Is there a rape culture in politics?


‘Rape culture’ is the social practices, public and private discourses, and beliefs that enable us as individuals and a community to ignore sexualized violence against women and fail to attribute appropriate blame and punishment to perpetrators.   Rape culture at its most innocuous passively enables sexualized violence and at its worst reproduces, condones, or encourages it.  It is victim-blaming and ‘slut’-shaming; it is collective skepticism and minimization of accounts of rape and the objectification of women’s bodies. It is more than gendered power structures; rape culture exploits other forms of social power – including race, class, sexuality, and ability (Buchwald, Fletcher, and Roth). The implications are far-reaching. Communities with high rates of sexualized violence tend also to be defined by male domination and male control over resources (Boswell and Spade).

Rape culture operates and persists at a range of social sites, including pop culture and advertising, law enforcement, the judicial system, and education.  But does rape culture play a role in politics? Does it shape political competition, discourse, or debate?  It does.  Rape culture is both pervasive and dangerously absent in politics.   How can something be both present and absent?    Rape culture informs discourses around women politicians and discussions of sexualized violence, while also contributing to a notable silence and lack of reflection about the ways that society enables such oppression.

Examples of rape culture in politics are commonplace.  In 1982, when she rose in the House of Commons to speak about domestic violence, BC NDP Member of Parliament Margaret Mitchell was greeted by jeers, taunts, and laughs from her male colleagues.  In 1984 Liberal Leader John Turner described himself as a “tactile politician” when confronted by public criticism of his touching Party President Iona Campagnolo’s rear during the federal election campaign (she, incidentally, responded by returning the favour).  In 2011, British Columbia Premier Christy Clarke’s cleavage sparked media discussion when former New Democrat MLA, now political pundit, David Schreck questioned whether her attire was appropriate.   Unsure whether these incidences constitute examples of rape culture in our politics?  Try to imagine a woman initiating a familiar pat on the posterior of a male colleague or a tweet mentioning the tightness of a male MP ‘s pants.  Ask whether such real life incidents reproduce or at the least leave unchallenged the violence or threat of it, with assumptions of male entitlement that define rape culture.   They do.

The objectification of and focus on women’s bodies (portrayed as flawed, unacceptable, and available) remains a staple in politics.  Diamond Isinger’s startling Tumbler site “Madame Premier” has highlighted the misogynous comments on sexuality and appearance directed at Canada’s record number of female premiers.  Many are violent and most are obscene, crude, and vulgar.  Offenders extend well beyond social media.  During the 2013 GOP convention in the USA, where, ironically, reaching out to a key constituency of women voters was supposedly on the Republican agenda, one vendor sold campaign buttons that attacked and deconstructed Hillary Clinton’s body.  The “KFC Hillary Special” reduced her to “two fat thighs, two small breasts, left wing”.  While partisans can be expected to target threatening potential opponents, the attack focused on Clinton’s gender and simmered with implied violence.  And as one student writer put it – no one compared previous Democratic contender, John Kerry, to fries and gravy (Zurevinski).

Recent Australian politics is no better. In 2013, a candidate for the Liberal Party hosted a fundraiser dinner with a menu item titled “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & a Big Red Box.” Prime Minister Gillard’s body was deconstructed while her Labour rival Kevin Rudd attracted attention solely for his political failings.  The menu contained “Rudd’s a goose fois gras”, subtitled “we were going to serve the Swan fois gras this evening, thought it lost when we put it to a vote”.  Although outstanding for its particular level of vulgarity, the fundraiser was not the only time Gillard was reduced to body parts during her time in office:  one broadcaster had earlier characterized her as a “lying cow” and a “horrible mouth on legs”.  Then Liberal opposition leader and now Prime Minister Tony Abbott positioned himself to speak before anti-carbon tax signs reading “Ditch the Witch” and “Julia: Bob Brown’s Bitch,” the latter reducing Gillard to the sexual toy of a powerful man. Elsewhere the CEO of an Australian agriculture company advertised his commercial equipment as “designed for non-productive old cows … Julia Gillard’s got to watch out.” Implied violence was ubiquitous.

