Cabinet ministers, MPs spar over who gets to call themselves a feminist

Some Liberal cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs are sparring over who gets to call themselves a feminist.

Debate erupted after Conservative MP said Liberals act like they 'own the definition of feminism'

Conservative MP Rachael Harder sparked a debate on Twitter after she accused the Liberals of trying to control the definition of feminism. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Some Liberal cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs are sparring over who gets to call themselves a feminist.

After a profile piece on Alberta MP Rachael Harder was published in the Globe and Mail, including comments from her suggesting the Liberals act like they "own the definition of feminism," two female members of cabinet took to Twitter to defend their party.

Federal employment minister Patty Hajdu called out the Conservative MP for her anti-abortion views, calling her comments a failure to understand that a woman's reproductive choices are core to feminism.

CBC Radio's The House spoke to both members of Parliament to ask what they each considered an appropriate definition of feminism.

Both said equality is at the centre, but they disagreed on the specifics.

"I think at the very core of feminism is the idea and the understanding that women and men are equal and I certainly agree to that," Harder said.

"I think feminism fundamentally is a belief in equal rights," Hajdu explained, then repeated the sentiments expressed on Twitter when asked if she considered Harder to be a feminist.

"If you don't believe and if you're not fighting for the equal opportunity of women that includes reproductive freedom, I don't believe that meets the definition of feminism no matter what stripe you are," she said.

Harder said Hajdu's answer sounded like "the words of a bully," and she accused the minister of "trying to define who is in the club and who is out of the club and somehow she gets to be the one that gets to preside over this list."

The comments from cabinet were picked up on social media by her caucus colleague Michelle Rempel after Maryam Monsef, minister for the status of women, retorted that, contrary to Harder's statement, there was no Liberal definition of feminism.

Rempel shot back at Monsef, asking her if she had the "courage" to confront the prime minister about an 18-year-old groping allegation, concluding the tweet telling her to "grow a pair."

When asked about the simmering feud on Twitter, Harder said it's important to remember to be considerate of each others — despite gender or political stripes.

"I think as members of Parliament we need to treat one another with the utmost level of respect," she said. "Unfortunately, that is not always the case in the House of Commons."

Hiring quotas: helpful or harmful?

It's not just the abortion debate drawing attention to Harder's comments.

She told the Globe and Mail she thinks it's wrong for the government to push more women to enter STEM fields and that promoting women to fill a quota, an idea floated last year by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, is ineffective. 

The Liberals have been funding programs aimed to support girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math sectors, as they are mostly male-dominated fields.

It's been unfolding all week on social media. Federal cabinet ministers sparring with Conservative MPs about the exact meaning of the word 'feminist'. Can you be a feminist and oppose abortion, for example? Cabinet Minister Patty Hajdu says no way. Hajdu called out MP Rachael Harder on Twitter for her views on the topic, after a Harder told The Globe and Mail the Liberals act like they "own the definition of feminism." Rachael Harder joins us. 6:54

However, keeping women in those industries is presenting a challenge.

According to the Society of Women Engineers, more than 20 per cent of engineering graduates are women, but only 11 per cent are practising engineers, with many of them saying they were treated poorly in the workplace.

The last two federal budgets have referenced initiatives to get women into these industries, but studies show the stereotypes are still a barrier.

A new survey from the not-for-profit STEM Camp showed the biggest reason why young girls don't pursue those jobs is because they perceive those industries as being more for boys. The survey also found one in four girls said they thought STEM fields offered few career opportunities for women. 

Harder says that's a weakness with the proposal for gender hiring quotas. 

The idea of quotas are "well meaning," she said, but she worries women may be concerned they're at the table simply because they're women and not because of their credentials.

"It actually can result in women being treated lesser than the men at the table. That's a problem."

Hajdu agreed quotas can be a bad thing if done improperly, and that's why careful calculations must be done before imposing them.  

It's been unfolding all week on social media. Federal cabinet ministers sparring with Conservative MPs about the exact meaning of the word 'feminist'. Can you be a feminist and oppose abortion, for example? Cabinet Minister Patty Hajdu says no way. Hajdu called out MP Rachael Harder on Twitter for her views on the topic, after a Harder told The Globe and Mail the Liberals act like they "own the definition of feminism." Patty Hajdu joins us. 9:00