On sexism against women in politics

A version of the following article appeared in the June 5 editions of the prairie dog (in Regina) and Planet S (in Saskatoon).

Hillary Hate-On

U.S. media’s treatment of Clinton shows the political gender gap is going strong
Think it’s any different in Canada? Nuh-uh!

by Bernadette Wagner

In January, MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews succinctly dismissed Hillary Clinton’s talent, skill, political acumen and U.S. Senate experience as factors for her frontrunner status in the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination race.

Matthews said, “The reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around.”

It’s typical, really, of how women are treated by the media and others when they enter political life. In the United States, the Women’s Media Center (WMC) joined together with prominent U.S. feminists and feminist organizations to extract an apology from Matthews.

Then, on May 23, the WMC released a video of news clips called “Sexism Sells — But We’re Not Buying It”, featuring five minutes of sexist commentary by various male and female newscasters and commentators in the U.S. The clip is viewable online at womensmediacenter.com, and it provides examples of how commenting on a woman’s appearance — her dress, her cosmetics, her cleavage — is apparently newsworthy, somehow related to her ability to perform as a politician.

If Hillary Clinton has conceded to Barack Obama by the time you read this — and there’s a possibility she will have if it didn’t go well for her in South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday, June 3 — you have to wonder just how much a factor systemic sexism was in her defeat.

Think it’s any different in Canada? Nuh-uh! Just ask Sheila Copps, Belinda Stronach, Amber Jones or Deb Higgins.

When Sheila Copps was a member of the federal Liberal Party’s “Rat Pack” in the House of Commons, she was particularly good at getting under the skin of the Conservative members of Mulroney’s government. At one point, John Crosbie, a cabinet minister, told her to “quieten down, baby.” Admittedly, that was 20-some years ago, but still, that attitude reigns supreme.

During the 2006 election campaign Belinda Stronach, a Liberal MP who entered the political sphere when she ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party, commented in a CTV web story that, “Sometimes it can be a little bit frustrating when you’re trying to get a message out and people are focusing on your personal life or the shoes you’re wearing.” Certainly, the media made much of her personal relationships with Peter McKay and Tie Domi (neither of which compromised national security, as far as I know). Even as recently as last fall a CTV story reported on Stronach’s split with Domi and included a description of her attire at a charity gala.

Amber Jones is the new leader of the Green Party in Saskatchewan. She is also a new mother. After she breastfed her child and passed the baby to her partner (likely for a diaper change), the child was returned to her arms. She was attacked by the producer of a radio show for not only breastfeeding her baby but also exploiting the youngster as a “political prop” because this was a media event.
Apparently in Saskatchewan, demonstrating the reality of your life as a breastfeeding mother involved in politics is a no-no.

And let’s not forget Saskatchewan Party MLA Mike Chisholm’s insult of NDP MLA Deb Higgins. Higgins, lauded by many as a hard-working and intelligent woman and as a former Minister of Labour, rankled Chisholm’s feathers with her questions and comments during the discussions of Bills 5 and 6. He responded by calling her a “dumb bitch”.

Coming on the heels of Premier Wall’s apology to the people of Saskatchewan for his role in the sexist, racist and homophobic 1991 videotape found by the NDP and released to the public, the premier had no choice but to “accept” Chisholm’s resignation as Legislative Secretary. Nice start but he should have tossed Chisholm from caucus.

Equal Voice Canada is an organization working to promote women’s involvement in politics. Their website cites several international sources which add credence to their demand for more women to be involved in political decision-making.
Like the UNICEF report which says that legislatures with a higher participation of women produce better policies to fight child poverty.
And the World Bank report that says legislatures with higher involvement of women are “more productive.” That report concludes “women are effective in promoting honest government and national parliaments with the largest numbers of women have the lowest levels of corruption.”

Equal Voice says Canada is falling behind on women’s representation in government. Where once we placed much higher, now we are 48^th in the world. The number of women elected to our federal Parliament has hovered around 20 per cent for more than a decade now.

Is it any wonder?

Why would a woman want to run for election if she has to fund her campaign from wages that are 30 per cent less than her male counterpart’s? When she must endure harassment from within the party and the members opposite, as well as from the media if she’s elected?

It’s an uphill battle all the way, especially to the post of the most powerful person in the world.

Just ask Hillary Clinton.