“Political institutions reflect male lived experience. The female experience is absent.”
“You don’t have to be Superwoman!”
“We need to offer no strings attached support and build women up, not tear them down.”
“How can we translate political language to make it more accessible?”
“Women don’t have a harder time running, the problem is that not enough women run”.
On Monday, January 20, 2014, a group of 48 women came together to discuss women and politics. It’s election year in London, Ontario, and that evening we examined womens’ candidacy and women in politics.
We explored the practical issues such as financial support and leadership training. We discussed the health and wellness of women who choose to run or who are in office. And we explored the question of WHY women don’t run.
The underlying tone of the meeting was excitement and empowerment. There was recognition that we all have a role to play to increase the representation of voices at a political level. For some, that will mean running. For others it will be to provide support. For those with experience in politics it will be providing training, guidance and advice. For all the women in the room, it will be a renewed commitment to taking ownership and building a deliberate movement for equal voice.
The thoughtful discussion that night also recognized the need to ensure that women who are marginalized or have barriers (language, child care, transportation etc) are given a voice. Amplifying the engagement of all diverse voices was echoed at each table. Without a myriad of perspectives, difficult policy decisions are made in a vacuum. Bringing in divergent lived experiences also serves to increase the brain power of people in power.
There are those who believe that Women and Politics’ mandate is irrelevant and unnecessary. My response to them is the same as my response to climate change deniers. What’s the worst that could happen if we assumed inequality (or climate change!) exists? What’s the worst that could happen if we assume women need support and if we encouraged better representation in politics?
If the worst that can happen is that a roomful of women are inspired to make change and support each other, then I’ll keep at it.
The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.
On my internet dating profile, I describe myself as “ultra-liberal; in the nice, Canadian, sense”. But it has only been in the past few years that I have come to think about how I developed that world view.
I am a child of immigrants from two very different countries with only their Catholic faith in common. Yet both families espoused conservative political views. In the case of my mother’s Irish family, it was simply a continuity of the traditional life sanctioned by the church. For my father’s eastern European family, it was a reaction to the excesses of the communism that had overrun their homeland.
And yet, my father and his brothers worked in the local paper mill at the start of their careers (only one retired from that business) and belonged to the union that organized those workers. When Trudeaumania came along, my mother was an enthusiastic acolyte, to her father’s great disappointment.
Living in such a small town, it was easy to absorb a collective view since the mill was the major employer. The fortunes of our town were intricately tied to the success of that enterprise.
My parents also “imported” The Toronto Star to our home. Every day, we would pick up our subscription at the newsstand downtown. Being a voracious reader all my life, I would read the paper after my parents did. I read it cover-to-cover, looking up words I didn’t understand; asking questions if I didn’t understand an article.
It probably wasn’t wise to allow a 7-year-old to read about political assassinations and the Vietnam War, or famines and riots, military coups and massacres, or the end of the Prague Spring – an event that caused my father’s parents no end of anguish. Yet no one tried to stop me.
Reading the paper taught me the differences between small and large “L” politics and conservatism, the definition of Gross Domestic Product and how unemployment affected a country. It took me around the world where I learned that other governments treated citizens as impediments to personal gain, or tools to exploit to amass fortunes, and made me very happy to be Canadian.
The 60s were no more or less a turbulent time than today, the difference being that in North America in the 60s people seemed more publically involved. There were large demonstrations against the Vietnam War, against racism, and for feminism. In the decades since then, around the world, popular political movements led to the fall of communism, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the Arab Spring in Egypt, as examples.
With the exception of the Quebec student protests last year, people seem to be content to let things happen to them, rather than working toward the life we want. Declining voter turnout is the most egregious example of this.
There are many reasons for this and many fingers are pointed in blame, but the simple fact is that we are failing future generations by not cultivating political awareness.
How did you become aware? Have you thought about how you developed your world views?
How can we, as a group, help others to develop their own political awareness?
In a previous job working for a crown corporation of the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, I had the opportunity to work on a pretty cool project that was intended to bring equity and accessibility to the forefront of our projects, policy setting and decision making.
