At the time this article was
written Jan Brown was the member of Parliament for Calgary South East.
Politics from most vantage
points has been an unfavourable environment for women. It has dwarfed the accomplishments
of those women who have challenged tradition, hidden barriers and social biases
to pursue a political career. What are the prerequisites necessary for women to
succeed in public life where power, influence and aggression predominate? Can women
dare to play the game using similar tactics and responses and get away with it?
Changing the gender agenda of politics is about the feminine pursuit for
equality within a network subtlety prejudiced and still punctuated by the
prevailing attitudes of today's society.
At first blush the current 35th
Parliament appears like no other. Two hundred and five rookie MPs eagerly take
their places in the House of Commons and fully 18% of the total 295 are women.
Unprecedented in terms of the lack of experience and the large gender mix.
These internal changes may fool us
into believing that the increased numbers of female MPs indicates an emerging
autonomy and thereby acceptance for women in politics. This is foolhardy in the
extreme because the old prejudices of what constitutes "women's work"
have not yet been discarded. For example, women still face subtle criticisms
because a public life is not yet considered to be compatible with family life.
Questions such as "how can you leave your family"? or "who is
taking care of the home front"? remain constant reminders that society
still has specific role definitions for women.
We do not start our new beginnings
with the throw of a switch. There is no simple procedure. Things can be untidy,
but even moreso when attempting to establish oneself in an environment
traditionally outside of what is considered normal for women.
For the most part women have taken
many of their cues from "pop culture"; assumptions about parenting,
the responsibilities of men and women in the workplace and at home, and
acknowledgement of traditional conjugal relationships that reflect
long-established social norms. Women come from a world that is mirrored on the
images of their mothers. It is domestic not politic. So no wonder society
continues to define the feminine public persona on the basis of motherhood
statements rather than from any particular inner drive or competency level.
This stereotype, sustained by
patriarchy, pictures women as servants, nurturers, motherly organizers who
often give way to their emotions. How could they ever be competent participants
in the game of politics where the rules are tough and ill-defined and the
predominantly male players (the guys) are mutually and securely bonded as a
Politics then represents an overwhelming
challenge for women. Not only are they struggling to rid themselves of a
stereotypical social role, but they also have to re-establish themselves in a
new environment; one that is quite foreign from the world in which they were
initially socialized as children.
Having said that, it is more than
tempting to blame the socialization process for trivializing the role of women.
A narrow sphere of expectations exist, rarely challenged, limiting women's
aspirations to the domain of hearth and home. This conditioning can be traced
back to ancient times when women were denied access to public office, giving
rise to the strong prejudice that remains and that attempts to shut women out
of political involvement. But why has there been so little change within this
Quite simply women have not yet
learned the fundamental law of political economy; exchange is based on the
value the merchandise has when offered to the buyer, not the seller.
Subsequently, there is not an exchange between the two sexes that is based upon
an equal value system. Therefore, the value of public feminine contributions is
not highly prized in our society.
And nowhere is this more keenly
demonstrated than when a woman makes it to the backbench of politics. It is
considered a breakthrough when a woman moves into territory long held by males.
Few see comparable excellence in such an achievement, only a challenge to
There was a sense after the 1993
federal election, given the increased numbers of women MPs (18%) that Parliament
may emerge as more consensus-driven, more collegial, less confrontational.
Well, 18% does not of itself constitute a threshold for change. We would be
over-indulgent in the extreme to believe that, because success in politics is
not simply a numbers game. Women can talk about a "critical mass" as
having influence but the game of politics is brokering; it is the deal-making
in the hallway. Women are going to have to make themselves visible and
effective here because it is the place of power and influence and it is not
decorated in petal pink floral.
Power is predicated on the
historical rule of kings and the long-established relationships with the male
powerbrokers of the ruling class. The male tradition dies hard especially when
traditional roles and the accompanying division of labour between men and women
turns inward to perpetuate that male tradition. So one wonders if men will ever
feel comfortable using brokerage politics with women. And because women tend to
compromise in deal making, their challenge will be to overcome their
unpreparedness in developing a full-blown pursuit in traditionally male
territory. They need a different kind of savvy.
This is not to say that the dynamic
for change has not begun. The guideposts followed in the past are starting to
show signs of weathering. Greater numbers of 30-something women are working
outside of the home; parenting responsibilities are now being more openly
shared by both parents; women are in more equitable ratios in those training
settings traditionally held by males; baby boomers are greying; and overall
expectations for 20-something women have changed.
These young women are significantly
different from previous generations when mobility and role division greatly
influenced how we would live and work. They are exposed to a wide array of
options and consequently may choose to never marry, may choose to never have
children and indeed expect to be treated as equals.
While it is true that women tend to
bring with them a different kind of imagination, judgement and reason it is
ultimately influence that determines the major political players.
If you were asked to name the ten
most successful people you know, doubtless the list would include a
disproportionate number of males. We have come to expect men to succeed, and
women, well, not to be in the top 10. Even when they are, we tend to question
why. Acceptance with cynicism becomes a metaphor for indifference.
The Tory leadership campaign of
1993 drew significant contrasts between the world of the family and the
relationships within it and the public world of work and political achievement.
Success appeared to be dependent upon how readily women related to men in a
form that was more comfortable and familiar to the expectations of everyone.
The effort was illusionary and fleeting.
We are left with the mirage of Kim
Campbell, the image of Audrey McLaughlin and the political spotlight has caused
both to wilt, maybe in part, because people expected them to wilt. Power and
influence have yet to cross gender lines. Women have to build a history of
consistent success rates to positively reinforce this particular dimension of
job-match. We lack an ability to be successful because we are neither
experienced nor very skilful at using the particular form of power expected in
a political environment, which is quite simply "power over"; getting
your own way.
We are told that aptitudes and
skills developed in one setting will be useful in another. This means little in
politics when such naivetÚ can place women at a disadvantage to successfully
compete. Women back off from this kind of approach because there is a tendency
to be labelled as "bitches" or "redneck." So where do we go
We will have to learn how to build
dependencies without becoming dependent, how to access currently under-utilized
resources without losing leverage and understand what is important to the
various constituencies without becoming compromised. A tall order in a context
that is constantly challenged by the agendas of those who roam the hallway.
The heat in the kitchen can be
intense and sometimes we are tempted to get out. However, we will never see
meaningful change unless we are prepared to confront tokenism and the false
pride perpetuated by a "critical mass".
For example, the opportunity to demonstrate
how a future Parliament may look was lost recently to the tokenism exhibited on
International Women's Day. It was in some respects a male indulgence to placate
"the little woman" and we fell into the trap. All the ingredients for
success were there; the opportunity for visioning a new Parliament with a new
style; attendance by all female MPs so that the numbers indeed would have at
least a visual impact. But it failed. The debate did not involve the complete
caucus of women parliamentarians and ultimately will become merely yellowed
pages in Hansard. It remains a mystery why anyone even bothered. The choice to
set women apart in such an orchestrated exercise illustrates we never really
play in the game. Both men and women perpetuate this aspect of the
Now is not the time for women to
avoid the effort required to achieve meaningful political involvement. Women
should move away from the established power style of coercion and consider how
to use their own sense of political empowerment within the model of brokerage
politics. Avoidance, of course, is the easier path and how comforting to know
that if we do that we will rarely embarrass ourselves. What paralysis! Let us
not ever say we simply died of failure because we did not try.