Woman and Politics

Not fitted to the role

By Jackie Flanagan

Last November Sandra Jansen and Donna Kennedy-Glans, the only women running for the Alberta PC leadership, dropped out of the race. Jansen said she had been vilely harassed and she crossed the floor to join the NDP. She was targeted by sexist online attacks and she shocked MLAs by reading them aloud in the legislature before calling for a stand against misogyny.

In December at a rally in front of the Alberta legislature organized by Ezra Levant, the crowd reacted to comments about Rachel Notley by chanting, “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

In January the Alberta PC board suspended Alan Hallman’s membership in the party for a year for his offensive tweets. Board member Kim Krushell made the motion and then-party president Katherine O’Neill executed it. “By mid-week,” the Edmonton Journal reported, “both Krushell and O’Neill were dealing with a vicious, misogynist blow-back, the virulence of which has left both women, who are no strangers to the rough-and-tumble of politics in Alberta, shaken.” O’Neill resigned in April.

What is the source of the hostility and resistance to women in politics? What deep-seated disturbances underlie our concepts of masculinity and femininity?

Hillary Clinton’s run for president of the most powerful country in the world provoked more than usual controversy about the role of women in politics. Americans were agog at the possibility of her shattering their last glass ceiling—though India had a woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, as early as 1966; Israel, Golda Meir, from 1969 and Britain, Margaret Thatcher, from 1979. Canada too had a woman prime minister—Kim Campbell, though ever so briefly in 1993. Women lead the government in many countries: Theresa May (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile), to name only a few.

But in some minds, connecting “woman” with power creates dissonance. How could such a powerful country as the US be led by a woman? During the campaign last summer, popular Christian radio host Bryan Fischer, an influence on Republican policy, drew his arguments from the Bible: “The kings were all males, when you had a departure from that with Jezebel and Athaliah, it was not a good thing, it did not work out well. Leadership in the church is reserved for men, leadership in the home is reserved for men. In other words, in God’s economy, he has designed leadership and authority in society and in the church and in the home to be exercised by men… I don’t believe that women should be entrusted with high political office.”

Fischer’s convictions align with a certain kind of upbringing. Political commentators and analysts don’t usually talk about family formation, archetypes, symbols and how language works. But given objections such as Fischer’s, linguist George Lakoff says “it is imperative to bring these considerations into public political discourse.”

What is the source of the hostility and resistance to women in politics? What deep-seated disturbances underlie our concepts of masculinity and femininity?

According to Lakoff political attitudes are shaped by the moral worldviews of two forms of family: “nurturant” and “strict father,” each with differing attitudes toward women. In the nurturant family, the mother and father are equal. The primary motivator of behaviour is affection. The strict-father family is hierarchical. The primary motivator of behaviour is fear of punishment and desire for approval. Lakoff says: “In the strict-father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says.”

A man convinced of his moral superiority is outraged at the thought of a woman in a position of power over him. “There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict-father morality and its moral hierarchy,” says Lakoff. “Many of them are poor or middle class and many are white men who see themselves as superior to immigrants, nonwhites, women, non-Christians, gays—and people who rely on public assistance. In other words, they are what liberals would call ‘bigots.’ ”

The strict father is an authoritarian. Sociologist Stanley Feldman developed a way to measure authoritarianism with four questions that seem to be about parenting:

1. Is it more important for a child to have independence or respect for elders?
2. to have self-reliance or obedience?
3. to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
4. to have curiosity or good manners?

Since 1992 the National Election Study, a large survey of US voters conducted in each national election year, has included these four questions to measure authoritarianism and assess how it aligns with demographic profiles and policy preferences. According to political scientists, people who score high in authoritarianism want a leader to impose order on a world they perceive as threatening, and to take any action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear. In a dangerous situation people would rather have someone vicious in charge than someone loving.

This may partly explain Trump’s victory and also the vitriol directed at women in politics in Alberta. For those who believe that God is male and the events in the Bible literally happened, the very order of the universe is threatened by the rise of women.

Yet rise women have. I have experienced the upheaval in my own life.

I was born and raised in Alberta, a place of paradox for a woman. In the male-dominated culture of the oil industry—and before that, ranching—we were told that here “men are men and women are glad of it,” whether we were glad of it or not. When I was growing up in Bowness in the ’50s, it was taken for granted that a man had a right to beat his wife. Yet Alberta was the first place in the British Empire to appoint a woman judge. After women won the right to vote in 1916, Albertans Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams became the first women in the British Empire to be elected to a legislature.

My mother, who was often the sole breadwinner in our family, was not eligible as a woman for a mortgage. My father owned our house though my mother made the payments. Men had the prerogative to go to the bar and cut loose, women never. Women were 100 per cent responsible for the children. We were Catholic. Women were not allowed on the altar except to clean it. God was male and all His representatives on earth had to be male. Women didn’t qualify. The possibilities for women seemed rather bleak.

