On 15 April 2013 the British Columbia Legislature was dissolved and the campaign for the election of the 40th Legislative Assembly began. At dissolution, women comprised 29% of all provincial MLAs. This is just below the so called “critical-mass” level (30%) cited by the United Nations and other prominent organizations as necessary to achieve a different type of politics and a voice for women but still well below equal representation.
The province has a long history of women active in politics. Propertied women were first granted the right to participate in municipal l politics, beginning in Victoria in the 1870s. In 1917 all white women were granted the right to vote and stand for election provincially. In 1921, Liberal Mary Ellen Smith became the first women elected to BC’s legislature and the first female cabinet minister in the British Commonwealth. Several decades later, British Columbia provided another ‘first’ when Liberal MLA Nancy Hodges became the first woman Speaker, a position that Smith had been offered and refused. In the 1970s, British Columbians elected the first Black woman, NDPer Rosemary Brown to the BC legislature; a few years later Brown became the first woman to run for leadership of a Canadian political party. In 1991, Rita Johnston became the first female premier in Canada’s history. Despite such firsts, overall female representation has remained low. Since the 1991 election the level has increased by a mere 1 percentage point. Indeed it decreased from 28% to 24% in 2001 before rising to 29% over the course of the following two elections.
Achieving higher levels of representation involves, somewhat simplistically, nominating and electing more women every election. The first week of a campaign provides an important opportunity to discuss and explore political participation. Are women nominated? Where are they nominated? Are they in ‘winnable’ environments? Will the next election get us closer to parity of representation? These questions are, however, rarely addressed, one more reason why womensuffrage.org should be watched in the coming weeks.
In 2009, the BC New Democratic Party adopted a voluntary quota that would require women to be nominated in ridings won by the party in the last election or where the current MLA was retiring. Partially a result of this initiative, an additional five NDP women (as opposed to two men) were elected in 2009. While the BC Liberals elected seven new women, they also elected eleven new men, decreasing the party’s proportion of women from 32% to 24.5%. As a result, Liberals lost an important opportunity to level the playing field.
The 2013 campaign offers another opportunity to improve women’s representation. Although a few candidacies remain unfilled at the end of the first week, more than a third of candidates nominated by both major parties are women (35% for the Liberals, 38% for the NDP). The numbers of new candidates (nominated candidates who are not incumbents) are even better – of potential new NDP MLAs nearly 40% are women, while %35 of potential new Liberal MLAs are women. If the proportion of elected MLAs reflects the proportion of candidates, women’s representation should improve after May 14th. There is, of course, more to the story. As a result of the quota policy, women are running in five of the six ridings which the NDP won in the last election but where the current MLA has retired. A less promising situation exists in the Liberal Party: less than 20% of new female Liberal candidates are running in ridings the party currently holds – this compares to nearly 80% of new male Liberal candidates. By this measure, the proportion of women among the BC Liberals is unlikely to increase
BC’s two most prominent minor parties – the BC Conservatives and the Green Party – do not currently hold a seat. Female representation in both is, however, strikingly low. Among currently nominated Green candidates only 22% are women; among the BC Conservatives the number is even lower at 8%.
Despite room for optimism, much clearly remains to be done: in 28 of BC’s 85 ridings both candidates from the major party are men and in 20 of those ridings the candidates from all four parties are men. In only three ridings are both the Liberal and NDP candidates women. In many ridings, women interested in politics will not see their gender reflected in candidates. Equally problematic is a significant absence of significant diversity in women’s voice, perspectives, and experiences. What precise effect this will have on the 2013 campaign’s dialogue and discourse remains to be seen, but issues of particular importance to women, from sexualized violence to accessible childcare , will find fewer champions than they should.