Canadian Female MPs
The Canada eZine - Canadian Politics

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By Alexandra Weaver - 2007.

“…the most important and interesting question about women’s political role is why that role is so insignificant.” – Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.

Canada has currently sixty-two women in parliament accounting for twenty-one percent of MPs. In terms of women’s representation in a federal legislature, Canada ranks thirty-sixth in the world among democracies after Monaco and Nicaragua. For years it has been questioned as to why women are not equally represented in provincial, federal, and territorial legislative bodies in Canada. In a country where women constitute at least half the population, it is argued that women should at least comprise half the elected members in parliament.

For years women have struggled to become represented in their provincial and federal legislatures. As questions were raised over the lack of equal representation between men and women, the percentage of women in electoral politics began to increase. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the number of women nominated and elected to parliament grew substantially. Nevertheless, this steady growth in the percentage of women represented in politics eventually stalled and has even decreased among some provincial legislatures in Canada. “…while over the five most recent elections in each jurisdiction the percentage of women in federal, provincial, and territorial legislatures has climbed, recent progress is minimal.” It is argued that an electoral ‘glass ceiling’ exists that is keeping women from increasing in numbers. “…it is this electoral glass ceiling on which female aspirants are now bumping their heads.” Political parties have had a history of support, or lack of support, for the equality of the sexes in electoral politics and for the enabling or attempt at disabling the glass ceiling. Although parties were succeeding for a while in increasing the number of women nominated and elected within their party and to parliament, they have discontinued this incentive that had existed for some time. Furthermore, women have often been entering political parties and hence politics through horizontal and vertical entry. Horizontal entry involves the argument that women have been and are occupying jobs that are defined under ‘traditional roles’ for women. Women’s vertical entry involves the argument that the higher you look in a political party the fewer women you will find. The nomination process and the involvement of local riding associations create difficulties for women’s increased participation in electoral politics. There is also a generous lack of women in political party leadership positions due to various reasons, including the party’s status when women took power.

As solutions to the problem of under-representation of women began to be presented, difficulties including debate and controversy emerged. Affirmative action as well as ways to ‘level the playing field’, through means like financial incentives or constraints in campaigns, have been raised as ways to increase the number of women and thus as ways to create more equality in electoral politics. Some parties have taken on such solutions but have faced difficulty and controversy in their implementation. Moreover, the change of electoral systems to Proportional Representation (PR) from Single-Member-Plurality (SMP), Canada’s current electoral system, is discussed as a way to help increase the number of represented women. Why women should be involved in political parties and politics brings forth the argument that there is a need for more women in order to properly address important and necessary women’s issues.

This paper will discuss the halt of growth in the number of elected women in parliament, the role of the political party as enabler of such a stall, and the party’s involvement in the overall lack of representation of women in elected politics. Within the discussion of political parties, furthermore, we will discuss where solutions in order to increase the number of women in electoral politics have been presented and debated, where political parties have attempted change, and where refusals exist to make changes that could increase women’s representation.

In the last two decades, the number of women has advanced as elected representatives in parliament. However, this steady increase eventually stalled and the representation by women has even declined. Beginning in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there were substantive efforts to create equal representation in politics. For example, women in the New Democratic Party (NDP) began to seek equal representation to that of men in all fields of politics as well as to apply pressure for regulatory measures to install this equal representation. Although the NDP acted more progressively in its attempt to incorporate equal representation of women, as exemplified by its affirmative action program in the 1980’s, other major Canadian political parties tried other less strict enforcement to support or encourage more female candidates.

Among these relatively informal means were campaigns for party leadership by prominent women; party women’s funds; conferences, caucuses and training sessions designed to attract and prepare new activists; campaign literature and speakers’ notes on ‘women’s issue’ policy questions; and personal out-reach or ‘networking’ activities by party gatekeepers.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the number of nominated and elected women in provincial and federal legislatures was on the rise. “…it was in the last 15 years of the twentieth century that significant increases occurred…more than three times as many women won election in the 15 years between 1985 and 2000 than prior to 1985.” In the 1993 election, almost twenty-two percent of the candidates were women, which was the highest proportion of women in history ever running for office.