But we did subscribe to Chatelaine magazine, and Doris Anderson was the editor. She was an Albertan, born in Medicine Hat like my dad, and a graduate of U of A. I started absorbing her ideas from around the age of 12. Doris was using Chatelaine to fight for the equality of men and women, to challenge the male dominance in Parliament and to expose women’s poverty. She increased the circulation of the magazine from 480,000 when she became editor in 1957 to 1.8 million by the late 1960s, making it the most profitable Maclean-Hunter publication. Still, her salary was $23,000 while Charles Templeton, editor at Maclean’s, made $53,000.

Anderson resigned as president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women in 1981 during the repatriation of our Constitution to protest the federal government’s reluctance to explicitly affirm women’s equality. Her action sparked an outcry—the catalyst of a movement to amend the Canadian Charter. Because of this, our Charter explicitly identifies men and women as equal under the law.

For me it’s significant that Anderson was raised by a single parent—her mother, who kept a boarding house to support them. She had a female model of independence and strength. My brothers and I too were raised in a single-parent family by my mother after she left my dad. Family structure and the roles played by men and women within the family certainly affect how we see our own possibilities, as well as our political attitudes.

Around the time I was graduating from Grade 12 in the mid ’60s, I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a critique of the conventional role of women as housewives. Friedan argued that what was thought of as femininity was really immaturity. For women to achieve full human identity required them to develop their mental capacity, find meaningful work and be capable of self-reliance.

I decided I wanted full human identity and I was going to live my life the way a man lived his. I chose to go to university, to do work that was important to me and to make my own money. I determined to be independent and to make my own decisions.

Women were denied access to the professions—prevented from attending law or medical school—until the early 20th century, but even after regulations changed it took a long time for broad societal change. As John Stuart Mill remarks in his essay “On Liberty,” nothing oppresses us more than our customs.

Originally I had planned to study law, but after I got my first degree and interviewed for law school, the dean discouraged me. “It will be very difficult for you to find an articling position,” he said. “Law firms don’t want to take any chances on women getting pregnant.” At that time (1967) 97 per cent of lawyers were men. A survey of Toronto law firms found that 40 per cent of the firms openly admitted to a prejudiced attitude toward women applicants.

Before the pill—reliable birth control—biology was destiny for many women. The pill had been available in Canada since 1957 but could be prescribed legally only for purposes other than birth control (i.e., menstrual irregularity, menstrual cycle control). It wasn’t until 1969 that contraception was decriminalized.

So, rather than law, I went to graduate school and studied literature. Essentially it meant learning to read—which was fortunate for me. I discovered Joseph Campbell’s keys to Finnegan’s Wake and then his work on myth. Campbell’s study of world mythology reveals universal patterns and recurring motifs, for example, of virgin birth and death of the innocent. I learned how to understand events in sacred texts not as historical facts, but as metaphorical representations of spiritual realities. Also useful was the discovery that civilizations preceding the Judeo-Christian era conceived of their all-powerful divinity as female: Phoenician Astarte, Egyptian Isis, Babylonian Ishtar. The more profound view was that God is neither man nor woman, of course, but quite beyond gender.

For those who believe that God is male and the events in the Bible literally happened, the very order of the universe is threatened by the rise of women.

This was my liberation as a woman, enabling me to break free of the male dominant “mind-forg’d manacles” without losing the essence of my faith. I completed two more degrees and began my career teaching literature. When I married I kept my own name (controversial at the time—Maureen McTeer caused a scandal when she didn’t take Joe Clark’s name in 1973). I worked as an English instructor at Mount Royal College. I could choose not to have children because of the recent availability of the birth control pill.

Over my lifetime many opportunities have opened up for women in law, medicine, engineering, the military, senior management and politics. Today around 40 per cent of lawyers are women, and women make up half the student body at many law schools. Universities today graduate more women than men. In 2014 several women moved into prominent positions traditionally held by men. Libby Lane became the first female Church of England bishop, Mary Barra the first female CEO of General Motors and Michelle J. Howard of the US Navy the first female four-star admiral. Three provinces—Ontario, BC and Alberta—are led by women: Kathleen Wynne, Christy Clark and Rachel Notley.

In 2015 Justin Trudeau appointed women to half his cabinet positions. In Alberta half the NDP caucus are women and, as in the federal government, half the provincial cabinet positions are held by women, two appointed when pregnant. Stephanie McLean, minister in the new portfolio for Status of Women, is Canada’s second cabinet minister to deliver a child while in office. (Christy Clark was BC’s Minister of Education when her son was born in 2001. Pauline Marois, elected to the Quebec National Assembly in 1981, was appointed Minister for the Status of Women a week after her second child was born.) McLean assumed the job mere days before she gave birth, and brought weeks-old baby Patrick strapped to her body for the spring 2016 session of the legislature. This is a credit to McLean’s strength and courage, and a triumph for women in overthrowing another limitation, another false idea of what a woman can and cannot do.

