In Doing Politics Differently? Sylvia Bashevkin offers readers a thoughtfully curated collection focused on Canada’s first 11 women premiers. Presenting the first systematic assessment of Canadian female political executives, the book traces their impacts on equality and diversity in our political landscape. It’s a compelling examination.
Addressing the scarcity of research on female leaders and their influence, this edited collection gathers leading political analysts from the nine provinces and territories that have elected women premiers, including chapters on Rachel Notley and Alison Redford. While these premiers wielded more influence than legislators, Bashevkin argues they also faced systemic challenges limiting their ability to improve diversity and equality in recruitment and policy, or the tone of politics.
Clark Banack’s analysis of the Redford premiership is insightful and engaging, drawing on detailed research and interviews with political insiders. He challenges conventional narratives of Redford’s fall, including perceptions of Redford as a deeply flawed feminist deserving of her fate. Instead, he presents a more complex case, drawing on Alberta’s political climate, internal party politics and the role of gender in her 2014 resignation. Banack explains that while the number of women elected under Redford’s leadership increased, there is little evidence it was due to conscious initiatives. Instead, he credits the increase to more women candidates emboldened by Alberta’s first female premier and motivated to combat the far-right policies of the Wildrose Party. With respect to policy, while Redford opened avenues for equality initiatives and family issues, Banack points to limited progress on these files and the absence of any sustained equality or diversity agenda. The climate of political debate degenerated under Redford’s leadership. Facing weak support from within the PC caucus and a hostile party executive, she was seen as reacting with defensiveness, anger and distrust, alienating potential allies. Interestingly, though, the reaction against her was described by insiders as excessive and compounded by discomfort with female leadership. Banack’s analysis is nuanced, exposing shadowy political dynamics, concluding that gender—while a factor—was only one dimension of Redford’s demise.
Melanee Thomas’s exhaustively researched analysis of Rachel Notley’s premiership is intriguing and enlightening. Analysts have long suggested that a critical mass of female legislators will make a difference in politics, but this book and Thomas’s chapter explore the impact of critical individual actors. Thomas explains how Notley promoted diversity and equality in appointments, including electoral candidates, cabinet ministers and senior public servants. Hers was Alberta’s first gender parity cabinet, and she appointed women to high-prestige portfolios, including Health, Energy and Justice.
Thomas also details a policy agenda focused on promoting equality, including the creation of a status of women department staffed by existing civil servants. Asking what would happen if a subsequent government closed or folded the new ministry into another, as the Kenney government has since done, Thomas suggests that the growth in knowledge and capacity within the public service would endure. As for impact on the tone of political discussion, Thomas notes that while the prevalence of equality issues in the public debate increased, the tenor of political discourse worsened. This trend will be familiar to many, but Thomas’s chronicle of overt sexism in the legislature and on social media is jarring.
Overall, Bashevkin’s collection explores an important issue from a new perspective, challenging readers to consider our progress on equality in the political sphere as well as what merits further research and in some cases censure.
—Lori Williams is an associate professor at Mount Royal University.