Ontario Liberal leader candidates take on Old Boys club

The two front-runners for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party are women, and while that shouldn't be news in 2012, it is.

Women have often faced a hostile climate in the legislature

The battle lines are now clearer in the Ontario Liberal leadership race, and women are included in the top tier of candidates.

Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne could end up fighting this one out at Ryerson University's new athletic centre in the old Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto during the leadership convention in late January.

They'll be facing off against the likes of erstwhile cabinet ministers Charles SousaEric HoskinsGerard Kennedy and Glen Murray — and perhaps Minister of Government Services Harinder Takhar — all who may well end up using the race to set themselves up for an improved cabinet spot in a Pupatello or Wynne administration.

The fact that two women are in the running for that corner office on the second floor at Queen's Park currently occupied by departing Premier Dalton McGuinty should not be an issue in 2012 or 2013.

But it is, because the legislature has been — and in large measure continues to be — an Old Boys club, where some still think that women in politics ought to be making sandwiches for the campaign, while the men make all the decisions that matter.

Gender among legislature insiders matters

Sandra Pupatello, a former Liberal cabiniet minister who decided not to seek re-election in last year's election, now wants to lead the party. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

It wasn’t so long ago that the Liberals elected a female leader in Lyn McLeod, in 1992, who lost her first and only election in 1995. McLeod’s gender was an issue — though perhaps not so much for the electorate as it was for her own party.

Her central campaign staff in that election will clearly remember the Liberal candidates who called to say: "Keep the leader out of my riding."

The reason? Many of these men didn’t want to acknowledge that they "reported" to a woman or, as some candidates themselves told me privately, "a skirt."

McLeod was by no means the only female party leader back then. Audrey McLaughlin had been leader of the federal NDP for a few years already, Conservative Kim Campbell was about to become a Canadian prime minister — albeit one who lasted only four months — and there were several women running provincial parties in varying states of disarray.

Ontario, though, was something of a special case, as Hamilton MPP Sheila Copps had already discovered in the 1980s.

The young and brash debater faced a daily barrage from the under-occupied Conservative backbench of the day, who amused themselves by sending cutout pictures of the Toronto Sun’s "Sunshine Girl" to her desk in an envelope.

Copps herself told me for my unpublished master’s thesis for Ottawa's Carleton University on women in politics that these photos invariably came across the floor with the model’s breasts circled and the caption: "Are yours this big?"

Horwath faced questions from her own party

More recently, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath faced questions from inside her male-dominated caucus about her ability to lead. Those issues, however, have subsided since her strong showing in last year's general election.

Kathleen Wynne was the second person to declare an intention to run for the Liberal leadership after Glen Murray. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, it took a group of female Liberal cabinet ministers, including Wynne, to stand up to other Liberal MPPs to insist they stop catcalls sent Horwath's way and treat her with the respect she was due as an MPP and party leader.

Wynne herself was told by Progressive Conservative MPP Garfield Dunlop during a May 16 question period to "calm down, lady!" She asked for an apology. It was never given.

When I first began covering Ontario politics in the 1980s, there were only six female MPPs in a parliament of 125 seats. There are now 30 women in a parliament of 107 members.

There are also four serving women premiers at the moment, in three of the four biggest provinces – Quebec, Alberta and B.C. The Alberta race, in fact, was essentially a contest between two parties, both led by women.

But it is probably going to take a woman in the premier's office to once and for all close down the culture of the Old Boys club.

That change — long overdue in the view of many people — may begin in January.

But with slumping popularity, the Liberals and their new female premier — should that be the case — may find themselves looking for new offices at Queen’s Park after what is expected to be a spring election.