Women MLAs in British Columbia by Linda Reid

by Linda Reid

MLA & Deputy Speak of the British Columbia Provincial Legislature

Our most recent general election was held in 2009. We now have a record 27 women MLAs out of a total of 85 seats, our highest-ever percentage at almost 32 percent — which is also the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association threshold for women parliamentarians having influence.  I believe that, in part, this success can be attributed to legislative public education and outreach programs, and mentoring activities by organizations outside the Legislature who are determined to show women that politics is a valid career choice.

Mentoring Activities: Women’s Campaign Schools
I have been involved with the Women’s Campaign School of the Canadian Women Voters Congress since it was established in 1999. The school is a unique, non-partisan, 3-day training course held in Vancouver which offers women the tools they need to effectively engage in the political process, at all levels. Over the past decade more than 400 women have gained valuable insight and knowledge through the Women’s Campaign School. They received much-needed encouragement, support and strategic advice to help them recognize that running for elected office is real.
The first women’s campaign school I attended in British Columbia was in the ‘80s. It was called “Winning Women”. We went on to do the Canadian Women Voters Congress, the women’s campaign school in 1999, a three-day intensive training for women.

A national organization I take great pride in being a part of is Equal Voice. Equal Voice’s mission is to promote the election of more women to all levels of government and ultimately, change the face of Canadian politics. One of its programs is “Getting to the Gate”, a free on-line campaign school which provides practical tools for women interested in running for public office. Another is “The Experiences Project”, a new mentorship program which aims to educate girls and young women about the impact of politics on their lives and how they too might become involved.

Women-friendly Initiatives
Before closing, I would just like to outline the improvements in our work environment since I was first elected in 1991. At that time there was no predictability — sessions were called at a moment’s notice and stretched into the summer, while sittings of the House could and did last all night. We have now eliminated Friday sittings to permit Members more flexibility to return to their constituency offices on Fridays. We have also adopted fixed election dates and a set parliamentary calendar. This calendar includes constituency weeks, which are scheduled weeks during the session to allow Members to spend more time in their ridings.

You can continue to do this work with young children. And frankly from how I have approached this work and what I have seen over the years, it’s frankly easier to come to this life and have your children than it is to introduce children to the unfamiliar routines. If they’re small children or even 10- and 12- and 13-year olds, they’re the ones who notice the greatest difference in where their parents are and where their parents may be at any given time. If they’re born into the life it is easier – my daughter actually thinks this is a pretty typical family. She thinks this is how most families work.
It couldn’t make me happier because I want her to bring that same sense of parenting when she has children that she shouldn’t, you know, decide to have children or not based on the kind of work she does. And that has been frankly a lot of the decision-making that’s happened for female parliamentarians. Men have never thought they shouldn’t have a child while in office. Women have often given that thought free rein.

I believe the situation within the BC Legislative Assembly has improved for women parliamentarians in the past 20 years. The proportion of women MLAs has increased by 7 percent since 1991, and there is more diversity. As well, our work environment has become more family-friendly. We still have more ground to cover, but I am confident that we are on the right path.

Transsexual women and political presence

Photo via Mignonne Breier.

Photo via Mignonne Breier.

Transsexual women are a small group with a very complex political history, who – without wishing to – have been the focus of troubling problems in projects of political and social change.  An inclusive democracy needs to include transsexual women’s voices; but how is their accent to be defined.

Transsexual women are women who have been through a process of transition from another position in the gender order: usually born with male (sometimes intersex) bodies, and usually brought up as boys.  They have had to negotiate a strongly contradictory process of gender embodiment, often involving wrenching personal conflict and social stigma.  Transition, usually undertaken in adulthood (though sometimes in adolescence) is an attempt to resolve this situation, gain recognition as women rather than men, and construct a path forward in life on this basis.

There are specific needs around transition: access to specialised medical services, means of changing legal status (e.g. for identity documents – passports can be a severe problem), safety and support in the vulnerable process of transition.  Beyond these, transsexual women’s interests are much the same as the interests of other groups of women.  They include an end to gender-based violence including rape; economic security, and economic equality between women and men (many transsexual women are poor, and even those in employment tend to lose income after transition); full access to education, health care, and other social services (transsexual women often have difficulty accessing services); adequate child care and family support (yes, many transsexual women have families); decent housing; political voice and legal equality; an end to media stereotype and stigma – in short, an end to patriarchy, and the creation of a society of gender equality.

Not surprisingly, then, transsexual women were involved in the early days of the Women’s Liberation movement; and transsexual feminism has existed since then.  However several prominent US feminists in the 1970s denounced transsexual women in quite bitter terms as infiltrators in the movement and not really women at all.  It became a widespread (though never universal) view among Anglophone feminists that transsexual women should be excluded from women’s organizations and events.

This exclusion oddly reproduced the patriarchal stigma against transsexual women, put to new use in defining a sharp identity contrast between women and men.  Deconstructionist approaches to gender in the 1980s and 90s challenged the notion of a fixed identity for women.  This opened the way to a “transgender” movement, in which transsexual women were included in a spectrum of queer or subversive groups, thought to be undermining a heteronormative, dichotomous gender system.

This rapidly mutated into a new kind of identity politics.  “Transgender” became the name for something like a third gender category, blending masculinity and femininity; or for what was understood as a new sexual identity.  In this form, transgender was swept, within a few years, into an astonishingly popular category in human rights talk, “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, sometimes extended with Intersex, Queer, etc.).  In the 2000s “LGBT people” were frequently presented as an oppressed sexual minority, for whom rights and protections were claimed.  Since gay men are by far the most influential group in this acronym, the paradoxical result for transsexual women was to be politically represented through a form of masculinity politics.

