s election as the U.S. president triggered the women’s marches (an event that, to many Conservative women, felt like a purposeless parade of identity politics that excluded entire swaths of the population). His zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment preceded the #MeToo movement (seen by some Conservative women as trafficking too heavily in victimhood).

Like many progressive feminists, Trudeau starts from the position that women have been subject to systemic barriers that need dismantling to level the playing field — which has garnered him praise from world leaders and global activists, including global girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai and billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates, who are both part of Canada’s gender-equality council for the G7.

But Trudeau’s gender-quota cabinet, long a bugbear for the Conservatives, continues to rankle for how it places more value on parity than on experience. And the gender-based analysis (GBA) applied to the federal budget didn’t land well with them either. (Harder said she doesn’t want to see a “socially engineered society” in which every sector must consist of half men and half women.) During a finance committee meeting on the budget, Raitt needled Finance Minister Bill Morneau over whether the GBA was just a ploy to attract women voters. He responded that Canada will be more “successful collectively” if there are more women in leadership roles. “We will drag along the Neanderthals who don’t agree with that, and that will be our continuing approach.” (Harder later confronted Morneau about the comment, asking if women who disagreed with his budget were also “Neanderthals.”)

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It’s not necessarily the Liberals’ attention to feminism that bothers Conservative women; it’s the approach. Michelle Rempel, one of the Conservative Party’s most vocal and visible feminists, describes it as “dogmatic” — presented as unquestionable and unchallengeable in its rightness.“I think that’s where my voice and other conservatives in Canada have an important role to play in terms of advancing gender parity, is in questioning some of the dogma in policy on the left,” said the immigration, refugees and citizenship critic, in a video posted to her YouTube channel on International Women’s Day in March.

She sees a “danger” in the way she feels the Trudeau government treats liberal feminism and its inextricable ties to his personal brand. “It implies that there’s a certain homogeneity to women, and we know that’s not the case,” she elaborated in an interview.

Many conservatives believe in more of a show-don’t-tell approach to feminism. They’re concerned that when feminism is placed front and centre in political discourse, women will be perceived as caring only about “women’s issues” — not, say, terrorism or pipelines. Women have the ability to earn their positions, the Raitts and Rempels say, without quotas and special rules. And they can choose to participate in patriarchal institutions without being retrograde or “part of the problem.”

A lot of conservatives subscribe to choice feminism, says Kelly Gordon, an assistant professor of political science at McGill University, who has studied feminism and conservative politics. But a liberal feminist thinker, says Gordon, would challenge that notion and say feminists must stand for something. “There’s an increasing willingness [on the right] to identify as a feminist, but the meaning of that feminism is very contested.”

For example, can Conservative leader Andrew Scheer choose to identify as a feminist (as he did in this 2017 Chatelaine interview) but be personally pro-life and unwilling to lend the support of his office to a pride parade? One thing that he has emphasized in his messaging ahead of 2019, as if anticipating that very question, is that Canada should be a place for freedom of thought and for open conversations — an appealing message for conservative feminists who aren’t feeling seen or heard right now.

Honest and difficult conversations have also been key to pushing feminism, as a movement, forward, says Gordon. “Has feminism ever been this homogenous thing?” she asks. “Have we ever had a cohesive definition of feminism that all women have mobilized around?”

Trudeau’s attempt to do exactly that is a big problem, says Denise Siele, a behind-the-scenes force in Conservative politics who has consulted on campaigns at every level of government and was on the Manning conference panel. The message, she says, seems to be that the Liberals care about women and will make decisions in their best interests. She feels conservatives have historically embraced an approach to feminism that is much harder to draw a box around. In some ways, the Conservative Party’s hesitance to be louder on this issue has made it easier for there to be a “hijacking” of the term, says Siele.

“What worries me is that when there’s a narrative that excludes a segment of conservative Canadian women, we’re not telling the full story — and it’s a really rich story,” she says. “You lose or don’t capture the perspectives of women like me — black conservative women feminists. Or maybe there’s a young woman in Manitoba who is conservative, but that perspective is not being heard. I worry about that.”

That same concern also eats away at Rempel. It was Rempel who delivered the most passionate and effective plea to bring 1,200 Yazidi refugees to Canada, many of them women and girls who had been taken into sexual slavery by ISIS after they faced genocide in their home country of Iraq. She has also been one of the most vocal advocates calling for meaningful action to end sexual harassment and misconduct in Ottawa.

“Liberals are trying to say that Conservatives can’t be feminists,” she says. “I think where they get frustrated is when I stand up in the House of Commons and [share] a very feminist perspective — it’s like, ‘does not compute.’ ” She worries about feminism becoming a purely partisan issue — a political football with which to score a touchdown with women voters on election day.

Liberals like Hajdu have a pretty straightforward response to this: Where was all this concern over women during the Stephen Harper years, when funding to Status of Women Canada (which promotes equality and economic opportunities for women) was slashed, health services were defunded and there was no plan for addressing equal pay? “They criticize us for talking about it and taking action, yet they had power for over a decade in this country and took no action.” If feminism is a football, then to Hajdu, this recent forceful opposition probably seems like a political Hail Mary. “It could be something [Conservatives] just have to do,” she says.

Conservative MP Rachel Harder: “We have a prime minister who has been very clear that there is one right way to be a woman, and he has defined it. If you don’t fit in that box, shut up.” Photo, Adrian Wyld/CP.

