This section considers what varying women expect from public service, and what strengths they bring to the job.
Penny Priddy is a politician who also volunteers as a facilitator for the Canadian Women Voters Congress Campaign School’s yearly session held for the past seven years at UBC. (See More on this Issue for the link to the CWVC.) She explains how expectations often vary depending on the generation of women getting involved in politics:
“Younger women I know, at least here, are pretty sure about what they want to do and how they can do it, which is different from older ones. Most women of my generation decided to run because there was an issue in their family or neighbourhood that they could not help, so they got into the system to fix it. This is not so common among younger women – at least those I mentor – who are more interested in governance, having influence on a larger system, getting involved in broader social systems and issues.”
But let’s take a moment here to reflect on the importance of overcoming what seems to be a natural reluctance many women feel with regards to plunging into a world where the game is still very much a man’s game. Lyn McLeod, the first woman elected party leader in Ontario at the Liberal convention in 1992, summarizes this reluctance as follows:
“While I prefer to avoid adding to stereotypes about who women are and what they can do, I do think that women are less conditioned by society to put themselves forward and are therefore more likely to wait to be asked to run. Similarly, women are likely to be less willing to take on the challenges of a nomination battle. It is also true that women, who have not yet been in the political game as long, tend to reject the way the game is played and hesitate to get into it. I have found that women tend to be looking for a place to make a contribution. A potential woman candidate is likely to want assurance that she can make that contribution, both in terms of what she can bring to the role and what scope the role offers. If she sees the political arena as an old boys’ network, or a place for power brokering,
regardless of consequences, she is likely to say, ‘Who needs this?’”
Dr. Rosemary Speirs, National Chair of Equal Voice, states that when systemic barriers to women’s participation come down, and women perceive they have an equal chance, they are quick to stand for election: “We are often told that the low number of women elected can be explained by the reluctance of women themselves to run for political office. I don’t think it is true that women are counting themselves out. I think they feel excluded from the game. The proof that women are keenly interested in running for political office can be found in other countries. In France, for example, after a parity law was introduced, the next municipal elections saw the number of women councillors rise from 25 per cent to 47 per cent.”
Research during 2003 on the difference between male and female political activists in Quebec underlines this fact. Led by the sociologist Évelyn Tardy, in collaboration with colleagues Rébecca Beauvais and André Bernard, the research demonstrated that women are not afraid of meeting the various requirements of political life; they are simply not solicited by their parties and see systemic sexist attitudes as an important barrier to their involvement.
This research that had questioned both PQ and Liberal activists equally, also revealed that women activists are rarely solicited as candidates by their party, a major difference in comparison to their male counterparts. Yet, one out of four PQ female activists and one out of five Liberal female activists said they had considered representing their party in an election.
Women’s need to contribute at all levels was a motivating factor for the Honourable Audrey McLaughlin, national leader of the New Democratic Party from 1989 to 1995. In her autobiography A Woman’s Place, she relates her experience campaigning door-to-door in the Yukon in the summer of 1987.
“Many of the women I met didn’t believe that I would be taken seriously in politics, that any woman’s voice would be heard in that very male world. Sometimes a woman would protest that she didn’t know anything about politics, yet as we talked she would come to realize that the cost of groceries, the kind of schooling her children received, the quality of health care available in her community, and many other supposedly ‘domestic’ matters were in fact political problems about which she was very well-informed.
“One of the most revealing remarks was said to me more than once and invariably by a woman. I’d be standing at her door or sitting in her kitchen sipping tea and she would say to me, ‘But if you go to Ottawa, will they listen to you?’ I think what she was really saying was, ‘Nobody listens to me.’ These conversations taught me how much the ‘world of politics’ needs to be demystified – how we have to make politics real and immediate, something that relates directly to everyday life.”
There is only one certainty: your only chance to contribute as an elected official is to run for office. We give the last word on expectations to another northerner, the Honourable Ethel Blondin-Andrew, elected member for the Western Arctic. In 1988, she had been acting Director for the Public Service Commission of Canada, Assistant Deputy Minister of Culture and Communications for the Territorial Government, as quoted in Athabasca University’s online Aurora magazine:
“Even as a rookie member-of-parliament, I have had many doors opened to me which I wouldn’t have had even as a very senior bureaucrat, which I was.”