Nonetheless, remembering my exhaustion after the birth of my first child, I had a visceral reaction to the sight of a newly delivered mother and infant standing to speak in the legislative assembly.

Was this really the intended aim of the long struggle for the rights of women?

In conventional thinking within our culture, masculinity and femininity are taken to be opposites: strong, aggressive and dominant versus vulnerable, receptive and submissive.

The terms “Man” and “Woman” can be seen as archetypes: Woman is the nurturer, staying put in the home tending the hearth, concerned with domestic matters and the private, personal and emotional. Man is the provider, going out to hunt or work or speak in the forum, concerned with public matters and the civic, critical and analytical.

However in other societies the qualities associated with males and females are quite different. Margaret Mead found that the Tchambuli woman was dominant and the man dependent, the Mundugumor woman was violent and aggressive and the Arapesh man was nurturing and gentle. Mead concluded that “many, if not all, of the personality traits which we have called masculine and feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of headdress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.”

“Woman” as gentle nurturer and “Man” as strong leader are symbols of forces in our own psyches or unconscious minds perhaps derived at a prelinguistic age from the characteristics of our original caretakers. The archetypes Woman and Man do not refer to flesh and blood human beings. Actual living human beings share the full range of human characteristics from strength and aggression to kindness and submission, whether they are male or female. The differences in intelligence, say, between any two men or any two women are much greater than the differences between men and women. That is, intrasex variation is greater than intersex variation.

As we differentiate mythical events from historical facts, so we distinguish archetypes of Woman and Man from living human beings who manifest on a full gender continuum. A human being, whether male or female, has the potential for a range of qualities from tough to tender, nurturing to independent. And individuals become more whole by developing both the so-called male and female sides of themselves—from emotional and critical intelligence to the capacity to be strong and vulnerable.

Flesh and blood women, knowing they had full human capacities, pushed to break free of the constraints of the Woman archetype. They fought for the right to vote and to hold public office, to attend university, to qualify for every job. They wanted to do everything that a man does. And why not.

Unfortunately our institutions—parliaments, the church, the military, the courts, corporations—were created by men for men. Man-made institutions are hierarchical, adversarial and polarizing. In parliamentary debate it is the right argument versus the wrong; in the church, good versus evil; in the courts, guilt versus innocence; in the corporate world, success versus failure; and in the military, allies against enemies. In a debate, a trial or a war, there is always a winner and a loser.

Over my lifetime, as opportunities opened up, women made themselves interchangeable with men. They twisted themselves out of shape to fit into a man’s world. But what does gender equality really mean? Not sameness. The word “equal” does not mean “identical.” Equality can affirm the equal value of both men and women and still recognize differences between them. Gender is not entirely a social construct: females everywhere conceive and bear children while men do not. Our institutions do not recognize that men have families. Until recently, the assumption in the world of work seemed to be that a man’s responsibility for raising his children was fulfilled by his financial contribution without his having to spend any actual time with them. When women entered the workforce the same assumption was made about them. But for women child-rearing is not so easily left behind.

The advancement of society may not be a matter of women fitting into male institutions, but rather of institutions transforming to accommodate not just women but parents—mothers and fathers alike. Work schedules for both men and women could be restructured more flexibly to accommodate childcare and family life. Minister McLean had to bring her baby to the legislature because MLAs are not eligible for maternity leave. The greater triumph for women might have been for her to have been able to go on maternity leave.

There came a time when I felt I had sacrificed some part of myself to live my life the way a man lived his. I had accommodated to the world as it was. The better world is not one where women become like men, but where the entire system changes to accommodate differences. Where people regardless of their gender are able to participate and contribute as who they are, out of their own lived experience. 

Jackie Flanagan was born in Calgary and grew up in Bowness. She is the founding editor of Alberta Views.


Listening in a Time of Pandemic

I was in Spain when the world went sideways. I was visiting one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1218, the University of Salamanca. It sits atop a hillside on the river Tormes, about an hour and a half from Madrid if you take the fast train. (All of ...

Crowfoot Comes Home

Herman Yellow Old Woman was asleep in his home on the Siksika reserve east of Calgary on April 7, 2020, when the phone started ringing at 5:30 a.m. It was Alison Brown, a professor of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She told Yellow Old Woman that Exeter City Council ...

Closing Doors

No one likes having a door slammed in her face. But talking to dead people’s relatives is part of my job as a newspaper journalist. It is a skin-thickening, awkward task and I don’t relish it, but I don’t refuse it, either. I ignore the urge to back off. I ...