‘Toxic Testosterone Stew’ Repels Women From Canadian Politics

Elizabeth May, Canada's Green Party Leader
Elizabeth May, leader of Canada's Green Party. Photographer: Don MacKinnon/Bloomberg

Elizabeth May, Canada’s Green Party leader, recalls the day when Canadian Senator Mike Duffy publicly labeled her ‘Bucky the Beaver’ in a 2009 political speech, apparently referring to her front teeth.

“It was excruciatingly unpleasant,” said May, a lawyer, author, university lecturer and the only woman leader among the country’s five largest political parties. “You just have to say, ‘Well, that’s pretty pathetic.’”

As Canadians vote today in their fourth election in seven years, May, 56, hopes to be her party’s first elected Member of Parliament. A victory would put her among the roughly 22 percent of females in the House of Commons, a figure that’s barely budged since 1997, according to Equal Voice, an Ottawa-based group working to boost female representation in government.

Politics is a tough trek for Canadian women, May said in an interview last month on a train through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver to Jasper, Alberta, to meet voters. While advocating Green policies, she also tries to ignore critics who mock her blonde hair or tell her to join Jenny Craig’s weight-loss regime. Such barbs may be keeping other women from getting in the game, she said.

“Our political climate has descended into a kind of toxic, testosterone stew,” May says. “It’s so unpleasant that women have a hard time seeing themselves there.”

Trailing Rwanda, Iraq

Canada ranks No. 52 out of 189 countries in the number of women elected to federal government, slipping from 47 three years ago, behind Rwanda and Iraq, according to data compiled by Equal Voice.

Sheila Copps, Canada’s deputy prime minister from 1996 to 1997, says the lack of progress reflects a still-dominant notion that men belong in power.

“Women and men tend to visualize men as leaders,” she said by phone from Ottawa. “Women are less likely to seek nomination because they don’t think they qualify.”

Early in her career, Copps, elected to parliament in 1984, responded to a Conservative rival who told her to “Just quiet down, baby” with a quip that she was ‘nobody’s baby.’ The phrase became the title of her 1986 book, subtitled ‘A Survival Guide to Politics.’

Canada’s female representation is still higher than the U.S., where the House of Representatives has 76 women of 435 seats, or 17 percent. Seventeen of 100 U.S. Senators are women. Rwanda has the highest representation, according to Equal Voice.

‘Winnable’ Districts

“Women have a huge appetite to be involved in the political process,” said Equal Voice Executive Director Nancy Peckford in a phone interview. A large hurdle to overcome is “there aren’t enough female candidates getting nominated in winnable” districts, also called ridings. Most women who are nominated by parties run in areas where their party has little chance of winning, she said.

Anita Neville, a Liberal Member of Parliament and former minister for the status of women, agrees that more needs to be done to recruit women, and that the tone of Canadian politics is a barrier to that goal.

“I don’t think any of the parties have done a great job recruiting candidates,” she said at a campaign rally in Winnipeg, Manitoba last week.

“The rancor and nastiness of the political discourse turns off” many women, Neville said, adding that the atmosphere before the last election was “a really ugly Parliament.”

The New Democratic Party said April 11 it had set an “historic first” by having women as 40 percent of its nominated candidates. Still, Equal Voice said on its website that only 31 percent of NDP candidates in what it gauges are winnable ridings are women. That figure compares with 27 percent for the Liberals and 22 percent for the Conservatives. The Conservative Party did not respond to requests for comment yesterday about this issue.

Female Prime Minister

Another discouraging trend for women in Canadian politics is their absence from the highest cabinet positions. In 1993, Progressive Conservative Kim Campbell became Canada’s first and only female Prime Minister. Liberal administrations that followed had female deputy prime ministers. The highest-profile women in Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most recent cabinet were the ministers of health, human resources and labor.

A CTV/Globe/Nanos election survey published yesterday had Harper’s Conservatives leading with 37 percent support of decided voters, followed by the New Democratic Party with 32 percent, the Liberals at 21 percent, the Bloc Quebecois at 6 percent and the Greens at 4 percent. The telephone poll, taken April 30 and May 1, surveyed 1,200 eligible voters and has a margin of error of 2.8 percent. A victory for May in her constituency on Vancouver Island, or any other Green candidate, would be the first for a new party since 1997.

Excluded From Debate

During the five-week election campaign, Canadians didn’t get a chance to see May debate the other party leaders. The Group of television networks that sets the rules excluded the Green Party leader from the two televised debates because the party didn’t have an elected member in the 308-seat House of Commons.

May doesn’t believe she was kept out because of her gender -- she participated in the 2008 campaign debates because a Liberal lawmaker defected to join the Greens. Still, the broadcast consortium “failed to see how critical it was to find a woman federal political leader to put in the debates in the hope that young women or little girls might look at the TV and say, ‘oh, I could do that someday,’” she said.

Those Canadian women who do consider politics as a career still have to deal with personal comments that men don’t receive, such as former New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough, who was told in 2006 to “stick to your knitting” by current Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who subsequently apologized. For his part, Duffy, a former television and radio reporter, said his 2009 description of May wasn’t his “finest hour.”

“There are no excuses for personal comments,” he said in an e-mail.

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