Meanwhile another dimension of politics continued, around transsexual women’s medical and legal needs.  Medically assisted transition, mainly involving surgery, hormones and psychiatry (a package defined in the 1950s and 60s), was at first sharply rationed, and access required conformity to patriarchal stereotypes of gender.  Psychiatric theories of transsexuality have mostly been stigmatising, some extremely so; and therefore have been contested in the few available forums by transsexual women. But the gatekeeper function of psychiatry makes this a very fraught process.  Over time, surgical gender reassignment has become increasingly available on the private market to people who can pay – as an export industry in Morocco and then in Thailand, and within North America.  This replaced gender conformity with class privilege as the determinant of access, a dubious gain.

From the 1990s to the present, lobbying by transsexual and transgender groups has led an increasing number of countries (and jurisdictions within countries) to pass laws governing transition.  These have the great virtue of giving legal recognition to the fact of gender transition, and thus admit transsexual women to citizenship.  But they often sharply restrict who can gain this recognition; and because they usually make surgical reassignment the decisive requirement, they lead back into the dilemmas of medical politics just mentioned.

There is no single path for transsexual women’s politics, but I would argue that the most important direction now is to develop a feminist politics of social justice.  Both material equality and recognition are important here, one doesn’t get far without the other.  Transsexual women are a small group, and don’t add much weight to feminist projects; but their experience has been important in thinking about gender, and may continue to be – including for issues of global solidarity.  Transsexual women’s presence enriches contemporary feminism.

Further Reading & Resources

Raewyn Connell, “Transsexual women and feminist thought: toward new understanding and new politics”, Signs, 2012, vol. 37 no. 4, 857-881.  Spells out the detail of the argument above, and offers an analysis of transition.

Viviane Namaste, Sex Change, Social Change, 2nd edition, Toronto, Women’s Press, 2011.  A sharply observed set of essays that covers politics, theory, and the social realities of transsexual women’s lives including HIV and prisons.

Translatina, a full-length documentary film directed by Felipe Degregori (Peru, 2010), covering the lives of travestis and transsexual women across Latin America, including interviews with activists and some harrowing detail.

Claudine Griggs, Passage Through Trinidad: Journal of a Surgical Sex Change, Jefferson NC, McFarland & Co., 1996.  Also not for the faint-hearted; the best account of what medically-assisted transition really involves.

From the Front Lines: A Young Woman in Politics by Erin Rennie

by Erin Rennie

BC Legislature via Flickr user mohit_k.

BC Legislature via Flickr user mohit_k.

I feel very lucky to be a woman in Canadian politics in 2012. I’ve studied my history and I know how hard women have worked for decades to achieve the political equality I enjoy today. Personhood, the right to vote, the right to attend university, the social acceptance of my choice to have a career, the guarantee of equal pay, and the freedom to speak freely at the boardroom table or at the kitchen table – these are things I am able to take for granted because of the women who fought relentlessly to guarantee them for girls of my generation.

But I don’t take these rights for granted. I take my political rights very seriously. And I think rights always come with accompanying responsibilities. I’ve chosen a career in politics not just out of a love for the thrill of the political world, but also out of a sense of duty. Politics are how I serve my community. Since Grade 8 student government, the political realm has been where my talents and my passions have fused. Unlike women of the past and women in other parts of the world I am able to exercise not only my rights, but my calling as well.

Which isn’t to say it’s all perfect. With just 24.7% of Parliamentary seats held by female MPs, Canada ranks 27th in the world when it comes to female representation in national parliaments, right above Sudan. As a political aide for the past four years, I have had many more male colleagues than female colleagues. And it wasn’t much better at university: in the UBC Debate Society I was often one of a handful of girls at a tournament full of guys. In 2008 I was the only female candidate out of five to run for President of the student body. My experiences often leave me wondering what was holding the other girls back. My generation has been raised with every right, opportunity, and encouragement that our male counterparts have had. Women are out-performing their male classmates in universities across the country. So why are we still seeing a gender gap at the top?

I think that there are many complicated reasons. Women face different challenges than men when it comes to entering the political world. Women continue to shoulder the bulk of the household chores and child-rearing responsibilities. Female politicians are portrayed more negatively by the media. Female politicians are even “heard” differently by voters who have been conditioned to expect their political leaders to be white, male, middle-aged, and WASPY. The political waters are still fraught with sexist sharks.

But I think women themselves also have something to do with the gender gap. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, says that there is an “ambition gap” at the bottom contributing to the gender gap at the top. Women, she argues, plan a way out of the “corporate ladder” long before they need to. Young women are more likely to choose a flexible, middle management career path in preparation for the children they may not even have yet. They “check out before they check out.” Effectively, women are self-sabotaging.

I think confidence is key to helping fill this ambition gap. It isn’t enough for girls to have the right to be walking through the halls of power, girls need to want it and believe they can have it.

As a political aide strategic communications are my bread and butter. I am constantly listening and analysing what people say and write and what I’ve noticed is that men are far better at articulating what they want. And unsurprisingly, they are better at getting what they want. The women in my life are the opposite. They hum and haw over decisions. They don’t express their preferences. They defer decisions to others. They think this is what it means to be likeable and feminine. Heck, I’m guilty of this too.

I believe that until women stop communicating this way we will never see equality in our political chambers. I challenge the women of Canada to stop self-sabotaging and lying to themselves about what they really want. Express your preferences. Tell us that you WANT to lead and why. Make the decisions you now have the right to make. Be as ambitious and demanding as you can be. Like everything else, if men can do it, we can too.