Even when women’s political choices provoke debate, rape culture is evident: political actions are often allegorized as sexual and slut-shaming is used to demean political decisions. When Toronto Conservative MP Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to the Liberal Party in 2005, much commentary focused on her relationship with Conservative Peter Mackay: one headline reported “Stronach leaves boyfriend as well as Tories”.  She was called a “blond bombshell” and “an attractive dipstick” out and about breaking hearts. In essence, Stronach was a slut for changing political allegiances:  “I said that she whored herself out for power, that’s what she did,” confirmed Tony Abbott, a Christian fundamentalist minister and Alberta MLA. In dismissing Stronach, a Saskatchewan Tory MP told the Regina Leader-Post that “some people prostitute themselves for different costs or different prices.” Given the important cues political parties provide voters, floor crossings always invoke condemnation but Stronach’s targeting was a visceral attack on her as a woman, without semblance of reasoned political debate.  In 2013, in a similar demonstration of misogyny, one radio host unrepentantly labeled Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath a ‘whore’ for dealing with the minority Liberal government. When someone objected to the term, the host replied “What do you mean? She was bought”.  Her political tactics were assumed equivalent to sexual actions: made in exchange for political goods they made her a prostitute.   Horwath herself has fallen into the same trap, further confirming the normality of sexist political discourse. When asked why her party did not release their full platform all at once during the 2011 Ontario provincial election, she replied “Look, I’m a woman…I know you don’t give it all up at once.”RapeCulture_SlideRapeCulture_SlideIs there a rape culture in politics?

It is hard to imagine comparable treatment of male behavior.  Did anyone reduce BC’s David Emerson’s switch from the Liberals to the Conservatives a mere two weeks after the 2006 election to sexual indiscretion?  Was strategic maneuvering by Conservative Stephen Harper, NDP Jack Layton, or Liberals Paul Martin, Stephane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff during the seven years of minority governments (2004-2011) construed as sexual philandering? Their changing allegiances, tactical talking points, and behind the scenes deal-making were portrayed as tough party politics and plays for power not prostitution.

The rape culture of politics does not restrict itself to gender. As University of Toronto political science professor Erin Tolley argues, race (and for that matter sexual orientation and class) always interact.  Minority women encounter not only preoccupation with their appearance and sexuality but an exoticization of their person and, often, politics (Tolley, 2013).  After the 2011 election, New Democratic MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan (Scarborough—Rouge River) attracted international coverage not so much for her politics but for her Parliamentary headshot.  “Too Hot For Politics?” asked London, UK’s Daily Mail after the cleavage of the 29-year-olds was photo-shopped out of her official picture. In 2009, former Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla (who was defeated in the 2011 election) was judged to have “undeniable Bollywood-actress good looks”.  One article began its “Ten things you should know about Ruby Dhalla” with the phrase, “young, single and fond of stiletto heels and figure-hugging pencil skirts” (Taber, 2009). Revealingly, the current (2014) online version of the article features Dhalla only from the neck down, a shot reminiscent of advertising which uses women’s bodies merely as objectified props. Minority sexual orientation offers similar opportunities to express rape culture. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn, Canada’s first openly gay premier (of either gender), has been subject to criticism of her appearance and sexuality simultaneously – one tweeter commented that she “doesn’t want an election. She doesn’t want an erection either” (Madame Premier).  Political decisions by women are construed as wanting ‘it’ too much or not enough. In either case, their political autonomy is undermined and their use of political power policed.

The language of rape culture also shadows parliaments. A recent report surveyed MPs on the heckling they encountered and the impact it has on their participation in debate (2011).  Gender was a significant basis for the jeers. Liberal front-bencher (1984-2004) Shelia Copps reported the recurring use of the slut epithet, while an anonymous NDP MP said a Conservative backbencher used the c-word to heckle her.  In the United Kingdom, when the Labour Party elected a record number of women in 1997, they were familiarly termed  “Blair’s Babes” and occasionally worse, with some Conservative MPs “put[ting] their hands in front of them as if they were weighing melons” (as reported in Childs, 2003).

The effect of rape culture is also evident in how rape is talked about and when it is not.  During the 2012 American election campaign, Tea Party candidate Todd Akin infamously (and wildly inaccurately) stated that abortion wasn’t an issue in cases of rape because “From what I understand from doctors… if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  His statement echoed dangerous myths – that if women do get pregnant it wasn’t sexual assault and, perhaps more generally and troubling, that some and maybe even most rapes may somehow not be ‘legitimate’  – women were asking for it, enjoyed it, or had consented whether by dress, drink, or previous consent. A few months later, Indiana GOP U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said that when rape resulted in conception (suggesting at least it can happen), God intended it to happen.  Not only men but god(s) it seemed conspire to violate women.

