Women of the house

Photo illustration by Elling Lien

For the first time in this province’s history, three of the province’s political parties were led by women for the six weeks Premier Danny Williams was recuperating from heart surgery. Is this still a landmark for women’s representation in politics if few made the connection?

The stars aligned for Newfoundland and Labrador provincial politics last month, and for the first time ever, provincial party leadership was a girls’ club.

With Danny out of commission, the promotion of Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale to the role of acting premier was a matter of temporary circumstance. Nonetheless, having three female party leaders—Cartwright-L’Anse au Clair MHA Yvonne Jones of the Liberals, Signal Hill-Quidi Vidi MHA Lorraine Michael of the NDP and Virginia Waters MHA Dunderdale—is nearly unprecedented in Canadian politics.

In 2007, women constituted 22 per cent of members of provincial legislatures in Canada. Women’s representation in cabinet is slightly higher, but there have been only four female premiers in Canadian history.

It was only three years ago Newfoundland and Labrador possessed half the female provincial party leaders in the country—there were just four. (Now there are nine—many opposition leaders).

Throughout the world, explains political science PhD Amanda Bittner, women’s participation in politics has reached a plateau of 20 or 22 per cent.

Why then did no one seem to notice that women were—at least in one sense—running the show in Newfoundland and Labrador for over a month?

Bittner, a political science professor at Memorial and researcher in the area of women’s representation in politics, says people aren’t thinking about gender as much any more.

“If you ask a person walking down the street they’re not going to really think about women in politics that much,” she says.

The belief that the barriers for women’s participation in politics were removed when they were given the right to run is fueling complacency, even though most societies are far away from having equal gender representation in the political sphere, she says.

“Because we don’t have these grand, symbolic goals like suffrage, let’s say, it’s hard to rally around [the issue],” she says.

Bittner is working with two graduate students on a conference paper called “Who Cares? Canadian Attitudes About Women in Politics.” The as yet unfinished paper is about the simple, but potent idea that women aren’t as represented in politics because the public, and therefore policy makers, haven’t prioritized the goal.

“Until we kind of care about it, as a population, nothing is really going to happen,” Bittner says.

Newfoundland and Labrador is an interesting case: It’s ahead of Canadian averages in some measures of gender equality in politics, but not in others. The representation of women in cabinet is at 31.5 per cent, which is high by Canadian standards.

“We’re a little bit above average on that, and we’re a little bit below average in terms of the numbers of women in the legislature in general,” Bittner says.

Just over 30 women ran in the 2007 provincial election; 11 of them won.

“The biggest barrier to having women in legislatures is getting them to run in the first place. If they run, they win, as evidenced by the number of women who have won in Newfoundland in the last election,” Bittner says.

The variables that prevent them from running are complex and deeply rooted in other issues affecting women. Bittner attributes women’s lower levels of participation in politics to the fact that women are statistically poorer than men, giving them less access to campaign funds. Generally speaking, women also have the lion’s share of childcare responsibility.

“There are things that prevent them from getting involved that other members of the population don’t have to face, and until we deal with those kinds of things, there’s going to be a problem.”

There’s a debate as to whether it’s unwise for female politicians to talk frankly about being women in politics, as opposed to politicians who happen to be female.

Bittner says being a feminist is a taboo—and not just for women—but studies have shown that women who run on women issue’s platforms tend to do better than those who don’t.

“Which is kind of a bizarre thing you might not expect, but when you point out that you care about those issues and stand up for those issues, others who identify with those issues will tend to vote for you, and others who don’t necessarily will also respect you for what you’re doing and sort of go from there.”

It’s unwise to align oneself with any sort of symbol of weakness in politics, even if the weakness is theoretical, statistical or historical and not experienced by everyone in the same manner. Female Members of the House of Assembly—or any other Canadian legislature—don’t publicly acknowledge their gender often.

Privately, it may be another story. The public and the media may not have noticed that the province’s three political leaders were women, but Bittner bets the leaders themselves made the connection.