Is 2019 the year of women in politics?
by Caroline O’Neill
The Jacob K. Javits Centre in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen was supposed to be the perfect setting. The glittering, glass building, taking up almost 2 million square feet was going to be home to history, and throngs had turned out to watch that moment. The highest, hardest glass ceiling in America was going to be shattered when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won a contentious election to become the 45th president of the United States.
Instead angry protestors took to the streets, Donald Trump accepted his win and Clinton donned a purple pantsuit urging young girls to, “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
A large segment of American women were devastated by the outcome of the 2016 election, and women in other countries were also grappling with the implications. Ally Freedman, who serves as an Indigenous member of the Ottawa Youth Engagement Committee, had woken up on November 8 excited to watch Hillary Clinton win. She went to downtown Ottawa to watch the returns at a Democrats Abroad event, wearing a t-shirt she made that said, “Team Hillary.” As more and more states turned red, she decided to leave the bar, to be at home when the results came in.
Freedman wasn’t the only one taking in the American election. Women around the world had been watching ever since Clinton had announced her presidential bid in 2015. They watched her testify for over eight hours at the Benghazi hearings. They watched her accept the Democratic nomination. They watched her debate Donald Trump. Then they watched her sit in the audience as the 45th president was sworn in.
The Canadian political landscape looked different. Justin Trudeau had been elected prime minister the year before, bringing gender parity to cabinet on Parliament Hill. Across the country Kathleen Wynne, Rachel Notley and Christy Clark were leading the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Women were seen leading the charge on high profile issues like foreign affairs, justice and climate change.
Today, Canada has just one female premier, Alberta’s Rachel Notley, but that could change after voters head to the polls later this year. Kim Campbell is the only female prime minister in the country’s history and Canada has had just one female speaker of the House of Commons, Jean Sauvé.
A 2015 article in the American Journal of Political Science found women are often more reluctant than men to enter political arenas. Doubting their professional skills, fear of backlash and watching other women try and fail all impact decisions to run. Vanderblit University Professor Amanda Clayton says in fact women inspiration and anger encourage women to enter politics. They are often either inspired by someone they connect to who was successful or a perceived injustice encourages them to challenge the status quo.
American clearly desired to shake up the status quo in 2016. They marched straight from the streets into the house, making history along the way with 112 American women winning victories in the 2018 midterms, including the first two Indigenous women to serve in Congress. Beyond the women who now make decisions in Congress and Senate, historic numbers of women ran campaigns. 50 black women ran for Congress, 12 women ran for governor of states like Georgia and 476 women ran in Democratic and Republican primaries. Amanda Kingsley Malo, the founder of PoliticsNOW, an Ontario based NGO that teaches women to run for municipal politics calls what happens across the border a reflection of what happens in Canada.
Canada’s 2015 federal election saw 535 women run for office, making up about a third of candidates. Eighty-eight of those women won a seat in office. With Canada heading towards a federal election this October, a new dynamic will be in play. Certainly, the shadow of the American election may encourage or discourage some women from running but this will also be a country living in the wake of the SNC Lavalin scandal. The scandal saw former attorney general and first Indigenous woman to hold the title, Jody Wilson-Raybould resign from cabinet. Her resignation had many questioning Justin Trudeau’s commitment to both feminism and reconciliation, to issues that defined his early days in office. A legacy of his gender par cabinet will see female incumbents having held large portfolios. A number of male Members of Parliament have made the decision not to seek reelection, including the NDP’s Murray Rankin, Nathan Cullen and the Liberal’s Don Rusnak. Not having to run against an established incumbent could encourage more women of all political stripes to take the chance.
Dr. Jill Andrew, a prominent Toronto activist, journalist and educator, recalls someone first mentioning she should run for office when she was just 21 years old. When she did finally run for Ontario’s provincial legislature in 2018 she had a PhD and negative experiences in the medical system that she believes were firmly rooted in classism and racism.
“It had been one of those grand ideas in my mind for many years,” she said. “But like many of our grand ideas, it’s something we think will come in due time.” Toward the end of 2016, while America was beginning to accept Donald Trump would be sworn in come January, Andrew got sick. Shocked by medical treatment that she thinks was rooted in classism and racism, Andrew said she wondered what experiences others were having in the medical system. She called this her catalyst.
“You have to be at the table in order to make changes,” she said. “It’s one thing to be someone who things happen to, it's another thing to be a person who is part of making things happen and that’s what I wanted to do.” She ran for the NDP and won a seat in Toronto-St.Paul’s, a typically Liberal stronghold. With no incumbent in the riding she beat Liberal Jess Spindler with a little over a thousand votes.
