Women currently hold 40 of the 122 seats in the Quebec National Assembly.
In the April 2003 election, there was a remarkable 7.2% increase in the
number of women elected, the second largest increase in Quebecs contemporary
parliamentary history. While there has been considerable progress women
still occupy significantly fewer positions. This article considers some
of the obstacles to increasing the number of women in politics including
the organization of political parties and the electoral system. It also
looks at the impact of women in politics and some recent government initiatives
Let me review some factors that may prevent women from getting involved
in politics. Institutional barriers are the first such factors. Traditionally,
the political system has placed obstacles in the path of women considering
political careers because its values are rooted in conflict and coercion,
whereas women generally prefer discussion and consensus building. Thus
the political system is not as attractive for women as it is for men. As
one speaker at an Interparliamentary Union symposium in 1989 succinctly
put it whether explicitly or subtly, the philosophy of power and the language
and rules of politics are still defined by men.
In 1994, Quebecs Conseil du statut de la femme even evoked the possibility
of a certain male conspiracy limiting the evolution of our institutions
and political culture and the number of women in government. The Council
did not accept or reject the conspiracy idea, but simply reported that
certain researchers had suggested it as a possible explanation.
In a 2003 survey, the Quebec Secrétariat à la condition féminine found
that women and womens organizations felt that the political systemwith
its emphasis on economic development rather than social progresswas an
unwelcoming and hard-to-access environment for women, who tend to share
social values and work in the social sphere, notably healthcare, social
services, and education.
Party discipline in parliament also plays a role by limiting womens ability
to join forces with members of other parties to defend womens issues,
although discipline can also be an advantage for women when party members
get a particular point included in the party program. This makes it an
issue that all party representatives, men and women alike, are required
Sexism has not completely disappeared from the candidate nomination process
either. It may take the shape of maneuvers to discredit a housewife seeking
nomination. Sexism is all the more present in electoral districts deemed
winnable by the party in question. However, it is not customary in Quebec
to save women candidates for ridings where there is no chance of victory.
Job type and career prestige are major factors in party candidate selection.
Since women are often less active than men from a career perspective, and
less numerous in management positions, they also have fewer opportunities
to develop the kind of high-profile professional reputation that political
parties look for. Male party members are much more likely to be asked to
run for office than their female counterparts.
Economic barriers are a second factor. In 1988, a study of the women members
of the National Assembly and Montreal City Council found that nomination
and election financing was not a major obstacle for Quebec women seeking
to get involved in politics. In this area, women in Quebec probably have
an advantage over their counterparts in the rest of Canada. Indeed, the
Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (the 1991 Lortie
Commission) found that in a federal election campaign, many women consider
the nomination a much greater challenge than the election itself.
It would seem that the financing rules introduced under the Quebec Election
Act in 1977 have had a positive impact on how political parties select
candidates. The main Quebec parties have all adopted rules limiting nomination
spending to keep it within reasonable limits. This prevents candidates
from using personal fortunes to buy their way into politics.
Since 1977 only individual voters have been allowed to make donations to
political parties. The Election Act bans contributions by companies, corporations,
unions, and associations. The Act also imposes a $3,000 ceiling on individual
contributions, limits party and candidate campaign spending, and provides
for reimbursement of party election expenses and for party financing under
Cultural barriers are a third factor. Even today, women assume a greater
share of household and family responsibilities than men, and many have
limited availability for public life. In a 1999 survey of parliamentarians
in Ottawa and Quebec City, a number of women declared that they delayed
their entry into politics in order to attend to the childcare and education
needs of their children. No men had any such story.
The following quote from a European Union document probably comes quite
close to describing the situation in Quebec: The sharing of household
tasks is not yet the norm. Women still handle most domestic and educational
chores and have little time to even stay informed or talk politics with
their families.2 However, an interview survey of Parti Quebecois and
Quebec Liberal Party members found that only 4% of women cited family responsibilities
as a reason not to consider seeking nomination.
The Impact of Women in Politics
There is controversy over the real impact of womens presence in politics.
Some studies fuel the notion that women and menparliamentarians and citizens
alikedeal with social issues differently. Women voters and politicians
in the United States have been found to be more liberal than men, especially
with respect to government spending, social services, and racial issues.
