Tonight is an important date for the London, Ontario group Pints and Politics. The entire occasion centers on one key question Canadians have been asking for decades: Where are all the women in politics?
There were various ways that question could have been put: Why won’t women run? Are there barriers to women entering the political spectrum? Is it all just a man’s game? They are all equally valid but the answers have been frustratingly slow in emerging. Those attending the event tonight will get their chance to add their own perspective.
I was in India when singer Helen Reddy released her chart-topping single I Am Woman. By the time I arrived back home it had won the Grammy for 1972, became the theme song for the women’s liberation movement, and I recall hearing the first line sung repeatedly in numerous venues – “I am woman, hear me roar.”
A lot has changed since then, as women continue to make their mark in virtually every field, even though the balance for participation remains tilted in favour of their male counterparts. But it is in the field of politics where we most likely suffer from the lack of equitable female participation. Currently there are 20 women senators in the U.S. Senate, out of a total of 100. Sadly, there have only been 44 women in the U.S. Senate since its establishment in 1789. In Congress, there are 78 women presently serving – only 17.9% of all representatives serving there.
Canada sees 76 women MPs, out of a total of 308. The Senate – the subject of rife scandal at present – consists of 38 women out of a total of 105.
It is clear that there have been improvements, but perhaps at not a fast enough rate to rescue our political decline. In fact, Canada remains in 52nd place in the world when it comes to female representation in political office. That’s not good, but it gets worse when we realize that we are falling farther behind as other countries adopt more aggressive measures to balance out the gender roles.
It is a general rule of thumb that the closer you come to the local community level, the more women you tend to see vying for political office – a reality also true of younger Canadians and minority groups. And yet even in such constituencies politics remains a harsh game. Somehow, over the decades, what has always been a man’s game has also turned into a mug’s game, with the respect and collaboration required for democratic progress being laid aside in favour of division, partisanship, and verbal abuse. Sadly, we sometimes witness women representatives, in an effort to make a mark, adopting similar styles of brinksmanship and caustic comment that turn most women (and many men) off of politics altogether. Margaret Thatcher’s old adage that, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” is wearing out its welcome, as the political system demands total allegiance, regardless of the gender.
Two of our major challenges in the present age are bad politics and cloistered capitalism. We have already examined some of the data regarding women in politics, but consider this: Only 13 of the 500 largest corporations in the world have a female CEO. On the other hand, women comprise 70% of the poorest people in the world and 65% of the functionally illiterate. With politics and finance being so out of whack, it’s no wonder modern societies are as well. Again, there is improvement, but the fundamental question will be if women can rise fast enough in positions of power and influence to rescue us from our own historic oversights? A second question might be that, if they do manage to reach such a critical mass, will they change the positions they occupy or be changed by them, so that the mockery of politics swallows up all its victims – woman or man?
I have pressed my wife Jane to run for politics because of her obvious experience and ability to work well with others. “Glen, after I saw what happened to you, why would I even consider it?” This is the legacy and limitation of modern politics. Katy Perry is presently singing that she is a champion and we’ll hear her ROAR. Fair enough, but Helen Reddy said the same thing and the political machine only got worse.
I have always really liked Virginia Woolf’s defiant observation: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” In other words, put any obstacle before a principled woman if you wish, but as a person of character she can rise above any tribal cry or partisan chant. She might very well prove to be the salvation of politics itself.
It took a woman to say, “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness” (Eleanor Roosevelt). It is now time to drive the political darkness back to the shadows of history from which it emerged through the intervention of women who put character, humanity and public service ahead of the darker shades of politics.