If the Ontario election is any indication for what could be coming in October, the country could see a slight increase of female representation. 49 women in Ontario headed to Queen’s Park last June, making up 39.5 percent of politicians compared to 35 per cent before voters went to the polls. Where Canada could deviate from the US could be the representation of numerous political parties. While the so-called Hillary effect impacted far more Democratic woman than Republicans, Ontario women increased their participation in the Conservative and NDP parties.
Jenna Sudds, the city councillor for Ottawa’s Kanata North ward, says the impact of the 2016 American election was minimal on her and her decision to run in a municipal election two years later. “I think it's fair to say many women in general were hoping for a different outcome but I personally find Canadian politics much more compelling,” Sudds said.
She had been contemplating running for only a couple years before the election last fall. Sudds had been an economist in the federal government for over a decade, a job she had envisioned since she was young. Sudds eventually left the federal government to become the founding executive director of the Kanata North Business Improvement Association. Before taking the position, she had been an active volunteer in Kanata. Her involvement would encourage her to make the jump from the federal government. Kanata North is home to Ottawa’s tech park that Sudds says fosters inspiring career options.
Politics and tech sectors are both known for being historically unwelcoming of women. Sudds wants to change that.
“Women are still the minority,” Sudds said. “I think of all the businesses I would visit in the Kanata North technology park, as much as there’s aspiration for more diversity and more representation among females, it’s not there yet and the same can be said, I think in politics in Canada.” Sudds cited Mitel and Erickson as two companies that she sees putting in the work to diversify their hires and celebrate women in their offices.
Sudds marked her first women’s day in Ottawa City Hall with a mentorship opportunity for five young women from her ward. The mentorship component continues to extend beyond women’s day.
When Ally Freedman was in her taxi hoping to be far away from the bar with election returns, she was just months away from making history in Canada: every single seat in the House of Commons was held by a young woman on International Women’s Day - March 8, 2017. For one day, Parliament was run by young women in wearing hijabs, carrying Eagle feathers and in pantsuits. Freedman wore moccasins to represent her identity as a Metis woman.
“Daughters of the Vote was like getting our power back,” said Freedman. The initiative was put on by Equal Voice, a non-partisan organization working for more female representation in all of Canada’s political parties.
In addition, to taking a seat, and for some women, even speaking in the House of Commons, participants went to workshops, networked and met the politicians whose ridings they represented. Freedman represented Ottawa Centre, Catherine McKenna’s riding.
“Don’t let this man [Donald Trump] stop you or make you fearful of politics,” Freedman said was the message she received from Daughters of the Vote.
For the women who want to throw their hat in the ring, the logistics of running a campaign, let alone one that ends in victory, can be daunting. Campaigns cost money. They need volunteers. They need a unifying message. For women who want to increase those numbers but without running themselves, they have found ways to empower other women to run.
Like Amanda Kingsley Malo, a teacher, who started PoliticsNOW, an Ontario based organization, to clear those roadblocks. She had watched the 2016 American presidential election results and then went to teach a class of tweens who were confused by what happened. She decided she could sit at home and wallow or she could get to work.
“I can’t watch women be subjected to this type of abuse anymore,” said Kingsley Malo. “I can run, or I can teach twenty women to run—that’s much better odds.” PoliticsNOW trains women in northern Ontario to run in municipal elections. The organization’s vision is equal representation in all northern Ontario municipalities.
When Malo started offering free webinars she was surprised to see women logging in from not just Ontario. Women from across the country and even the United States were looking for resources to launch their own campaigns. All of those webinars are still available online for free.
“We need to change what being a politician looks like,” she said. “Why aren’t they the people that are running our communities the way that women do?”
Women like Sudds, who got her first taste of community action when she joined the Kanata Food Cupboard’s board of directors. Women like Dr. Jill Andrew, who saw the intersection of racism and sexism play out in a tense election but is now Ontario’s culture critic. And young women like Ally Freedman who will be our country's future premiers, speakers of the house, and yes, prime ministers.
The road to any one of those positions can look a lot like Hillary Clinton’s journey. For other women it will be compounded by racism or homophobia, but all of the women who ran said campaigns were experiences of a lifetime.
Andrew wants any young woman considering running for office to know: “Your time is now.”
Caroline O'Neill is an Ottawa based morning reporter with Aboriginal Peoples Television Network's radio station, ELMNT FM. She is a graduate from Carleton University's School of Journalism and holds a degree in human rights. Caroline has also worked in Washington, D.C., Sri Lanka and Toronto.