Women remain under-represented in politics the world over and Canada is no exception. While municipal politics was once thought to provide a better opportunity for women to enter into and participate in politics, it is far from certain. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, less than 25% of all city counselors are women and women comprise a mere 16% of all mayors.
Brenda Halloran, first elected as Mayor of Waterloo in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, is one of those women. Does Mayor Halloran notice the under-representation of women in politics? Yes, she says – “I miss women wherever I go”.
Before her first campaign for mayor, Halloran attended Women’s Municipal Campaign School where she was told she would have to raise about $30,000 – at the time she says she had about $20. Halloran had no political experience, but she also had no doubts: “I knew I was going to win. I just knew in my heart of hearts I was going to become the mayor.” Although only raising about $11,000, she beat out the incumbent mayor (who spent almost six times as much) and a returning incumbent, winning over 50% of the vote to become the city’s mayor. She was supported strongly by other women during this first campaign; there was, she said, “a beautiful naivety about it”. In her re-election campaign, her supporters included a diverse group of men and women and helped her to again garner more than 50% support from her constituents in 2010.
After two terms and eight years, Mayor Halloran has announced she will not be seeking re-election in the fall of 2014. She will, of course, have no shortage of opportunities in her life after municipal politics; she has been offered positions on boards and has made important connections both locally and internationally after working with mayors all over the world. One thing is certain – she will continue to be involved with the hope of helping those in her community. “I have had a lot of experiences and met a lot of people – now can I use those skills to benefit the community.
Mayor Halloran spoke with us about her thoughts on women in politics, the role of “thoughtful leadership” and collaboration, and how her personal and professional experiences have informed her career in politics.
Why do you think women remain so underrepresented in politics, particularly as mayors, Members of the Legislative Assembly, Members of Parliament, and city counselors?
That’s a question I’ve asked many women over the years. I think a lot of women are hampered because they have a lot of other personal responsibilities to their families and in the raising of their children. Even though we’ve made vast in-roads, with men taking on more and more of domestic responsibilities and raising children, still the majority of the day-to-day living responsibilities falls on the shoulders of women. Through the years I have seen things gradually change, it’s still is not balanced. That’s one of the key reasons for women.
It’s also a very difficult job – it is very demanding. You are basically missing from your family’s life. I have been Mayor for eight years and I have missed so much of my family – birthdays, special celebrations because I have to work or because I have responsibilities as mayor or am away on business. It really is quite a sacrifice that men or women make when they take political roles.
You also have to have a very thick skin and I really think that’s difficult for women. When you are in this big political world you are fair game for any type of criticisms. In social media, in particular, people aren’t accountable for anything they say.
I think when you put these things together, women do shy away from the position because it is very, very difficult. Not having had a lot of women in the position of mayor also makes women think it may not be a career path for them.
Halloran also shared some thoughts on how women and men’s leadership styles differ and the ways in which her time in office has changed the way leadership is understood in politics in her community.
When I first became mayor in 2006 I took over the role from a senior gentleman who ruled with a stronger personality than mine. So I come along and I carry the attributes of a woman leader – I am collaborative, I am communicative, I believe everyone needs to be at the table, we talk it through, we listen to the community, we get feedback, we base our decisions on what the community is telling us. I was highly criticized, especially by our local media. They said I couldn’t make a decision, I sat on the fence, I wobbled back and forth, but all I had brought to the role was a different style of collaborative leadership.
Eight years later, I don’t get criticized for it because it has been accepted as the way we should be as leaders. Leaders should be collaborative and listen to their community and build consensus; leaders should work with their council and reach decisions that are best for the community. Eight years ago I was criticized for being a weak leader and I still get criticized by men who don’t understand that leadership isn’t about banging your fist on the table and saying it’s my way or the highway – that’s easy leadership, anyone can do that. Innovative leadership is hard to do and it’s a skill that women bring to the table.
Politics requires making, and sticking to, tough decisions. When she was first elected, Mayor Halloran had stood firmly against a new sub-division in the city, but upon learning the other side of the story and gaining the perspective of the city, she had to change her position. Being able to change your position, she said, “is good leadership”. Throughout her two terms, listening to and representing her constituents have remained central; she was the only regional member to vote against a major transit plan and ensured that plans to amalgamate the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo could only be approved by a referendum – a referendum which failed.
Protecting the interests of my constituents is my job. …You have to do what you think is the morally and ethically right thing to do…. I believe in myself and my decisions. I look in the mirror and I am proud of myself and that’s what leadership is all about.
After Mayor Halloran shared her thoughts on women’s leadership styles and the effect her leadership has had on the city of Waterloo, we asked her whether she thought politics, federally or provincially, would be different if there were more women elected.
Yes, I do. I absolutely do. On our council now there are five women elected and three men. It’s a wonderful council. I feel so honoured and privileged to work with this group of people. We all have a good sense of discussion, we don’t scream and yell. We sit back and listen with respect and present thoughtful reasoning for the way we are voting. I have found that having that blend of women and men working together is so effective. We all bring different skills and perspective to a discussion. We do look at things different and neither of us is right or wrong – that’s democracy. That’s the way democracy should work and the way councils should work – 50% representation of women and of men so that all views are discussed.
Women do tend to look at issues in terms of families and children, which I certainly do, but men have an important skill set. You find the way to blend perspectives and reach great decisions. I believe we do that here in Waterloo.
