Despite local achievements, women in politics still face challenges

Elizabeth May helped form a new all-party women’s caucus to tackle some of the issues facing women in politics.

  • Dec. 31, 2011 3:00 p.m.

When Christy Clark became Premier on March 14, it marked the first time in 20 years that B.C. has been led by a woman. Mere months later, another woman made history by becoming became the first Green Party candidate elected as a member of parliament. And then there’s the fact four of the seven MLAs on the South Island are women.

However, before declaring a golden age for women in politics, Saanich-Gulf Islands MP and Green Party leader Elizabeth May says the hard work is just beginning.

When May was elected to the House of Commons on May 2, she began contacting other female members and soon helped form a new all-party women’s caucus to tackle some of the issues facing women in politics.

The group, led by New Democrat Francois Boivin and Conservatives Nancy Ruth and Rona Ambrose, includes every woman member of the senate. The aim is to discuss challenges in a non-partisan light.

“I’ve exchanged horror stories with other women who have experienced similar things,” May said, singling out comments about weight and fashion that female politicians must constantly deal with. “I’m hoping political culture can change.”

Janni Aragon, a professor of political science specializing in gender politics at the University of Victoria, calls May a voice of reason.

“I think it’s a little early to say that she’s some kind of harbinger of hope for all female elected officials,” Aragon said. “If anything, what we’ve witnessed here is that she was able to effectively run a campaign in a new riding and win. I don’t think that speaks so much to her gender as to the politics of the day. People were so unhappy with the previous MP, Gary Lunn.”

Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James, who was ousted from her position as provincial leader of the NDP in late 2010 as a result of party infighting, says it is getting better for women in politics.

Despite the personal insults and heckling, the atmosphere in what is still a mainly male-dominated environment has improved over the seven years James served as opposition leader, she said.

“We still have a long way to go for women in politics and I don’t think that’s unique to British Columbia; I think that’s common across the country,” James said. “There are many women, myself included, who believe in doing politics differently.”

When James was vocal about her desire to lessen the hostile environment at the legislature, she felt she was regarded as weak or unable to keep up with the cut and thrust of the political games, she said.

By retaining her position as MLA despite the public scrutiny she endured, James hopes to set an example to other women and contribute to a positive change in the political scene.

“I certainly wouldn’t say that it’s all related to gender,” James said.

“The more that we’re able to elect people – women, young people, folks from the multicultural community, people who do politics in another kind of way and get more diverse faces in the system – that’s how I believe we’ll be able to make the change.”

May remains hopeful that the women’s caucus will gain momentum and more females – especially young women – will strive to be political stars, rather than playing supporting roles.

“We’ve got a sense that maybe things are coming together,” May said.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

Women in Politics

Local Members of the Legislative Assembly

•  Carole James, Victoria-Beacon Hill

• Maurine Karagianis, Esquimalt-Royal Roads

• Lana Popham, Saanich South

• Ida Chong, Oak Bay-Gordon Head

Local Members of Parliament:

• Elizabeth May, Saanich-Gulf Islands

• Denise Savoie, Victoria

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