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Politics has a problem with – and for – women

Women have been treated unfairly by politics for years. Confronting the issue is long overdue.
All wearing dark suits. Guess which one gets asked about it?

My firsthand introduction to politics was in 1997. Unfortunately, 1997 was also my firsthand introduction to what I believe is politics’ single biggest problem.

My mother was a candidate in that year’s federal election. Naturally, I took a leave from my summer job to help. She didn’t win – that was fine, and not unexpected. But she definitely didn’t deserve much of what I saw. No woman does.

Speaking only for myself, 20-year-olds should never have to remove signs with “whore” spray-painted over their mother’s name. Or be told to their face that she… yeah, not gonna type it out verbatim here, but performs sexual acts on her masters in Ottawa. That was 23 years ago, and it still bothers me.

So yes, politics has a woman problem. And it’s only gotten worse.

The evidence is overwhelming. From the bizarre and often deranged sexualization of Margaret Thatcher, right up through MPs like Catherine McKenna and Michelle Rempel Garner, to Jane Thornthwaite’s inappropriate joke about Bowinn Ma.

Last night on Twitter, trying to think of female leaders I have personally seen disgusting things said about, I listed Christy Clark, Pauline Marois, Kathleen Wynne, Rachel Notley, McKenna, Rempel Garner, Elizabeth May, and Lisa Helps off the top of my head. I could have also mentioned Sonia Furstenau, Alison Redford, Melanie Joly, Dianne Watts, Carole James, Rona Ambrose, and more.

For a while, a Tumblr account called Madam Premier (not to be confused with a more recent clothing line of the same name) reposted sexist comments publicly made about Canadian female leaders. There was, unfortunately, an abundance of such comments to choose from.

We can safely say that women in politics face not only proportionately more criticism than men, but all too often of a different kind.

The question is why?

I have been thinking about this since 1997. And even after working for a female premier for five years – seeing everything from casual sexism to actual rape and death threats every single day – I still don’t know.

Yes, I’m a man, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • It happens to women of all political stripes. No side or shade of the spectrum is immune, and people telling you otherwise ignore a mountain of inconvenient examples.
  • Oddly, many of the worst comments/threats/etc. come from women just as often as men.
  • It’s not always something so glaringly obvious and repellent as a rape threat. Consider the difference in how NDP/Green relations were described as “working cooperatively,” to “months of bickering” the moment Sonia Furstenau became leader. What?
  • It’s astonishing how many seemingly decent people will justify sexism when lobbed against someone they don’t like. There are still commentators around who thought Christy Clark brought questions about her cleavage on herself. Many of them are horrified by more recent examples involving women they like and agree with. And yes, some repulsed by the fixation on cleavage then are shrugging now. Again, this happens on all sides.
  • Claiming any criticism of female politicians is inherently sexist is both wrong and dangerous – no politician should be immune from criticism, satire, or even mockery. Above, I mentioned Christy Clark, Bowinn Ma, and Sonia Furstenau. You’re allowed to support their opponents. You’re allowed to dislike them. You’re allowed to vigorously disagree with them. That can’t change.

What’s the solution? If I knew, I’d share it. But whatever it is, I don’t think we can get there until and unless we’re honest about the scope of the problem.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca


  • Want to hear from more kickass women commentators? Me too. The Orca not only publishes the inimitable Jody Vance, but her weekly podcast is appointment viewing. (Or listening.)
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  • Ada Slivinski is whip-smart, an entrepreneur, and remarkably insightful.