Inside Politics

The Year of the Woman (in provincial politics, anyway)

Kathy Dunderdale is the first elected female provincial premier in Canada since 1993 -- something to celebrate for sure, but you can't help wondering: How did 18 years go by, and the millenium turn over, and feminism enter its sixth decade and, somehow, women were shut out of premiers' jobs all that time?

After last week's election in Newfoundland and Labrador, Dunderdale said, "I dreamed of the day we would have a female premier. I never dreamed it would be me."

You have to go back to 1993 for the last time a woman headed a province - that was when now Senator Catherine Callbeck of P.E.I. became the first woman elected premier in Canada's history.

Callbeck says she didn't feel isolated as the sole woman leading a province; she'd already experienced a series of firsts.

"In university, I was the only woman taking Bachelor of Commerce at Mount Alison at the time. I was the only female in my business courses. Then I got into the furniture business and all the manufacturers and representatives that I dealt with would be men. So I sort of got comfortable operating in a man's world."

Callbeck isn't sure why this year is so singular, with four women premiers (Dunderdale, Alison Redford in Alberta, Christy Clark in B.C. and Eva Aariak in Nunavut). But, she points out, once women manage to get nominated, the public is quite willing to vote for them.

And, she adds, "(In) provincial politics, you're much closer to the people, there's no question about that."

Of all the provinces, Alberta is now leading the way. If it so happens that Alison Redford becomes the first Conservative leader not to be elected in Alberta in 40 years, her closest competition is likely Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Alliance party.

Smith, 40, thinks there's been a bit of a generational shift.

"If I look at my mother's generation, they were the ones who paved the way for us, for the young women moving up."

She remembers observing U.S. politics and watching the breakthrough of women like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. When she was younger, watching television, she was a bit miffed by the spectacle of all-male premiers' conferences, year after year.

"I do remember those first ministers' conferences where you would see those guys in golf shirts, and it was all sort of paunchy middle-aged white guys, and I thought, there needs to be a little diversity in that group."

Smith has her own theories about why women are coming to the fore right now. Women, like it or not, she says, often have more responsibilities for young children and aging parents, and so fixed election dates (which are in her party's platform) help women plan ahead.

She also thinks that one-member one-vote in party leadership races can favour women because, in the past, the party establishment has tended to get behind only men, in the belief that men are more electable.

Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice, an advocacy group that promotes women in politics, agrees.

"When you look at Christy Clark and now Alison Redford, they were regarded as largely non-establishment candidates and they weren't the favoured candidates, but they were able to connect with the members of their parties."

So, is sexism dead? "God, no!" says Peckford.

We're not that far away from the days when, as Catherine Callbeck recalls, "The press would talk about your clothing, the way you talked, your hair and so on."

The furor over Christy Clark's cleavage shows that how women dress is still an issue.

Nevertheless, says Peckford, "Women are breaking though. And I think they're a response to the fatigue out there, to the kind of political culture we've seen."

Tags: leaders, premiers

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