SOME OF THE HIGHEST AND MIGHTIEST IN GLOBAL FINANCE and politics worked hard to get former Bill Clinton advisor Larry Summers the top spot at the World Bank. He seemed like a shoe-in.
Yet a women’s group called Ultraviolet managed to collect more than 37,000 signatures in less than 24 hours and demanded that President Obama choose a woman instead. Responding to the pressure, Obama appointed another prominent male, but also asked the Senate to approve his appointment of Janet Yellen as the first woman to ever head the Federal Reserve. She hadn’t been the President’s first choice, but he couldn’t afford to ignore almost 40,000 signatures either.
What no one knew was all that Ultraviolet was doing behind the scenes – lobbying politicians, raising funds and awareness, creating public awareness, and continuing on with petitions – a relentless exercise.
Yesterday, I had coffee with two women who want to run for politics. They were sincere and determined. We covered the familiar ground of noting that politics is still primarily a man’s game and that women have a tough time desiring to run when their male counterparts want to play so rough. I agreed, but reminded them that in my time in politics some of the meanest actions I witnessed were carried out by female politicians in favour of their partisan pursuits. But, since the majority of those elected is primarily male, the women raised an important issue. I reminded them that, in Canada, 16% of mayors and 26% of councillors are female.
They were asking for advice, they said, not merely because I had been in politics, but because I assist in running women’s programs in Africa, help groups like My Sisters Place in London, and was on the Status of Women Committee and women’s caucus in Ottawa. They wanted to know how I thought they could be successful in a predominantly male domain.
There was a lot we had to work through, but I feel their main problem is not male intransigence but citizen apathy. In this country almost everyone says they believe in equality and that more women should be in politics. Then they carry on as if all this will just happen naturally. All aspiring politicians face this reality, but for women who have such a greater and arduous journey to travel because of current culture it can be especially painful
In the last few days in London, three strong progressive female incumbents have announced they will not be running for re-election. I know them and they are all fine women and honourable politicians. But their reasons for stepping down are simple: they are exhausted, tired of male dominance in the political arena, and, though they won’t publicly admit so (they do privately), despairing of the lack of kind of citizen action that can pit a more powerful citizenry against the forces of moneyed interests. Participation in the last civic election hovered around the 40% mark. If they could be assured of voter turnout in the 50-60% they would likely run again, but the chances of this occurring are slim. Their greatest disillusionment doesn’t come from a few dominating and sometimes boorish male politicos, but from the likely reality of the tens of thousands of citizens who won’t bother to fill in a ballot and create the change required. All the efforts to press them to run again come up short against this troubling reality.
What would happen to these three women’s spirits, or the two I met for coffee, if suddenly citizens organized in such fashion as to gather thousands of signatures, grab the attention of the media, and say they are fighting for more women in the political arena – the way Ultraviolet did? Some are trying, but more is required. It would change the dynamic completely for both the tired champions and the energized aspirants. But it would take more than a signature. There would be the letters, emails, requests for funds, canvassing, designing literature, influencing neighbours, and finding a voice on the airwaves in efforts to support their candidates.
The likelihood is that no such thing will transpire, in part because the emphasis continues to lie on besting the men in their own realm rather than winning the citizenry in our own communities. At no point can we accept the far too many hurdles and prejudices confronting women who desire to improve their communities and play their rightful part in forming new directions.
This much we do know: the more women leaders there are in politics, the more they attract other women to run. The secret is to reach that point of a critical mass where enough of our political representatives are respectful, capable and consensus-building female leaders
We desperately require more women in politics and every effort should be made to get more to sign up. But the greatest opposition to such efforts comes from a distracted citizenry as opposed to a bias toward male candidates, as real and frustrating as that is. Lift the voter participation higher and more women might get elected. But organize and play our citizen role on their behalf and they surely will.
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” said Virginia Woolf. It’s time to change that by organizing ourselves as citizens for female representation.
Note: This post is dedicated to Joni Baechler, Judy Bryant and Nancy Branscombe – three retiring London councillors who taught us just how fine and noble politics can be. Thank you for your service to our community.