According to another U.S. study, a greater female presence can also have
an impact on the number of laws passed on government spending priorities
and issues that affect women. However, other factors may have just as much
influence over the type of policies adopted, including political party
affiliation, ethnic origin, and identification with feminism. The fact
remains that women tend to introduce more health and education bills than
In Norway, a study also found that women parliamentarians had different
priorities and interests than their male counterparts. The study went much
further than that, describing women parliamentarians as having a more people-oriented
style. The women interviewed remained on their guard and did not want to
appear too different from their male colleagues.
In a similar vein, French and Canadian analysts have affirmed that the
presence of women in parliament leads to the modernization of laws on the
status of women. Moreover, women parliamentarians reportedly pay more attention
to the impact that policies have on the population. Male parliamentarians,
in contrast, place more emphasis than their female counterparts on their
legislative role. A number of studies also draw attention to womens distinctive
parliamentary style and their moderating effect on the warrior-like behavior
of their male colleagues.
In keeping with the idea that women humanize politics, a number of female
parliamentarians claimed that the presence of women has changed the way
politics is practiced, shifting the emphasis from conflict to consensus:
Women are said to try to bring people together rather than provoke confrontations.
Women parliamentarians apparently find it easier to cooperate because they
feel a sense of solidarity rooted in the shared experiences of discrimination
they faced as they tried to break into this traditionally masculine arena.
Those who believe women have not had any particular impact on politics
claim that their numbers are insufficient to make a real difference, or
that they are absent from parliamentary committees with real clout. This
opinion echoes the notion that women do not have sufficient critical mass.
Another argument to the effect that women do not change the way politics
is practiced is related to the idea of diversity. According to this view,
the large-scale arrival of women would generate no more changes than the
election of large numbers of seniors or members of ethnic minorities.
No matter what the assessment of the effects of womens arrival in parliament,
one thing seems clear: solidarity between women from different parties
is not strong enough to cut across party lines.
In 1995, the action program of the United Nations Fourth World Conference
on Women, held in Beijing, included a section on the place of women in
positions of responsibility and decision making. At the conference, 181
states committed to developing measures to ensure women equal access and
full participation in power and decision-making structures.
To meet this objective, certain countries, including France and Belgium,
chose legislative means to increase the presence of women in leadership
bodies. France adopted the Parity Act. Other states, including Quebec
and Canada, opted for incentives.
In Quebec, in terms of political representation for women, some groups
are calling more for incentives and support than legislative measures.
Others oppose quotas imposed by law or the Constitution.
The principle of quotas of women is based on the notion that women must
be present in certain percentages in the various bodies of state, either
on candidate lists, in parliamentary assemblies, in committees, or in government.
With the quota system, recruitment does not fall to women themselves, but
rather to those responsible for the recruitment process. Today, quotas
target 30% to 40% female representation as a minimum critical minority.4
A number of women politicians in Quebec have misgivings regarding legislated
quotas. They often express their discomfort with and opposition to the
idea of being singled out in the electoral system and before their elected
colleagues, and possibly having people believe they are only there as the
result of a special measure.5
Among a group of Parti québécois card holding members who responded to
a survey in 2000 on political involvement in Quebec, only 20% were in favor
of quotas (vs. 58% against). At the time of the survey, the Parti québécois
was in power in Quebec. The results for the Quebec Liberal party were nearly
identical, with only 21% of members in favor (vs. 50% against). When the
survey was carried out, the Liberal Party was the official opposition.
Members from both parties were strongly in favor of setting up government
financial support measures or political training courses as means of increasing
the number of female candidates running in future elections.
In a study conducted in 2004 on the politicization of youth, Quebecers
aged 18 to 30 were against measures such as parity, and even affirmative
action for women. They considered qualifications more important than the
actual number of elected or appointed women. The issue of elected officials
qualifications or abilities is also by far the main reason members opposed
quotas in the 2000 study mentioned earlier. Another important reason, according
to the study, was respect for womens freedom. Some women (and even more
men) considered quotas antidemocratic.
Political Parties and Women
Allow me now to briefly describe the organization of the two main political
parties in Quebec in terms of the position of women. The Liberal Party
is the only party that has existed since the current Canadian Constitution
came into effect on July 1, 1867. The Liberal Party once had an independent
womens wing, the Quebec Liberal Womens Federation. Although the federation
was dependent on the Party for funding, it was a forum for discussion,
awareness, and political training for over twenty years, from 1950 to 1971.
