We Need to Address Misogyny in Politics: Attracting more women to politics both urgent and complex
This past week, I spoke at a memorial for Jo Cox, the late UK legislator who was stabbed and gunned down in her constituency. In a world where women remain a distinct minority in elected office, the death of this mother to two young children and a passionate, outspoken advocate for the disadvantaged is a devastating blow.
Rightly or wrongly, in countries rife with conflict and civil war, we have become accustomed to reports of threats and outright violence against politicians, many of them women. It seems harder to believe in a modern democracy and relatively safe country like England.
Nevertheless, for women the world over, the murder of Jo Cox is a poignant reminder that serving in elected office can be fraught with risk. And while male politicians are also subject to death threats and occasional attacks in modern democracies, there is something particularly pernicious about how women politicians are singled out.
Manitoba New Democratic MLA Nahanni Fontaine said it very well to the CBC recently when she went public about a threatening call from a man, who warned her to “watch what she says in the Manitoba legislature.”
She underscored that “The reality is that women engaged in public life across the globe are constantly intimidated, threatened, sanctioned, silenced, ridiculed and in some cases tortured, raped and murdered," she stressed. Undetered, Fontaine seized the occasion as a gesture of “solidarity with all women in public service in the face of hatred against women.”
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On the eve of efforts by Equal Voice (EV) to mark the 100th anniversary of (some) women getting the federal franchise, ‘personal risk’ is not the key message (EV) wants to be sending to women about politics.
In a video released by EV called ‘Dear 20-year-old Me’, we sought to feature hopeful and inspiring clips of encouragement from 13 federal female MPs, both new and seasoned.
As part of EV’s national initiative, Daughters of the Vote, we are eager to underscore how women’s perspectives and voices enrich legislatures and the outcomes they produce. We are inviting hundreds, if not thousands, of emerging young women leaders to consider politics as a rewarding professional path.
The positivity that federal MPs, among others, embodied in our video is what Equal Voice wants to share about the opportunities for women in politics.
Having a seat at the table and creating change is an incredibly meaningful endeavour. We know that the satisfaction that come from serving in public life is – more often than not – well worth the time, energy and sacrifice.
Recognizing the risks and rewards of women in politics
Equal Voice believes it is incumbent upon women to consider elected life, and parties to promote the opportunity, if Canada expects to produce policies, programs and legislation that are reflective of women’s diverse realities.
But it’s not enough to focus on the responsibilities and rewards of elected office. We must also recognize the price that many elected women pay for their service. Up to now, the ugliness, the misogyny, and the hostility have been something that many female politicians are reluctant to talk about. No one seeks political office to have this dark trilogy be their defining experience or narrative.
Further, the vast majority of elected women are -- of course – supported, well-liked and astute political figures who rise above the occasional incident, the vitriol of social media trolls, and the disrespect they sometimes encounter, as women, from both within and outside of their legislatures.
But the combined experience of women elected to all levels of government is something we need to address in a more substantive way. No longer can we take it for granted that female politicians are generally safe, or assume that the verbal assaults and other threats they encounter are 'just innocuous acts from disgruntled voters'.
Misogyny is the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women or girls. (Wikipedia)
Since politicians are naturally subject to greater scrutiny for their partisan or policy interests, it may seem difficult to disentangle disgruntlement from legitimate safety concerns.
However, the reality is that many of the hostile and egregious comments directed at elected women are fueled by genuine misogyny. For some, there is intense discomfort with women increasingly taking up space and advocating for change in an arena where traditionally men have dominated the agenda. The dissonance that this creates underlies many of the actions intended to intimidate and silence.
This is not to say that women entering or serving the political arena are not welcomed, or do not thrive. In fact we know the opposite to be true. Many women describe their time in elected office as the best phase of their lives – and one in which they are able to create long-lasting change for their communities.
Examining the experiences of elected women key to lasting change
Regardless, given the tragic developments of recent weeks, the complex realities of women in elected office clearly need to be better addressed.
First, women in elected office need to know they have the resources and mechanisms at their disposal to be as safe and secure as possible. The hyper-sensitivity that many politicians, particularly women, feel about using public resources or being perceived as ‘entitled’ or ‘privileged’ to be protected cannot undermine what should be done.
Reasonable and continuous efforts need to be taken to ensure that elected women feel safe in their homes, their constituency offices and in the community. A woman who is elected should not have to internalize a feeling of vulnerability on the basis of a nefarious social media post, verbal threat or other incident. Furthermore, they absolutely should not be left to deal with it on their own.
So if we, as a nation, are serious about ensuring that far more women serve in politics, then we must be equally serious about providing a working environment where elected women feel both valued and safe. It starts by taking a good, hard look at the collective and often gender-focused experiences of elected women.
Only by acknowledging the complex realities of being a woman in public office today can we make the necessary improvements to truly tackle the persistent problem of political gender inequity for the benefit of all Canadians tomorrow.
by Nancy Peckford
National spokesperson for Equal Voice, a national multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada.
A modified version of this piece appears in this week's Hill Times.
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