Just as significant as its repeated implicit and explicit invocation, rape culture remains dangerously absent when it comes to policy and protection.  Elected representatives ignore that rape myths are indeed myths and that slut-shaming, victim-doubting, and objectification of women form part of a society-wide culture that perpetuates and condones violence against women. The two tragic cases of young Canadians Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons who took their own lives garnered much public and political attention.  Largely unmentioned, however, was that both women experienced sexualized violence and were targeted on this basis. Conservative Justice Minister Peter Mackay, for example, announced the changes to the Criminal Code from a podium with the generic slogan “stop hating online”.   While bullying is a topic worth tackling a loud silence remains about sexualized violence and exploitation of women.

The extent and the specifics of the pervasive culture of violence were also typically sidestepped by BC’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.  The Commission focused narrowly on a specific and limited time period, location, and perpetrator, despite evidence that 600 Aboriginal women and girls have been missing or murdered across Canada over the last three decades (Native Women’s Association of Canada). Important voices were stifled when the Commission failed to fund the participation of women’s, First Nations, and other social justice organizations.  The Federal Government in turn has routinely rejected calls for a national inquiry. Politicians thus refuse to recognize the broader systematic rape culture behind the day-to-day violence.

The prejudices of politics and politicians deserve serious attention.  Commonplace acceptance and expression of rape culture lends credibility to rape myths, perpetuates silences on sexual violence, and legitimizes women’s objectification. When breasts rather than policy priorities are the target of discussion, more women can hardly be expected to run for office.   BC’s Premier Christy Clark understood this in responding to comments on her cleavage: “we all want our daughters to be willing to step up and be leaders someday … I don’t think we can groom a lot of young female leaders if this is the level of comment we have.”  The deterrent is all the greater for visible minorities or Canadians who identify as LGBTQ.   The result– the perpetuation of Canadian men who are most often white and straight in positions of power– is not just an effect of rape culture – it is a key part of rape culture.   Only by naming its presence in politics can we hope to challenge the pervasive narratives and practices of violence that restrict the diversity, equality and vitality of political life and impede Canadians’ ability to construct a healthy democracy for all.


This appeared, in part, as part of a presentation for the event “Is There a Rape Culture In Politics?”, co-hosted by the Canadian Women Voters Congress and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, January 29th, 2014 at the University of British Columbia.


Boswell, A.A. & Spade, J.Z. (1996). Fraternities and rape culture: Why are some fraternities more dangerous places for women?. Gender and Society, 10(2), 133-147.

Buchwald, E., Fletcher, P.R. & Roth, M. (1993 & 2005).  Transforming a rape culture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions.

Grisdale, M. (2011). MP, interrupted: heckling in the House of Commons. Retrieved January 2014 from,+Interrupted+-+Grisdale.pdf

Hegarty, Ka. Breaking: It’s Still Not Okay to Call Women Whores. Name it Change it. 14 June 2013. Retrieved January, 2014 from

Martin, Don. Everybody’s piling on poor Ruby Dhalla. The Calgary Hearld. 9 October 2009. Retrieved January, 2014 from

Missing Women Commission of Inquiry –

Native Women’s Association of Canada. Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls in British Columbia, Canada. Briefing Paper for Thematic Hearing before the

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 144th Period of Sessions, March 28, 2012.  Retrieved January, 2014 from,%202012.pdf

Paperny, A. M. For NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, it’s all about connecting. The Globe and Mail.  23 September 2011.  Retrieved January, 2014 from

Roberts, H. Too hot for politics? Canadian MP at centre of Photoshopping controversy after cleavage is mysteriously retouched.  The Daily Mail. 27 Septmeber, 2011.  Retrieved January, 2014 from

Taber, J. Ten things you should know about Ruby Dhalla. The Globe and Mail. 16 May 2009. Retrieved January 2014 from

Zurevinski, N. Women in politics are more than pieces of meat. The Sheaf. 4 November 2013.  Retrieved January 2014 from



Understanding The 2013 Global Gender Gap Report


Annually, since 2006, the World Economic Forum [WEF] has released a report that seeks to quantify persistent gender inequality the world over.  The Report, the WEF says, is aimed at generating awareness about existing gender inequality and facilitating policies to reduce gaps between men and women.

