Revisiting the Rise of Women in Canadian Politics

 

Premiers

 

Between November 2008 when Eva Aariak, the only woman elected to Nunavut’s 19-member legislature was sworn in as premier and January 2013 when Kathleen Wynne became premier of Ontario after taking over as Liberal leader, six women in five provinces and one territory rose to the top.  Four – BC’s Christy Clark, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Kathy Dunderdale, Alberta’s Alison Redford, and Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, like the Canadian women leaders before them (Rita Johnston in BC and Kim Campbell federally), became premier /prime minister by winning the leadership of their party and not by seeking an electoral mandate.  Unlike Johnston or Campbell, all but Wynne have won subsequent elections – defying the polls and all expectation in the case of Alberta and BC.  The “rise of women in Canadian politics is unmistakable and unstoppable” remarked The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson (11 September 2012); Kelly McParland of the National Post asked “what happened to discrimination?” (28 January 2013).

A year after Wynne became the country’s sixth sitting female premier, it is time to re-evaluate the seeming triumph of women in politics.   The claim that political equality has arrived seems, at best, premature.  In addition to obvious under-representation in other political offices (only 25% of Members of Parliament and only 16% of mayors are women, for example), women’s success in the role of premier has not been sustained.  In October 2013, Eva Aariak lost her seat in the Nunavut legislature. After that election less than 14% of the territory’s representatives were women and none was the leader.

On 24 January 2014 Kathy Dunderdale, Newfoundland and Labrador’s tenth (and first woman) premier resigned.  She had faced low opinion polls and challenges from within her own Progressive Conservative party.  Criticisms both from within her own ranks and from her political opponents frequently seemed based on expectations arising from her gender – she was accused of lacking empathy, her communication style was deemed too abrupt, and she was seen as too aggressive.

Less than three months later much the same story played out in Alberta. On 19 March 2014 Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford resigned her post.  Redford had been facing growing challenges from her caucus, including the resignation of one veteran MLA and one member of the front bench. Legitimate concerns abound with Redford herself condemned for excessive spending on personal entitlements. As was the case with Dunderdale, however, some attacks on Redford were undeniably gendered.  One opponent, denied a cabinet position by the premier, argued that “she is not a nice lady” who frequently had  “temper tantrums”.

It is far from clear, however, that being “nice” strengthens political leadership, particularly in the conflictual parliamentary and party system used in Canadian provinces.   In contrast, the female frontbencher who resigned denounced gendered criticisms of the Alberta premier. When asked whether Redford’s supposed ‘bully’ style played a role in her decision to sit as an independent, she replied that she would not engage in the sexist discussion. For her, the problem lay within a party that had been unable to evolve.

In a coincidence of events, media stories containing allegations of Redford’s bullying have appeared alongside a social media campaign to “ban bossy”.  Launched by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and her ‘Lean In’ organization, Ban Bossy argues that the term discourages girls from speaking up and taking charge.  In fact, attacks on both Redford and Dunderdale indicate that women leaders still face demands that they be “nice” or “empathetic” rather than assertive or indeed bossy.  More concerning, both cases demonstrate the power of such attacks in removing women from positions of power.

In March 2014, female premiers remained to lead the country’s three largest provinces (Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta).   In Quebec Pauline Marois, is in the middle of an election and slightly behind in the polls. In Ontario, Kathleen Wynne continues to govern uncertainly with a minority and a late spring or summer election looks likely.   In British Columbia, Christy Clark, while securing her government a four year mandate in an unexpected 2013 election victory, has faced marked sexism – from comments on her cleavage to media questions on what it’s like to be a MILF.

Should Marois lose the Quebec election on 7 April, female premiers will drop to two.  If she fails to produce a majority, her tenure as PQ leader will be uncertain.  Although an election date is not yet set, the same is true for Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne.  In other words, just over a year after Wynne’s victory made it six, the number of female premiers could be cut to two and may, by the end of summer, even drop to one.

The likelihood of a new female premier in most provinces is small.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, three men and no women have entered the race to replace Dunderdale.  It’s too early to speculate on potential leaders for the Alberta Progress Conservatives, but Dave Hancock has been chosen as the interim premier.  Danielle Smith heads Alberta’s official opposition.  Only if her Wild Rose Party can do in 2016 what none other has done in more than 40 years and replace the Conservatives, the province may see a second female premier.  In Quebec, both the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec are led by men and although Françoise David holds the top spot in Quebec Solidaire, it only has two seats and polls suggest little growth, although she was received well in the 20 March leaders’ debate. Ontario’s third party is led by NDP Andrea Horwath but the Liberals’ more obvious main competition, the Progressive Conservatives, are captained by Tim Hudak. In British Columbia, the opposition NDP is in the midst of a leadership race but no women have expressed interest, hardly surprising after Carole James was driven from the office in 2011. Although she insists that it was not the only reason, James has recognized sexism as contributing to her fall.

Those who applauded gender equality in Canadian politics in 2013 responded to an unprecedented group of female leaders.  Their success does not, however, represent “the end of discrimination” nor the “unstoppable rise of women”. It is time to re-assess just where women (and indeed other disadvantaged groups) are and what remains to be done to achieve full democracy.  If we are too quick to declare equality, the sexism undermining women in leadership positions and the persistent inequality in a range of political offices will remain both unrecognized and unchallenged.

A discussion with Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran

Halloran

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”.

 

 

Is there a rape culture in politics?

RAPECULTURE

‘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 http://www2.samaracanada.com/blog/file.axd?file=2011/7/MP,+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 http://www.nameitchangeit.org/blog/entry/breaking-its-still-not-okay-to-call-women-whores

Martin, Don. Everybody’s piling on poor Ruby Dhalla. The Calgary Hearld. 9 October 2009. Retrieved January, 2014 from http://www2.canada.com/calgaryherald/columnists/story.html?id=91d189c7-4e9b-4566-939b-70821032a1a8

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