It was a really simple tool that asked project managers to first think of all of the diverse groups of people that a project, policy or decision could affect. Really think about who the community was and who you were impacting – women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, homeless people, Francophones and more.
Once you had a grasp of who you were impacting, you would have to work through what all of the unintended negative impacts of your project were on each group, and also what the unintended positive impacts of your project were on each group. For example, maybe your program wasn’t accessible to seniors traveling from retirement homes, or wasn’t being offered with access to French language services. Alternatively, maybe the circular floor plan of your new cancer treatment ward led to improved recovery times because patients could be social supports to each other while getting treatment.
The assessment tool was a great first step in helping people to think about marginalized groups in new ways and to plan their programs and policies accordingly.
When I would host training sessions for offices working through this assessment tool for the first time, one of the most important things I would always stress was that all of these groups were intersectional and you always had to account for that. You might need to think about the unique impact your program would have on LGBQT seniors. You might need to prepare for the unique cultural needs of homeless Aboriginal people.
Communities are diverse, complex things – and we rarely fit into tidy little segmented buckets.
The same is true for the work that our Women and Politics group is doing. We need to make sure that as we are out in the community, engaging women with politics, and encouraging women to run for elected positions, that we don’t get so narrowly focused that we forget just how intersectional we are.
We don’t just need more women in city hall. We need disabled women, women of colour, women living in poverty and more.
So, I ask – where my intersectional ladies at? Have you thought about running for council?
This article started a great debate on Twitter over the use of “disabled women” instead of “women with disabilities” in the last paragraph of this post.
The debate centred on the use of person-first language which supports the naming of a person first, and their condition or trait second. This linguistic structure aims to avoid dehumanizing the individual.
Critics of person-first language argue that its use implies a person can be separated from their disability or that it implies the disability is something bad by diminishing its relation to the individual.
We welcome the debate, and are glad this has created additional learning opportunities for our readers and our group at Women and Politics. We have decided to leave the text un-altered, but would invite you to learn more about person-first language, and to continue to share your perspective on this debate.
London’s 2014 election cycle took off over the past week with the nomination of several candidates for City Council, and the announcement by a few incumbents declaring they are not planning on running for Council again.
Already we see trends indicating Women will be under represented on Council in 2014 unless something changes. Out of 15 nominations filed as of January 6th, 12 were men and only 3 were women. In addition, Joni Baechler, Nancy Branscombe and Judy Bryant, 3 of the 5 current women City Councillors, announced their decisions to step down and not run in the upcoming election.
All of this potentially leaves London with a lack of women candidates. It is still very early in the election cycle and more women may step forward, but it will take an active approach by the London community to ensure we have gender representation on our future Council.
Why gender representation is important
The United Nations says that at least 30% women representation is needed before political bodies like City Councils, produce public policy representing women’s concerns and before political institutions change how they operate. Without representation, issues that impact women are easily overlooked or thought to be included in male perspectives. Women don’t always agree on what issues matter, nor are they are a homogenous group, but if women only hold a fraction of the seats on Council, there is little chance that the broad range of views held by different women will be well represented in decision making. We need diversity and not just gender diversity – race, income, ability and language to name just a few.
What we can do
Each of us needs to ask women we know in our community to run for City Council or the Mayor’s chair and we need to ask them many times. It has been shown that women in particular need to be asked more than once, before they will run for office.
Most importantly, we need to show them they have our support – financially, organizationally and also once they get elected. This isn’t just a call to women in London to support other women, but a call to everyone. A community thrives when its diverse interests are represented in government.
Fortunately there are initiatives already happening. Head Start London, with the leadership of Joni Baechler, has been hosting events with young women, encouraging them to get into politics as well as providing mentoring. The City has also committed to funding a video project to further this work and ensure the message about the importance of women in politics spreads widely.
In addition, we at Women & Politics are hosting a meeting on January 20th to plan how we will actively encourage and support more women to come forward and run in the 2014 election. Join us and/or encourage a woman you know to come out and help us make this happen.
London needs a City Council that is representative of its community. It will take hard work and effort to make this happen and we at Women & Politics are committed to taking on the task. Will you join us?