Yet in the past few years the steady increase of female representatives has been interrupted. Recent figures show that there has not only been a slow down in the number of federally, provincially and territorially elected women, there has even been a decrease in their numbers in certain jurisdictions. At one time, Alberta and British Columbia had elected more than twenty-five percent of women before that number dropped in the 2001 elections, and the Yukon Territory once had twenty-nine percent of elected women until that number dropped to just under seventeen percent in 2002. “From the mid-1980’s to the early 1990’s, the number of elected women more than doubled, from 9 per cent to 18 per cent. Since then, progress has stalled; over the last decade the overall percentage of female legislators has crept from over 18 to just under 20, a very small increase.” Linda Trimble and Jane Arscott discuss this delay in the increase of women represented in parliament in terms of the ‘electoral glass ceiling’. This glass ceiling is defined as “…the invisible barriers that effectively keep women from rising beyond a certain level in hierarchical organizations”. Trimble and Arscott believe “…the political variant of the glass ceiling has stalled women’s electoral progress and will prevent women’s legislative representation from exceeding 25 per cent in the near future”. Since this statement, both authors have unenthusiastically pointed out that women have not progressed to even this twenty-five percent mark and are in fact stuck at twenty percent, the same percentage as was held in the previous election.

The difficulty in exceeding this stall and breaking through the ‘electoral glass ceiling’ involves the crucial role of political parties. Some political parties have unfortunately taken the standpoint that the current status of the number of women in electoral politics is satisfactory. Some political parties have taken the position that one in four women representatives is reasonable. As we have seen, women had been making substantial progress numerically speaking in electoral politics, yet political parties such as the Liberals retreated from their previous push for more women in politics. Despite reaching the twenty-eight percent mark of female candidates within their party federally in the 1990’s, “…in the most recent federal election, the Liberals were silent on the issue of women’s representation and fell short of the 25 percent goal, with women representing the party in only 22 per cent of the constituencies.” The goal of political parties to reach the twenty-five per cent mark has downplayed the need for equal representation of women with men. Once the twenty-five percent goal is reached, parties like the liberals seem to take the stand that this is good enough.

Women are often entering political parties through horizontal entry by occupying fields that are “…traditionally defined as female: education, health, welfare, and the environment, not to mention the former women’s branches of certain political parties”. Often these fields were and still are considered less important, despite the obvious significance of such fields as health and it’s consummation of current political discussion. Another important aspect is women’s vertical entry into political parties. Although we have discussed the rise in women’s elected positions in political parties, there is still what is called the pattern of “the higher the fewer”. Political parties have demonstrated a poor record in the area of nomination and appointments. None have had high or even equal numbers of females in the high echelons of the party, in elected office, ministerial positions, or particularly as political party leaders.

One reason for “the higher the fewer” is the nomination process, and discrimination, difficulties, and institutions therein. In the past, women were commonly nominated in ridings that were considered hopeless to win for that political party. Political parties hoped to gain credos through this overt display of inclusion and promotion of women, yet knew their female candidate would not win them a seat. In terms of hopeless ridings and the hapless victims who ran with no hope of a win, “Women [made] up a disproportionately large number of these ‘sacrificial lambs’”. Thus women were often nominated in “unwinnable” ridings. Once women began to criticize their frequent position as ‘sacrificial lambs’, they began to be nominated in more winnable ridings due to a more honest attempt at increasing their numbers in elected office. “Because they were no longer being served up mostly as sacrificial lambs for fringe parties or standard bearers in unwinnable ridings for competitive parties, women began to win office in greater numbers.”…………………

See Also: Belinda Stronach Quits


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