'No room for women': N.S. women in politics talk about sexism and what keeps them going

Ten female politicians will share their experiences at a panel discussion on Thursday night.

10 women representing different levels of government will speak in Sydney Thursday night

Interim PC Leader Karla MacFarlane said she found her physical appearance was constantly under scrutiny after she was elected. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Some of Nova Scotia's most well-known female politicians are speaking out about how sexism affects them on the job and what motivates them to serve the public.

Karla MacFarlane, interim leader of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party, said she encountered sexist attitudes even before she was elected MLA in Pictou-West.

When she was first seeking nomination in her riding in 2012, an elderly male PC supporter walked into her business and asked to speak with her.

"He basically flat out said, 'Look Karla, I know you're a great lady and everything, but there's no room for women in politics.'

"At that point I was still deciding if I was going to throw my name in the hat," she said. "And when that happened, I thought, 'Oh, I'm definitely doing it now!'"

MacFarlane is one of 10 women representing different levels of government — and all relatively new to politics — who will share their personal experiences at an event in Sydney on Thursday night.

"We Rise: Women in Politics" is a panel discussion presented by Cape Breton Voices and Equal Voice Nova Scotia at the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation at 6 p.m.

The federal Liberal government has made equality a focal point of its agenda, introducing a budget last month with money for new parental supports, gender equality and anti-harassment initiatives. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

MacFarlane, 48, said once she was elected, she found her physical appearance was constantly under scrutiny.

"And it was always by men. I'd walk into my local Tim Hortons or [another] coffee shop, and individuals felt they had the privilege to say to me, 'Oh, wow, Karla, this job must be treating you well, you look like you put weight on.' Or, you know, 'Your hair is different.' … So I always find that I'm being judged."

MacFarlane was quick to praise her party's handling of recent allegations of sexual harassment against former PC leader Jamie Baillie.

"The type of thing that has recently happened in our party happens in any profession."

What's important in the context of the current #MeToo movement, she said, is to give women the tools to know how to deal with and resolve instances of harassment.

'Passionate' vs. 'emotional'

Kendra Coombes, a 29-year-old Cape Breton Regional councillor and a co-organizer of the panel, recalls the first time she discussed the role of women in politics with her mother at the age of 11 or 12, after seeing a campaign sign bearing the face of her aunt, Helen MacDonald.

She was informed her aunt, then-leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party, was running for re-election. "And I thought, 'Oh wow!, that is fantastic!'"

MacDonald was equally pleased when, years later, Coombes decided to run for municipal council.

"We discussed how hard it was going to be," said Coombes. "She didn't … discuss her challenges as much.

Cape Breton Regional Coun. Kendra Coombes is one of three women on the municipality's 12-member council. (Holly Conners/CBC)

"She was more encouraging, and said, 'You know you're going to face sexism, but you've faced it before. You know you're going to face condescension, but you've faced it before. It's just going to be in a more high-profile role, rather than sitting in a classroom … or walking down the street.'

"'How you handled it then is how you handle it here: with grace and dignity.'"

Coombes has had occasion to put that advice to the test around the council table. She's one of three women on the 12-member council. By coincidence, the three are also the youngest members of council, and among the newest to the job.

"You hear words like 'emotional,'" said Coombes. "I know a lot of men who get very passionate around this table, but yet they're not 'emotional.' But we are. That is angering. It is infuriating."

Her response has been to call out instances of sexism immediately, which she said most often results in an apologetic phone call afterward. Rather than letting it beat her down, these experiences fuel her fire to continue, said Coombes.

'Natural-born leaders'

While overt sexism has not been part of the story for all panellists, some have faced their own unique challenges.

For Gail Christmas, 30, it was a past struggle with drug and alcohol abuse — and her ability to turn her life around — that made her want to inspire others in her community.

In 2016, she became the youngest woman to be elected to the Membertou band council.

"'Never give up on your dreams' was my slogan," she said. "I wanted all people to be inspired because they knew about my life background and the hardships that I encountered. … And, yes, I was at a very low point in my life, but I've built myself up. And that's what I want to inspire to all people, especially our young people."

Christmas was inspired by her late grandmother, Ruth, who was herself a band councillor and a strong role model in the community.

Gail Christmas is a member of the Membertou band council. (Submitted by Gail Christmas)

"I believe that all women are natural-born leaders. Definitely in our First Nations communities, it's usually our grandmothers that were the first people that we really looked up to."

That said, while there are currently three women on Membertou council, some other First Nations communities have no female representation. "And it's a sad thing to see," said Christmas.

She's not sure why there's not more female representation in First Nations politics, noting her council is very respective and she's never encountered any disrespect in the community.

"The challenges that I encountered, it definitely wasn't gender, but it was my sexuality. I didn't really come out until after the band elections, because I felt if I came out right before the elections, that it might sway voting."

Once she did, she said she felt a weight off her shoulders — and being free to be herself has made her a better role model for others.

The next generation

The desire to inspire the next generation of women is a common theme among the panellists.

Brenda Chisholm-Beaton feels that responsibility as the first female mayor in Cape Breton.

Chisholm-Beaton, 42, was first elected to Port Hawkesbury town council in 2012.

Four years later, she found herself acclaimed as mayor, taking the place of Billy Joe MacLean, who had just retired from a 52-year career in municipal and provincial politics — "a Renaissance man of manly mayors," said Chisholm.

Stepping into those well-worn shoes was intimidating at first, but she was intent to follow her own path.

Brenda Chisholm-Beaton became the first female mayor in Cape Breton in 2016 after taking over the mayoral seat in Port Hawkesbury, N.S. (Submitted by Brenda Chisholm-Beaton)

Part of the motivation to seek the mayor's chair was so that there wouldn't be any barriers to voicing her opinion, she said.

"You're working with a different power dynamic when you are in this kind of a leadership position versus being a councillor," she said. "I think, at some points, I did feel like my voice wasn't being heard as clearly.

"I don't know if I would say that that would all be gender-based.… It could just be the councillor-versus-mayor type of dynamic. But gender-based or not, when I became the mayor, I really wanted to create a more level playing field."

Bringing more female voices — and diverse voices in general — around the table will help create balance at all levels of politics, she said.

Sadie Scott is shown 'playing mayor' in a photo recently captured by her dad. Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton says the photo reminds her that it's 'an incredible gift to be in a position to change the narrative for our young girls' when it comes to women in politics. (Submitted by Shane Scott)

Chisholm-Beaton recently received a photo of a friend's child that put in clear focus the role she and her fellow panellists can play to that end.

The photo showed a young girl sitting at a coffee table covered with papers, said Chisholm.

The attached note from her friend said: "My daughter just proclaimed that she's sitting on her mayor's chair, and she's very hard at work, and she is very excited to help all kinds of people in her community. Do you need an assistant?"


 

About the Author

Holly Conners

Reporter

Holly Conners is a reporter and current affairs producer who has been with CBC Cape Breton for 19 years. Contact her at holly.conners@cbc.ca.