The Report measures gender equality gaps in four key areas – education, health, economics, and politics. Education considers ratios of boys and girls and men and women in primary, secondary, and tertiary education as well as relative literacy rates.  Health gaps compare the sex ratio at birth and life expectancy.  Economic gaps are a composition of remuneration gap (how much men and women are paid for their work), labour force participation, and advancement, which is calculated as “the ratio of women to men among legislators, senior officials and managers, and the ratio of women to men among technical and professional workers” (4).  Finally, the politics gap reflects “the ratio of women to men in minister-level positions, … the ratio of women to men in parliamentary positions” (4) and women’s proportional share of executive political office in the preceding 50 years.  Results are available by country for each of the four areas as well as an overall country score; in all cases scores are on a scale of 0 to 1, with 1 representing total equality.

The Report is based on three principles – the first is that the gaps are calculated on the basis of gender differences in outcomes, not on the absolute resources or opportunities within the country.  According to the WEF, this allows for a rating that is truly about gender gaps rather than the level of development within an individual country.  Second, the WEF assess outcomes not means, focusing on, for example, the number of men and women in high skilled jobs not on policies aimed at achieving this outcome (like maternity leave). Finally, the report focuses on equality rather than women’s empowerment, rewarding countries with small gaps and neither rewarding nor punishing countries where women out perform men.

Overall, the 136 countries represented in the survey–comprising 90% of the world’s population–have closed 96% of the health gaps and 93% of educational attainment gaps.  On the other hand, 40% of the economic gap and 79% of the political empowerment gap remain.  The size of the gender gap in politics is particularly troubling.  Access to power and resources is critical not only in and of itself but for the effect that women in power may have on other aspects of gender inequality by pursuing policies that may alleviate or target women’s oppression. The worsening of the economic gap, particularly in EU and OECD countries, may reflect the fact that gendered policies such as maternity leave and childcare are largely conceptualized in terms of economic rather than gender equality objectives (Lewis and Giullari, 2005; Fagan et al., 2006; Annesly, 2007; EC, 2010 ).

In many ways, the ranking of individual countries is unsurprising.  The top four countries, all Scandinavian, remain unchanged from 2012 and each has closed over 80% of the gender gap as defined by the WEF.   Other countries have done less well than might be expected: Canada and the US ranked 21st and 23rd respectively, behind nations such as the Philippines, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the African nation of Lestho.   Several European nations stand well back: France at 45th and Italy at 71st, with both closing less than 70% of the overall gender gap.

The Report receives widespread media attention, inspires significant debate about gender equality, and ensures quantitative benchmarks are widely available for comparative analysis across countries and over time.  There are, however, several limitations and weaknesses with its methodology and what is, and is not, included.  In the case of the economic enumeration gap, the WEF uses the methodology of the United Nations Development Progamme, which the latter admits is “crudely estimated on the basis of data on the ratio of the female nonagricultural wage to the male nonagricultural wage, the female and male shares of the economically active population, the total female and male population and GDP per capita in PPP US$” (2009:209); in several cases no data was available and a ratio of 0.75 was, somewhat arbitrarily, used. In addition, the calculation of the wage gap, like that used by OCED, for example, often uses only full-time income, despite the fact that women are generally over-represented among part-time workers. Finally, only non-agricultural economic activity was included. The result can only underestimate women’s contributions and understate the gendered wage gap.

In the case of education, many countries have achieved gender parity, or even better, at lower levels of tertiary education even as class ceilings still hinder advancement, a reality not captured in the gender gap measures.   Finally, the measurement of health gaps ignores women’s distinct health needs, including those to do with pregnancy, childbirth, and reproductive choice.

More troubling still are the ‘invisible’ aspects of inequality. Much attention goes to women’s ability to ‘catch up’ to men in the so-called ‘public sphere’ in education, economics, and politics, but none addresses men’s participation in the ‘private sphere’.  The Gender Gap Report ignores the division of unpaid labor, including childcare, leaving open the real possibility that even if the economic gap is seemingly closing women will be handicapped by the double day wherein they both engage in paid employment and remain overwhelmingly responsible for unpaid work (for example see Lombardo and Meier, 2008). Further, the Report leaves gendered violence, a major source of oppression and power, simply invisible.   Nations are not called to account for systemic violence, such as India’s culture of public rape or Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women. Also conspicuously absent is the nuanced analysis of the intersectional nature of gender and the dynamics of power where race, class, sexuality, disability (etc) are not simply additive but create their own web of oppression and inequality.

