Women of influence

A crowd of students watching the iVote-jeVote conference.

“Even after all these years there is no question that barriers still exist as politics remains a male-dominated world, but we have a growing feeling that we belong here and we are going to take up our own space.”

— Anne McGrath

By Hillary Rose and Brigitte Génier

Canada is hardly a leader when it comes to women in politics. According to Equal Voice, the country’s only national, non-partisan organization dedicated to the election of more women to public office, over 20 countries currently have a woman as head of government. Canada ranks only fifty-second in the world in terms of female political representation.

In June 2014, Equal Voice released a snapshot of the proportion of women in elected positions across Canada. While Ontario and British Columbia lead the way, with 30% female representation in their provincial legislatures, female participation in politics is still mainly at the grassroots, on municipal councils and school boards.

So what are the reasons behind the lack of female representation in party caucuses? Do women have what it takes to ascend the political ladder or is the system rigged to favour the election of a man as prime minister? Are more women needed in Parliament simply because they make up slightly more than half the electorate, or because they would truly make a difference in running the country?

Some say that 2015 could be a tipping point for women in politics. They argue that women such as Faculty of Arts alumna Anne McGrath (BA ʼ90), national director of the New Democratic Party, Faculty of Social Sciences alumna Katie Telford (BSocSc ’02), national campaign co-chair for the Liberal Party, and Faculty of Education alumna Jennifer Byrne (BEd ’02), deputy chief of staff for the Conservative Party, are paving the way for more women to get involved in politics.

“Women are in politics not because they are women but because they are people who care,” says Nancy Peckford, Equal Voice executive director.

To discuss these issues and more, Kevin Page, Jean-Luc Pepin (JLP) Research Chair in Political Science, and Caroline Andrew, a professor at the School of Politics and a national authority on urban and feminist studies, hosted a series of events focussing on women in politics on March 5.

“With the upcoming 2015 election, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to engage in national conversations about our country’s current state and future policy issues. Women in politics and the outcomes of that representation is one of those issues. Working with a range of partners, the JLP will leverage evidence and the experiences of current and former female leaders to teach and to inspire the next generation,” said Page.

The day began with a symposium entitled “Women in Politics: Where Are the Levers and What Are the Strategies to Use Them?” The symposium featured six panellists, including lawyer Penny Collennette, a Faculty of Law alumna and professor, Michael Orsini, director of the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, and Melissa Haussman, a political science professor at Carleton University.

Following the symposium, a panel discussion took place. Anne Kingston, senior writer for Maclean’s, acted as moderator, while panelists included alumnae McGrath and Telford, as well as Michele Austin, senior adviser for Summa Strategies.

“I agreed to take part in the Women and Politics event because it is an issue that I hold near and dear to my heart. The more women who get involved, the more we can make our presence a priority,” explained McGrath.

Both McGrath and Telford were involved in politics at the University of Ottawa. McGrath was a member of the English Debating Society, president of the SFUO from 1979 to 1980 and an editor for the Fulcrum.

“I debated such people as Roger Guindon, Eugene Forsey and Tommy Douglas. I had this trepidation for public speaking. Debating helped me to overcome this,” said McGrath.

Telford is of the same opinion, saying that the English Debating Society was the “best training ground” for a career in politics.

One thing all three women can agree on is that, although some things have changed, there hasn’t been enough progress.

“I can remember when the United Nations designated 1975 International Women's Year and used the slogan “Why not?” This had a huge impact on young women, who were beginning to come to the forefront. Even after all these years there is no question that barriers still exist as politics remains a male-dominated world, but we have a growing feeling that we belong here and we are going to take up our own space,” said McGrath.

“It is important for women who work behind the scenes to come forward and share the roles we are playing and demonstrate that there are women just like them that they can relate to,” said Telford.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne standing at a podium with flags in the background.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne delivered the keynote address at the iVote-jeVote conference last month, a non-partisan event that aims to encourage young people to get involved in politics. Photo: Robert Lacombe

A keynote address by Premier Kathleen Wynne, the first female and openly gay premier of Ontario, closed the evening. Wynne discussed the importance of “women of influence,” going back as far as 1864. We all know the Fathers of Confederation, she said, but asked: Who were the Mothers of Confederation?

“By making the assumption that the women had no influence over the founding of this country, we are taught that the influence of women only grows as we assume the rights and privileges that were once the exclusive domain of men,” Wynne told the event. “As women take on the roles, titles and powers that belong to men alone, then the influence of women continues to grow, until one day we will be equal.

"This is the slow march of our history and it is the promise, the progress that each generation has made for the next. And that’s to be celebrated. But I also want to challenge it. In my view, it is historical analysis that leaves out too much. In defining influence as a seat at certain tables, we leave generations of influential women off the list, and I think that is a crime of our history and it’s a crime we commit against history.”

Last June, Ontarians elected more female MPPs than ever before and they elected a government led by a woman. Wynne said she is determined to use her influence to generate change.

“The women of influence are not just the women you see on the stages of society, but they are the mothers and the sisters and the grandmothers who are working in every single family in this country, in this world,” said Wynne.

Main photo:
A series of events on March 5 focusing on women in politics attracted huge interest. Photo: Robert Lacombe

Four women panellists on stage holding microphones with flags in the background.

A panel discussion at the iVote-jeVote event held last month at uOttawa focused on women in politics. From left to right: Katie Telford, Michele Austin, Anne McGrath and Anne Kingston. Photo: Robert Lacombe


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