The battle for equality
The odds of a male political candidate being asked about his hairstyle, age, weight or marital status are remote. Not so for women. Such personal and blatantly sexist questions are far too common, and it’s one reason why it’s difficult to attract women as candidates.
Politics has been an uphill fight for women, even though they account for more than 50 per cent of the nation’s population.
Susan Holt, a Liberal candidate in Fredericton in the current New Brunswick provincial election, summed it up nicely: “I think the political environment, generally speaking, is unattractive. It’s full of insults, negativity, confrontation…”
To their credit, the four main parties in the New Brunswick election made a concerted effort to attract and nominate women, setting a goal of 50 per cent female candidates. They agreed the low number of women in the last N.B. legislature was embarrassing — seven out of 49, a mere 14 per cent.
Two N.B. parties were actually successful — the NDP and Greens – at reaching or surpassing the 50 per cent target. Unfortunately, neither party has much chance of winning power and the odds are high that few of those candidates will seats in the Sept. 24 election.
But you never know who might pull off an upset. Just look at the 2011 Orange Wave in Quebec when Jack Layton’s NDP swept across the province to collect 58 seats in the federal election, helping his party become the Official Opposition. Many of those Quebec seats were won by women.
Credit should also go to the New Brunswick Liberals who had close to 40 per cent women candidates — the highest level ever reached by the party — and the Progressive Conservatives who hit almost 30 per cent. Liberal Premier Brian Gallant says his party got to 50 per cent in ridings without incumbent candidates, but it will take time to get to that target overall.
Other Atlantic provinces are well-advised to follow New Brunswick’s lead. In Newfoundland and Labrador’s House of Assembly, nine of 40 members are women, with one vacant seat held last by a woman (25 per cent total); in P.E.I., five of 27 MLAS are women (19 per cent); while Nova Scotia showed an improvement in last year’s election when 17 of 51 women were elected (33 per cent). They are telling statistics.
Despite the N.S. improvement, Joanne Bernard, the minister for the Status of Women — who lost her seat — had some sobering parting comments. She said she won’t miss the challenges of being a female politician, including “everything from misogyny and homophobia and fat-shaming… bullying… the death threats and the stress that it caused on my family.”
Overall in New Brunswick, 93 of 241 candidates in the 49 ridings are women, for 38.5 per cent.
It will be interesting to see how many women win seats Sept. 24 and if this new emphasis on gender equality actually pays dividends.