At the Partys annual convention in 1971, Liberal women were successful
in having their Federation integrated into the Party itself. The Liberals
were forced into this decision because the independent federation had only
succeeded in getting one woman, Claire Kirkland, elected to the National
Assembly. During the same period, only three women had sat on the partys
It was also at the 1971 convention that young Liberal Party members successfully
called for a third of seats in various governing bodies to be set aside
for members of the Youth Commission, made up of young Liberals aged 16
to 25. The Youth Commission quickly became a training school for future
political assistants, members of parliament, ministers, public relations
specialists, and private practice professionals.
In November 1971, Liberal women also secured a type of representation quota
in party associations at the electoral district level, as well as at member
One of the concessions made when the QLWF was swallowed up was that each
riding [or electoral district] Liberal association had to ensure that its
executive included one female vice president and one member chosen or elected
by youth (as well as one male vice president and member), a provision that
remains in effect today. In addition, nine men (including three youth)
and nine women (including three youth) must be elected to all party conventions.6
Before leadership conventions, which bring some 3,000 party members to
elect the party leader, local associations choose a total of 12 men and
12 women to represent them. Under the Quebec Liberal Partys by-laws, the
Youth Commissions Coordinating Committee is also gender neutral, with
7 women and 7 men.
There is no statutory parity between women and men for the partys other
officials. However, the party is determined to continually improve the
place of the women who have been among its ranks for nearly 34 years now,
since it brought the Quebec Liberal Womens Federation under its wing.
The Parti québécois was created in 1968 more than one hundred years after
its great Liberal rival. It quickly took the place of a party founded in
19351936, the Union nationale, itself having earlier replaced the former
Conservative Party on the provincial stage. In 1975, a few Montreal-Centre
members of the Parti québecois decided to form a committee on womens issues,
which came into being in September 1977 under the name Comité national
de la condition féminine.In September 1980, after sovereignty-association
was turned down in the first referendum, the committee changed to become
the Comité daction politique des femmes, or the Womens Political Action
Committee. The new committee would now focus more on training the partys
women members in order to advance the cause of women by getting more of
them involved at the grassroots level.
In 1985 and in 2001, when the Parti québécois president stepped down, the
Womens Political Action Committee refused to throw its support behind
any female candidate in particular in order to avoid denigrating the male
candidates. A number of feminist party members disagreed with this decision.
There is a provision in Parti québécois by-laws that makes a general acknowledgement
of the need for more equal representation of men and women within the various
bodies of the party. The partys statutory provisions on women are therefore
neither as precise nor as varied as those of the Liberal Party. However,
ever since Jacques Parizeau was leader (1988 to 1996), the National Executive
Council has included an equal number of women and men.
Many political parties around the world have voluntarily adopted quotas
on the number of women running for election. A report by the Socialist
International Women shows that member parties in 55 countries have introduced
quotas. The Conseil du statut de la femme du Québec has also drawn up a
list showing party quotas in 48 of the 80 countries it studies.
In Canada, the federal New Democratic Party has introduced a form of quotas
(or rather, an objective) setting out a 60% minimum for women candidates
in electoral districts the NDP has a chance of winning. This excludes ridings
in which the incumbent is running for reelection.
Quebecs leading political partiesboth the Liberal Party and the Parti
québécoishave opted instead for informal targets (not governed by their
by-laws) for the number of women running in any given election. This led
the Conseil du statut de la femme to recommend in 2002 that Quebecs parties
adopt recruitment committees made up of equal numbers of women and men
in electoral or municipal districts. Another solution would be for parties
to add to their by-laws the requirement that local executives consider
A Few Quebec Government Initiatives
I have mentioned the Conseil du statut de la femme (CSF) a number of times.
It is an independent public body that serves as an advisor to the Government
of Quebec on all matters related to equality and respect for the rights
and status of women. This advisory council was created by a law passed
by the National Assembly in 1973.
In its 20012005 strategic plan, the CSF points out that a growing proportion
of decisions affecting womens living conditions are made at the local
and regional levels. However, women are still very under-represented in
municipal political bodies.
The CSF therefore suggests we reopen the debate on the importance of equal
representation by women and men in the halls of power. The CSF believes
it would be worthwhile to take a careful look at parity in Quebec. It also
wishes to inform womenespecially young womenabout the importance of partaking
in power, through information campaigns on the subject.
Another public agency the Secrétariat à la condition féminine (SCF) is
charged with fostering government action in support of equality between
women and men and ensuring its consistency. The SCF is under the responsibility
of the minister of families, seniors, and the status of women, who in turn
reports to the premier.