While there are some notable benefits to the Global Gender Gap Annual Report, including increased attention from mainstream media and opportunities for year-to- year comparisons, far too much is ultimately ignored or misconstrued. Other reports, notably those by nations to track their compliance with the United Nations Convention to End Discrimination Against Women and the corresponding critiques by feminist organizations, supply useful correctives.  In Canada, West Coast Leaf’s annual report card (which you can see here) grades the government of British Columbia on its compliance with the Convention, including access to justice, missing and murdered women, and access to childcare – all elements missing from The Report.  Canada’s National report to CEDAW, which can be seen here along side other signatory nations reports, hasn’t been updated since 2007, highlighting the need for reports by nongovernmental organizations.  Counter reports are also common in other countries; in the UK, the YWCA attends CEDAW meetings and provides a substantial assessment of the outcome of government policies. Most recently, it has sharply criticized the way that women have been the special victim of the coalition government’s austerity agenda. While reports from official bodies, such as World Economic Forum, provide useful measures of gender equality, they must still be supplemented by external sources of feminist scholarship and investigation.


References and Further reading

Annesley, C. (2007). Lisbon and social Europe:  towards a European ‘adult worker model’ welfare system. Journal of European Social Policy, 17(3), 195-205.

Anxo, D., Fagan, C., Smith, M., Letablier, M., & Perraudin, C. (2007) Parental Leave in European Companies. European Foundation for Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

Brunning, G. & Plantenga, J. (1999). Parental leave and equal opportunities: experiences in eight European countries. Journal of European Social Policy, 9(3), 195-209.

Crompton, R., Lewis S. & Lyonette, C. (2007). Introduction: the unravelling of the ‘male breadwiner’ model – and some of its consequences. (Chapter 1). In Women, Men, Work and Family in Europe. Crompton, R., Lewis, S. and Lyonette, C. (Eds.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Crompton, R. & Lyonette, C. (2005). The new gender essentialism – domestic and family ‘choices’ and their relation to attitudes. The British Journal of Sociology, 56(4), 601-620.

Daly, M. (2005). Gender Mainstreaming in theory and practice. Social Politics, 12(3): 433-450

European Commission. (2010). Strategy for equality between men and women 2010-2015 (Sec(2010)1079, Sec(2010)1080).

Kitterod, R. H. & Pettersen, S. V. (2006). Making up for mothers’ employed working hours? : Housework and childcare among Norwegian fathers. Work employment and Society, 20, 473-492.

Lewis, J. (2006). Work/reconciliation, equal opportunities and social policies: the interpretation of policy trajectories at the EU level and the meaning of gender equality. Journal of European Public Policy, 13(3), 420-437.

Lewis, J. & Guillario (2005). The adult worker model family, gender equality and care: the search for new policy principles and the possibilities and problems of a capabilities approach. Economy and Society, 34(1), 76-104.

Organization of Economically Developed Countries, Social Policy Division, The Family Databse (2013). Gender Pay Gaps for Full Time Workers and Earning Differentials by Education. Retrieved November, 2013 from

United Nations Development Programme. (2009). Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development. Retrieved November 2013 from

United Nations.  Convention to End the Discrimination Against Women Country Reports.  Retrieved November 2013 from

West Coast Leaf. (2013). CEDAW Report card.  Retrieved November 2013 from

World Economic Forum. (2013).  The Global Gender Gap Report.  Retrieved November 2013 from


Improving Cities: Annie Gale and Calgary, Canada

galeIn 2012, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities embraced the goal of increasing women on municipal councils from 21.4% to 30% by 2026. The United Nations had defined the latter figure “as the minimal percentage of women required for government to reflect women’s Concerns”(1). With only 12.9% of mayors and 22.9% of councilors, Canadian women had far to go.

Such shortfall might suggest that municipal government has had little interest for women.  Not so.  Around the world, 19th century feminists inaugurated continuing concern with the way that cities work, or often did not, for women and children and residents in general.  Disasters and shortfalls in health, education, and general well-being were carefully documented and reforms proposed. In their enthusiasm for urban improvement, feminists, both women and men, were part of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that foresaw the saving of cities, which were often seen as especially corrupt, as an essential part of the modern project.  Many female activists also believed that cities presented a special opportunity for their sex.  As the nearest level of government and that most immediately concerned with the day-to-day, they appeared to require women’s housekeeping expertise even as their tasks could be most readily accompanied along side domestic and employment obligations.