You have mentioned in previous interviews that your father was a feminist, without knowing what that meant – how has that shaped your ambitions and motivations?
I hadn’t really given him that credit till later in life. I was raised by this man who thought I was just as equal as my brothers. He said to me – women should never change their names, you are no man’s property and this is in the early 60s and he was Catholic.
He was self-employed, an entrepreneur, at a time when that word hadn’t even really been invented. I’d be leaning over the car hood with him, looking at the engine, he taught me how to play baseball, he believed women should be paid and educated the same as men. This was all at a time when women had three choices – teacher, nurse, or secretary. He strongly influenced me.
My parents were also really politically engaged themselves; they read the papers; they took us travelling as children. There was always this lively political discussion at the table and they carried this through their life. Unfortunately my father has passed away, but my mother is 83 and I still go to her as my barometer of what is happening in the community. I was raised on lively discussions and by great thinkers.
Would you define yourself as a feminist? Is there a space for a feminist approach in municipal politics?
Absolutely. There has to be a space made still – we don’t have equal representation. I truly believe that. The definition of feminism is establishing and defending equal rights for women – politically, economically, socially.
Mayor Halloran is engaged in her community as a feminist, speaking to school- age girls and young women about taking care of themselves and their community. She has spoken to women’s crisis centres about her own experience with domestic violence. She shares how people told her she wasn’t smart enough or good enough to run for mayor and asks what would have happened
I am fortunate to be in a position to speak on these issues. What would have happened if I had listened to these people trying to stop me from reaching my dream?
Women can do these things, believe in yourself.
Mayor Halloran has been honoured and recognized for her community work, particularly on human sex trafficking. Halloran has been awarded the Journey to Freedom Humanitarian Reward, the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Award, and the Wilfrid Laurier University Women of Resistance Award in 2005, and was nominated in 2006 for a K-W Oktoberfest Women of the Year Award.
We asked her: do you think it’s important to recognize the contribution women make through awards such as those that you’ve achieved?
Absolutely. I don’t even think I deserved it, but I was so honoured. You see a lot of men get awards for all sorts of things, but women don’t tend to get as many. But I think, sometimes women just do things – they just step in and do them and don’t expect to be recognize, don’t expect awards or recognition; it’s just part of what we do.
I think it’s important that we recognize what women do.
You have a broad range of professional experience and expertise – did any of these positions in particular motivate you to pursue political office? How have you diverse experiences informed your approach as Mayor?
All of the above!
I’ve had very diverse business experience and nursing experience. I’ve worked as a conflict management specialist, as a mediator for the federal government. All the skills I’ve gained through my various employment avenues have given me a wealth of experience that I bring to this position and I believe I use everything everyday. I’ve worked in taxation, in business, in transportation. We all get skills from anything we do and I’ve been able to have great opportunities, I love challenges; I love new opportunities and I’ve always been eager to switch careers all through my life.
My father always encouraged me to go into politics; he always told that’s where I should be.
It was not just professional experiences that motivated Halloran to pursue the position of mayor in Waterloo, but difficult personal experiences as well. Halloran was in an abusive relationship, which she ended when her daughter was two and a half and just a few years later she lost everything when she learned her house in Kitchener was built on a contaminated landfill site. Alongside her neighbours, Halloran fought city hall, stood up to the bank, and sued the city.
I never knew I would become a community activist or an environmental activist, but my house and my daughter’s health were affected so you stand up on the grounds of your morals and ethics.
I lost everything I owned because I bought a house on a contaminated landfill site, which shouldn’t have happened. The system hid it and covered it up. We were victims of a cover-up of a lot of information. I stood up for my rights for years and when the opportunity to run for mayor in 2006 came up, I just thought ‘it’s time for me to step up’ because I’ve had so many difficult things and so many people helped me and so many parts of the system helped me, including day care. I was collecting welfare for a short time because I had no money to feed my daughter and myself. It was just terrible.
I know what it’s like. I know how difficult life can be, because I’ve survived through it and now I am here to help, because people helped me. I became the mayor so I could help people, so I could change the system, and bring a different voice. I say it all the time – city hall is the heart of the community, we are here to serve and make sure people’s lives are the best we can make them. If you have a problem or an issue, if your house is on a land fill site like mine was and you come to me, I am going to make sure you are treated with great respect.
When something difficult happens to me, I’ve always said, “wow, that was an experience – what next?”, taking a positive approach. Anything that has happened to me has helped shape me and helped form me and creates the strength I have now and the capacity I have for compassion. Now I am in a position to make others’ lives better
After your two terms, would you encourage other women to run? What advice would you give them?
I always encourage other women to run.
I coach women; I talk with women all the time. We have a Women’s Municipal Campaign School coming up. I tap them on the shoulder and tell them they should really think about stepping up and running. I am a kind of guardian angel for some young women. I tell them I am no one special, if I can do it, you certainly can too. So please think about it.
Women aren’t encouraged as women, we still don’t encourage our young women to be assertive, to think it’s okay to be strong and assertive. We are still name-called by the media for it.
As our interview concluded, Mayor Halloran shared how important her support network has been to her political career.
I can only do this because of the strength of my family and the love of my family, including my fantastic husband who takes care of the house, my daughter and my mother. I remember how lucky I am, surrounding by friends and family who are my strength and support network…. If you don’t have that supportive network around you it is very, very hard”.