On 2 April 1991 Rita Johnston became the first woman to hold the premiership of a Canadian province. A twenty year political veteran, Johnston became acting premier of British Columbia after Bill Vander Zalm resigned in disgrace; several months later she was elected leader of the Social Credit Party. At that time, Johnston was quoted as saying “I think you will find more emphasis placed on violence against women, violence against children and seniors, and the issues that have not been addressed by Social Credit traditionally in past years.” There was hardly time, however, to assess whether female leadership would have made a difference to policy and politics: on 17 October 1991 Johnston lost her seat and her government was defeated by the New Democratic Party.
It was aother ten years years before another woman headed a major BC party, when Carole James was elected leader of the New Democratics and thus became leader of the opposition, and still another decade before a woman became premier of Canada’s western-most province. In March of 2011, the radio host, fomer Liberal M.L.A. and cabinet minister, Christy Clark was sworn in upon election as leader of the BC Liberal Party. Despite the years between them, the two premierships reveal important similarities. Both Johnston and Clark took over as their party faced rising public opposition and recurring crises. At the end of the 20th century, the Social Credit adminsitration was plagued by the Fantasy Gardens conflict of interest accusations and investigations by the RCMP and Ministry of the Attorney General. In the 21st century, BC Liberals suffered widespread popular disapproval following the adoption of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). These unprepossessing prospects ressembled the situations facing Kim Campbell when she became Canada’s first and only female Prime Minister in 1993 shortly before the Progressive Conservatives suffered a massive electoral defeat and later provincial premiers, Kathleen Wynne, Alison Redford, and Kathy Dunderdale, in 2012-2013. The deposition of NDP leader Carole James, who was forced to resign after criticism for her “weak” leadership style, provides yet another example. James herself told The Tyee (March 22, 2013) that gender played a role in the attacks and the party’s decision to remove her as leader.
It is telling that both Clark and Johnston succeeded in ascending to leadership when their parties were unpopular; imminent electoral defeat may crack the glass ceiling. Gender, traditional roles and expectations, and sometimes blatant sexism nevertheless pervade the political discourse at every level. They dogged Johnstone and did not disappear for her successor. During the 2011 leadership race, Clark consistently fielded questions about her ability to be both premier and mom. No male colleague faced similar doubts – this despite one rival’s new baby. After one interview with Tamara Taggart (February 2011), Clark was described as “well aware of the struggle to balance the roles of mother and politician – and will stand up to the demands”. The new father, in contrast, was allowed to joke about his diaper changing skills – “I am a champion diaper-changer. I challenge anyone out there to try and take me on when it comes to diaper-changing,” he said. A win didn’t stop the controversy. The wardrob of the new premier immediately elicited comment. In October 2011 a tweet from former NDP MLA David Schreck asked whether her shirt was appropriate attire for the legislature – a “scandal” that CTV called a “tempest in a c-cup”. From across the isle, Carole James defended Premier Clark, sharing her own experiences of persistent criticism based on her outfits and hairstyle and the “double-standard” women in politics face. A year later, a radio interview heard Clark called a “MILF” [a mother I’d like to f**k] . She employed a humorous response: “better than being a cougar”.
At the start of 2013 campaign for the election of the 40th Legislature of British Columbia, polls suggest that Clark and her government will meet disaster, much like Kim Campbell and the Progressive Conservatives or Rita Johnston and the Social Credit. Those losses have many causes but they owe something to the residual (and more) sexism that haunts Canadian politics and public life. That prejudice undermines women of all political persuasions and the democratic process and discourse is worse for it.
Library and Archives Canada. (2000) “Celebrating Women’s Achievements”. Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1327-e.html.
Vancouver Sun. (1991) “Chronology: Fantasy Gardens and Bill Vander Zalm”. Retrieved from http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=b38bd8fe-0c54-4b5d-8cfb-f0a35c36cec6 .
CTV. (2011). “BC Liberal Leadership Race”. Retrieved from http://bc.ctvnews.ca/bc-liberal-leadership-2011-1.609094.
Carlson, Kathleen Blaze. “Long before the MILF interview”. National Post. Retrieved from http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/01/11/long-before-milf-interview-christy-frickin-clark-laughed-her-way-through-questions-on-her-looks-and-nudity-in-this-radio-chat/
Hyslop, Katie. (March 22, 2013). Is Media Coverage of Christy Clark Sexist?. Retrieved May 1, 2013, http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/03/22/Christy-Clark-Coverage-Sexist/
For the worst of the worse, see Diamond Singer’s popular Tumber Madame Premier. http://madampremier.tumblr.com/