In the United Kingdom, women’s rights activists early targeted urban distress and abuse, winning the right to vote for Municipal Councils in the 19th century. Right from the beginning, however, their claims were contested. In 1889, several elite women ran for seats on the new London City Council but despite victories were not permitted membership.  In face of women’s determination and mounting suffrage campaigns at every level, however, diehard opponents slowly gave way.  By 1914 more than 3000 British women were “sitting on councils, local boards and acting as Poor Law Guardians”(Chandler, 5), providing a beacon of inspiration to the English-speaking world.  In the United States, many cities and towns were hives of feminist activity. Jane Addams (1860-1935), the founder of Chicago’s Hull House settlement and future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, typically embraced the possibilities of what she termed “enlarged housekeeping’” in “The Modern City and the Municipal Franchise for Women”, a clarion call published by the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1910.

Residents of Canadian cities watched developments elsewhere with keen interest and franchise campaigners sought inspiration from their international counterparts. Immigrants regularly brought causes with them. In Vancouver, the suffragette and working-class veteran of English crusades, Helena Gutteridge (1879-1960) did not forget her feminist and labour politics, with their special commitment to tackling violence against women and affordable housing, when she was elected to that city council in 1937 (Howard). Calgary’s Hannah (Annie) Rollinson Gale (1876-1970) is another immigrant who deserves close attention when it comes to feminism and local government.

Annie Gale, as she was known after this middle-class Englishwoman from the West Midlands arrived in Calgary in 1912 with her engineer husband and two sons, has not been identified as a feminist in her homeland but Alberta quickly turned her into a advocate for workers and her sex. Inflated housing and food prices in the prairie boomtown drew fast censure.  Soon she was helping to establish a local Consumers’ League, inspired by the non-profit advocacy group first formed (and for which Jane Addams was instrumental) in the United States in 1899 and early on dominated by female reformers. A Municipal Market soon followed.  Both initiatives drew the ire of business monopolies.  World War One (1914-18) saw her promoting the Vacant Lots Garden Club and cheaper coal, which promised greater self-sufficiency and well-being for hard-up Calgarians. As Secretary of the Free Hospital League, she also drew attention to the province’s dismal provision of health care: expectant mothers could be worse served than livestock. As Treasurer of the Calgary Forum, she similarly insisted on the need to “protect women in industry, to prevent child labour and to obtain equal pay for equal work irrespective of sex” (qtd Lishman, 10). Such causes prompted Gale to organize a pioneering Women’s Ratepayers’ Association (WRA) to encourage greater women’s involvement in politics after its somewhat earlier male counterpart refused to desegregate.

Women won the provincial franchise in Alberta in 1916 and most secured the federal franchise in 1919. In 1917 the WRA asked Gale to run for city council, a right women had had since the 1890s.  The backing of organized women, workers, and reform-minded newspapers, including the Calgary Eye-Opener, made possible a pioneering event, the first woman elected to municipal office in Canada. Gale explained the practical and moral basis of her quest in words that would have resonated for many feminists:  “to me, municipal work has always meant so much; not just collecting taxes, policing the streets, constructing sewers … but to give service … to fulfill my duty to my neighbours, to discharge my share of responsibility towards the social welfare of the citizens, the health of the community, their full protection and to safeguard the public morals of my neighbours’ sons and daughters, to see justice dealt to everyone and encouragement given to the making of good cities” (qtd Lishman, 14). The only female candidate in a field of 13, she placed sixth and secured one of the nine positions.

Once elected, Annie Gale continued an energetic advocate of betterment, so much so that she was made Acting Mayor in 1919.  The Canadian magazine, MacLean’s featured her as the “champion of the housewives of Western Canada”.  She was quoted as arguing “Give housewives the place they deserve in municipal affairs and they will drive the food pirates to cover. I am such an enthusiast in respect to the rights of women that I willingly oppose a full council of men when the occasion arises. I belong to no party and believe that all women should be free to enter politics. If we remain disinterested (in party politics), we can accomplish what we set out to do—to better civic conditions and bring the cost of living down where it belongs’”(qtd Lishman, 18).  Her preference for a non-partisan approach inspired many other reformers, such as Nellie L. McClung, but that ethnical stance proved a substantial liability as political parties increasingly tightened their grasp even at the municipal level.

