By Kelsey Wrightson
In the ramp up to the 14 May 2013 BC election, both the NDP and the BC Liberal Party offered policy proposals addressing gender inequality in the province. When the Liberals, headed by Christy Clark, achieved a poll-defying majority government, the “business as usual” result disappointed many critics of the Party’s longstanding policies of indifference and exacerbation of gender inequality. In 2012, West Coast LEAF’s CEDAW (Convention on Ending Discrimination Against Women) Report Card had issued several failing grades to the BC Liberal Party, and Teghtsoonian and Chapell argue that since 2001 the “Liberal government has pursued a wider set of policy changes which are antithetical to the well-being of diverse groups of women” (38).
A comparison of NDP and Liberal election proposals related to gender equality suggests different agendas. The NDP’s major promise involved the reinstatement of the Ministry of Women’s Equality (eliminated by the Liberals in 2001), while the Liberal Party proposed a Women’s Economic Council to advise the premier ways to “make life easier” for women running small businesses. These two ‘solutions’ evoked two very different understandings of the causes and remedies for gender inequity.
The NDP campaign promise, with a $7,000,000 price tag, follows many “advanced democracies” that choose to address inequality with bureaucratic collectivist solutions. In contrast, the Liberal proposal of a council of women leaders from various sectors of business and industry, with a budget of $100,000, recalls a time-worn faith in individuals and corporate responsibility. The former aims for a multifaceted equality, while the latter narrowly focuses on the economic needs of a minority.
When elected in 1991, the NDP established the first free-standing Ministry of Women’s Equality in Canada. The effectiveness of such ministries in bringing women’s issues to the fore of political policy-making has been debated. While locating an equality-dedicated ministry within government institutions provides access to policy and decision makers, proximity to the largely male-centred bastions of power may blunt attempts to substantively address intersectional inequalities. Women’s ministries can also become “silos”. Rather than integrating the concerns of women throughout government, they can become peripheral, vulnerable to budget cuts and elimination, especially in a time of increasing neo-liberalization. Finally, whatever their good intentions, women’s ministries may be prone to bureaucratization and inefficiency. This can compromise the original agenda and goals. Teghtsoonian and Chapell found that by 1996, the BC Ministry of Women’s Equality was no longer using “feminist” terminology to advocate for women’s issues, but employing the pervasive neoliberal economic discourses of cost effectiveness, accountability, and the “bottom line.” As some grassroots movements, and community based activists have rightly pointed out, institutionalized social movements such as Ministries and Councils do not readily balance institutional demands with community interests. For example, Carrol and Ratner argue that between 1991-2001 the NDP implemented neoliberal policies to address so-called “welfare fraud.” This put the government at odds its activist support base. However, wholly turning away from wide-ranging ministerial solutions only seems to sanction the erasure of women from the male dominated political realm.
The Women’s Economic Council proposed by the Liberal Party is a very different kind of initiative, which reflects that party’s ideological prioritization of the ‘small business person.’ Aligned with the party’s stated aims of economic growth and precedents of neoliberal ‘solutions’ to inequality, it will make recommendations to Clark on improving the experiences of the 37% of small business owners who are women. Beneficiaries are a certain sub-group of women who are, for the most part, already participating in the formal wage economy. Council membership is voluntary and unpaid, hardly likely to include marginal citizens. The small budget confirms the slight nature of the initiative. Such faith in individual entrepreneurship is far from unprecedented. The first women’s movement, that associated with franchise campaigns, also often applauded and sometimes had great hopes for female entrepreneurs in the struggle for equality (on the phenomenon of the early female entrepreneur see both Baskerville and Buddle). That early faith proved misplaced.
In short, the proposals of the NDP and the Liberals to address gender inequality in British Columbia have significant limits. The non-profit feminist and activist organizations that attempt to represent community interests, such as those supporting the NWAC Missing and Murdered Women data-base, continue to experience inadequate funding and remain vulnerable to the whims of government- granting schemes of every sort. Compromised independent ministries and, more especially, narrowly-focused Business Councils are not the best guarantees of improving the lot of the majority of women in their struggle for economic independence and freedom from violence.
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