Rachael Harder’s eyes well up a little when she thinks back to last October, when she was voted down as chair of the status of women committee, which she’d served on since shortly after becoming the first woman Conservative MP for the Alberta riding of Lethbridge in 2015. In the summer of 2017, Harder was handed the shadow cabinet role for the status of women. Given the extensive work done by Ambrose before her, she took it as an honour. The 32-year-old MP, who makes her points with the conviction of an evangelical preacher, is proudly anti-abortion and has the voting record and funding allocation history to prove it.

That history worked against her when her nomination by fellow Conservatives for the chair came up last fall. Liberal and NDP members walked out of the meeting and then, one by one, voted her down during the chair selection process. Harder blames Trudeau, who publicly supported the MPs who walked out of the meeting and said the Liberal government is “unequivocal in our defence of women’s rights.”

Harder calls it “a high level of hypocrisy” that she would be deemed an “inappropriate” person for the job. She says she has proven her openness to listening and a desire to “understand women and their perspective on different political issues that impact their daily lives.” Instead, the Liberals and NDP joined forces to vote in Conservative MP Karen Vecchio as committee chair. Vecchio had nominated Harder in the first place and said explicitly that she did not want the job.

“If I’m an inappropriate choice, then it means it’s up to the prime minister of Canada to dictate what the right kind of woman is,” Harder said in an interview. “That is not my definition of feminism; that’s my definition of exclusion and inequality.”

The line feels well practised with Harder, who gets asked about this all the time. But that perceived silencing feels familiar to other conservative women in the pro-life camp. Twenty-one-year-old Lia Mills, who is involved in the political arm of Canada’s anti-abortion movement, which urges MPs to introduce some kind of law that will see a fetus afforded human rights, took a women’s studies class in university to learn more about feminism. Mills, who was at the Manning conference in February, has been an identifiable activist on this issue since a video of her speaking out against abortion at age 12 (filmed for a class project in 2009) went viral.

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“I genuinely believe that there is great potential for cooperation,” says Mills. “I don’t think [feminists and pro-lifers] should be mutually exclusive groups — I think we have a lot of common ground.” She has spoken with women who’ve had abortions who don’t want to see that right be taken away but who agree that more should be done to address situations that may lead a woman to pursue an abortion in the first place. In her mind, despite their rather enormous, unresolvable differences, some of their priorities are the same.

There have, of course, been those rare moments in politics when both Liberals and Conservatives have seen eye to eye on issues that impact women. For instance, Bill C-65, designed to strengthen protections against sexual harassment for political staffers, was supported by all parties and is now at the Senate.

But Harder says she knows of women MPs from all parties who disagree with Trudeau’s position on quotas, his pro-choice policies and his emphasis on getting more women into full-time jobs. Some of them, she says, are afraid to speak up. “I think they’re afraid of being attacked and being misunderstood,” says Harder. “I think they’re afraid of being alienated.”

Patty Hajdu, minister of employment, workforce development and labour: “If Conservative women and men want to stand up and talk about women’s right to equal pay, [they’re welcome to].” Photo, Nathan Denette/CP.

After the first full day of the Manning conference, another group of conservative women decompress at a hotel bar and continue the conversation started by Raitt’s panel that morning. Government relations specialist Ginny Movat says she doesn’t want to be tokenized — that she wants an equal voice at the table and often feels like she has it. Employment litigator Kathryn Marshall talks about the mob mentality that she feels has limited the ability to hold critical, productive conversations about the nuances of sexual harassment and assault inherent in the #MeToo movement (her husband, Hamish Marshall, ran Scheer’s leadership campaign to victory last spring).

She wanted to speak up on social media when Harder was blocked from becoming the chair of the status of women committee. “But I [didn’t] want the mob to say, ‘You crazy pro-life, anti-choice person!’” (Marshall adds that she is pro-choice.) “People have the right to share their opinions, and women should totally speak up on this issue,” she says. “We’re the ones who have the babies. I think there’s totally a double standard for conservative women. If we even raise [an alternative perspective], immediately it’s like we want all women pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen.”

Quebec-based journalist and feminist Anne Lagacé Dowson says it’s hard to not be a bit suspicious of the Conservative Party’s desire to enter this conversation, now. On some level, it should be welcomed, to add to the vast diversity of viewpoints on feminism, “but they shouldn’t be surprised by pushback,” she says, speaking specifically on rights to abortion access. That battle was too hard won to be ignited again, she says.

But how much of the divide playing out in Parliament is representative of how the general population feels, and how much is just political posturing? “That’s what the election is for,” says Hajdu. “At some point, we’ll be held to account for whether or not people understand the connection we’re trying to make: that gender equality isn’t just a social justice argument, it’s an actual economic argument.”

Near the end of the Manning conference, the speakers wind down with a bit of self-reflection. Yes, the session was held in response to Trudeau’s sunny feminism but also to the reinvention that Conservatives have been tasked with out of necessity, after losing their majority government in 2015. “The number one issue, male or female, is how unaffordable life is right now,” says Raitt. The party with the best plan to make life more affordable for Canadians will be best positioned to win in 2019. “[The Tories have] the best policies in the land,” says Raitt.

“I believe that firmly. Sometimes we mess up on the communication, and sometimes we need to listen more than we need to preach.” Because, she says, nobody likes that.