Gale’s criticism of business monopolies and profiteering, demands for the sanitary inspection of food, and defense of Calgary’s farmers’ market kept her popular but she was unafraid of controversial issues. Like other female activists, such as Britain’s pioneering Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) and Canada’s Agnes Campbell Macphail (1890-1954), Gale insisted on the need to alleviate conditions in jails and prisons, particularly but not only for women offenders. In 1919, she exposed the dire state of the mentally ill and the poor in Calgary’s facilities. Such disclosures helped return her in the 1919 municipal election, when she was also a passionate advocate for a city hospital in the accompanying successful plebiscite.

Gale’s range of concerns prompted her candidacy in the spring 1921 provincial election. Running once again as an Independent, she campaigned enthusiastically for improvements in mothers’ pensions and legislation to protect unmarried mothers. Eight women ran for various parties in that campaign. Two, both feminists, were elected—Irene Marryat Parlby (1868-1965) for the victorious United Farmers of Alberta and Nellie Mooney McClung (1873-1951) for the defeated Liberals—but Gale was not. She was philosophical:  “I can truthfully say I enjoyed every minute of the campaign and should like to have been elected so that every independent woman might be encouraged to run simply on the woman’s platform.  I feel that this campaign will help to unite women of all opinions in fielding and electing women candidates’”(qtd Lishman, 43).

Gale was more successful in the December Calgary municipal election when she placed third of fifteen candidates, despite the lack of official endorsement from either the Local Council of Women or the labour movement. This term saw her attention particularly taken up with the safeguarding of the milk supply and the problems of unemployment.  She continued to find enemies among the city’s powerful, who when they couldn’t defeat her managed to force her husband to resign from city’s engineering department.  In December 1924, Annie Gale won election as a school trustee representing the Labour Party, a shift that reflects the hardening of political lines.  Her advocacy of free school health care, the only medical coverage possessed by many poor residents, placed her once more in the mainstream of progressive reformers.

Gale’s days as a force for municipal good were nevertheless coming to a close.  Her husband’s worsening health forced a retreat to the milder climate of British Columbia in 1925 and she passed the rest of her days seemingly far from public attention in Vancouver. Before she left Calgary, however, she was feted by twelve women’s organizations.  Speakers applauded her service and lamented her loss to local government:

“Annie had always been an energetic and courageous worker and the loss of her influence would be keenly felt.” (qtd Mrs. Walter Smith; Lishman, 58)

“Where is the woman ready to face the music and stand alone in a great cause? It will be hard to find a woman to take her place.” (qtd anonymous; Lishman 58)

“Women haven’t an easy time in public life and Mrs. Gale has played her part courageously and intelligently. Mrs. Gale could always be depended upon to take a sane, forward, dependable view. Her tact and charming personality have carried her through many difficulties. Women haven’t an easy time in public life but they count the cost before they enter. Mrs. Gale has always upheld the standards of womanhood and we cherish the hope that she will come back to us again.”(Nellie L. McClung; Lishman, 58)

Annie herself remained an enthusiastic proponent of political life for her sex:  “The work is its own reward because it develops you. I dearly loved my work here. Although it is impossible for two people to see alike, as a parting message I urge you, the women of Calgary, to unite in your work on the main issues. It is hard to leave here but I hope to come back” (Lishman, 58-59).  Unfortunately, she would not.

Indeed Gale’s departure signaled the difficulties women long encountered in municipal politics. Despite the high hopes of the pioneers, resistance remained pervasive across the country. Not till 1936 did the small Ontario town of Webbwood elect the first female mayor (Barbara Hanley 1881-1959) and Montreal did not see even its first female city councilor until 1940 (Katleen Fisher).  While Ottawa’s Charlotte Whitton (1896-1975) readily made headlines as the first female mayor of a major city (1951-1956; 1960-1964) (Rooke and Schnell), cities depended on the revival of the second women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s to nourish the activist flame of an earlier generation. Even then, however, the Calgary City Council like the vast majority of Canadian cities, while doing generally better than the provincial and federal legislatures, has yet to elect a majority of women or a female mayor (Sampert), despite reporting a slight majority of female residents in 2011. The election of Naheed Kurban Nenshi (b 1972) as the first Muslim mayor of a major North American City in 2010 suggests, however, that a more inclusive day for municipal politics may be on the horizon.




Women in Local Government: Getting to 30% by 2026 (Ottawa: Federation of Canadian Municipalities, 2012).

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