In 1995, its discussion paper Decentralization, a collective decision,
reiterated the importance of involving women in the exercise of power.
This wish was reasserted in 1997 in the government policy on the status
of women entitled A Future to Share. A position paper on this policy
prepared by Secrétariat à la condition féminine addressed the role of women
in the development of Quebecs regions. This government policy led to the
launch of the program Equal to Decide in 1999. It seeks to increase the
number of women in decision-making positions in local and regional bodies.
To do so, it supports nonprofit organizations and native band councils
in developing and carrying out results-oriented projects directly in the
The projects must have one of the following objectives:
Facilitate and promote womens access to decision-making positions at all
Increase the pool of female applicants for these positions
Prepare and train women to fill these positions
Help keep women in these positions
Encourage the bodies in question to act to achieve equal representation
of men and women in decision-making positions
The program is in effect until 2008 and has an annual budget of $1 million.
It can cover up to 80% of a projects cost, with a maximum of $40,000 a
year per project.
In December 2004, the Government of Quebec tabled a draft bill in the National
Assembly to replace the current Elections Act. The bill included incentives
to increase the proportion of women in the National Assembly. This draft
bill proposes increasing political party funding by the Chief Electoral
Officer in proportion to the number of women candidates in each party who
ran in the previous election. A party with 30% to 34% of its candidates
women in the previous election would receive an additional 5% in funding.
For 35% to 39% women candidates, they would receive an additional 10%,
and for more than 40% women, 15%.
In the general election on April 14, 2003, 26% of the 125 candidates of
Action démocratique du Québec were women while 28% of the Quebec Liberal
Partys 125 candidates were women and 34% of the Parti québécois. Under
the proposed rules, the Parti québécois would have received 5% more in
funding. The draft bill also proposes increasing expense reimbursement
for female candidates, again based on the number of female candidates running.
These measures would be temporary and would be withdrawn when 50% of seats
in the National Assembly are held by women. In addition to replacing the
Elections Act, the draft bill also proposes changing the voting procedure
in Quebec to a new mixed proportional system.
Quebec still uses the first-past-the-post system (FPTP). This system
has been questioned a number of times since the late 1960s, largely due
to distorted results in certain elections, particularly the general election
of November 30, 1998. The party that won the most votes in that election
still won fewer seats than the runner-up.
In December 2001, the National Assemblys Standing Committee on Institutions
undertook to study the first-past-the-post system and possible alternatives
to it. In fall 2002, Quebecers were invited to submit briefs to the National
Assembly or convey their opinions through its website. The majority of
respondents supported proportional representation.
In their briefs to the Standing Committee on Institutions, several individuals
and groups addressed the question of women and representation. The main
such brief on the issue came from an organization founded in 2001, Collectif
féminisme et démocratie (CFD). With the support of the Fédération des femmes
du Québec, CFD recommended that Quebec institute a compensatory mixed system
with 74 seats allocated through a party-list proportional method and 51
seats independent of parties, allocated to each of the 17 administrative
regions of Quebec by preferential majority.
1.Union Interparlementaire, Symposium interparlementaire sur la participation
des femmes au processus de prise de décision dans la vie politique et parlementaire
rapports et conclusions, (Rapports et Documents series, no. 16), Genève,
1989, p. 71.
2. Commission des Communautés européennes, Femmes et hommes dEurope aujourdhui
Les attitudes devant lEurope et la politique, Service information femmes,
Direction générale audiovisuel, information, communication, culture, 1991,
3. See Manon Tremblay and Réjean Pelletier, Que font-elles en politique?,
Quebec, Les Presses de lUniversité Laval, 1995, pp. 251-252.
4. Julie Ballington and Marie-José Protais (eds), Women in Parliament:
Beyond Numbers, Stockholm, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral
Assistance, 2002, pg. 108.
5. Lucie Desrochers, Pour une réelle démocratie de représentation - Avis
sur laccès des femmes dans les structures officielles de pouvoir, Québec,
Conseil du statut de la femme, April 1994, p. 8. Reported in Anne Quéniart,
Julie Jacques, Apolitiques, les jeunes femmes?, Montréal, Les éditions
du remue-ménage, 2004, p. 57.
6. Évelyne Tardy, Premiers résultats enquête sur les différences de genre
dans le militantisme politique (PQ et PLQ), Montréal, UQAM, Faculté de
science politique et de droit, December 2000, p. 69.