Excerpt: ‘Doing Politics Differently: Women Premiers in Canada's Provinces and Territories’

In her introductory essay, editor Sylvia Bashevkin considers how Canada ranks when it comes to supporting women in political leadership
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Sep 03, 2019

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Comparative and historical perspectives

The remarkable gains made by women as premiers in Canada stand out in bold terms once they are placed in the context of data pertaining to other federal political systems. At the state level in the United States, the most common comparator to Canadian provinces and territories, six of 50 states (12 per cent) had female governors at the time of writing. Peak numbers for American state leaders were reached in 2004 and 2007, when nine of 50 governors, or 18 per cent, were women. This figure ranks well below the Canadian parity level for premiers reached in 2014. Moreover, all American governors held a party affiliation with about 60 per cent Democrats and 40 per cent Republicans (Center for American Women and Politics 2017). This background shows how the numerical density and political diversity of premiers in Canada are both absent in the U.S.

In Germany, a total of five women have at some point headed a state within the federation such that three of the 16 länder executives, or 19 per cent who held office at the time of writing, were women (see Delcker 2016; Dowling 2011). Since 1989, 11 women have at one time or another headed five of Australia’s six states and both of its self-governing territories. The highest number of Australian women premiers at a single moment was three, a peak reached between 1991 and 1992 and again in 2011 (Parliament of Australia 2014; Bramston 2017). Information on subnational government leaders in systems including India, Mexico, and Nigeria reveals a similar pattern whereby men continue to far outnumber women as political executives. As a result, scholars of gender and politics have few subnational leaders to study in other federal states.

It remains clear, however, that the presence of female premiers in half of Canada’s provinces in 2014 came after a long period during which women were far from seats of power. To wit, most women in Quebec were only able to vote in provincial elections beginning in 1944. Indigenous peoples in Canada, including Inuit in the Far North, faced restricted access to voting in general elections until the 1960s.

Moreover, removing formal restrictions on rights did not end informal practices that kept women far from premiers’ offices. Thérèse Casgrain (1972), the first woman in Canada to lead a political party, chose the following title for her memoir: A Woman in a Man’s World. Casgrain headed the Quebec wing of the NDP during an era of conservative nationalism in the 1950s, when the prospects were extremely dim for any social democratic party leader. Although Casgrain’s circumstances were rendered even more challenging by the fact that she was known as a feminist and peace activist, her important contributions to public life were later recognized in an appointment to the Canadian Senate.

In general terms, women who have led provincial parties in Canada tend to more closely resemble Casgrain than the politicians chronicled in this book. Female leaders at the provincial level have typically not held executive office because, like Casgrain, the organizations they headed were weak opposition formations with few (if any) elected legislators and, as a result, little chance of winning power. For the most part, provincial parties that have had more than one woman leader were in a weak, relatively uncompetitive position when those women assumed the top job: the parties were not expected to form the government in the next election, and their women leaders were unlikely to become premier. Examples of women who led their parties during uncompetitive periods include Joy MacPhail and Carole James in the British Columbia NDP, Sharon Carstairs and Ginny Hasselfield in the Manitoba Liberals, Elizabeth Weir and Allison Brewer in the New Brunswick NDP, and Alexa McDonough and Helen MacDonald in the Nova Scotia NDP.

What remains significant about these leaders is that many of them vastly improved the standing of their parties. James, for instance, revived the B.C. NDP such that the party rose from two to 33 legislative seats. In 1988, Carstairs brought the Manitoba Liberal caucus from a sole parliamentarian (herself) to 20 members, thus becoming the first woman in Canada to lead the official opposition in a legislature. By winning her constituency in St. John in 1991, Weir erased a pattern whereby the provincial NDP held no parliamentary seats in New Brunswick. McDonough’s election in a Halifax constituency in 1981 marked the first time the Nova Scotia NDP secured a seat outside Cape Breton Island.

Consistent with this historical background, research indicates party competitiveness is a key correlate of female party leadership in Canada. According to Bashevkin (2010), Canadian women have tended to secure the top position in minor parties that have lower competitive stakes and hence fewer barriers to entry than major parties — defined as those that either hold or seem close to holding power (see also Thomas 2018). The costs of winning a party leadership race, whether measured by dollars invested, numbers of high-profile endorsements, or campaign team size, remain far less in weak opposition than strong governing or likely-to-win organizations (Bashevkin 2010).

Other studies point to left/right explanations of women’s leadership. O’Neill and Stewart’s (2009) analysis of federal and provincial leadership races in Canada between 1980 and 2005 finds that left parties were more likely to select a woman head than were centre or right formations. Given that, as of 2005, the NDP had held power neither at the federal level nor in the provinces of Alberta, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, or Quebec, the overlap between women’s leadership of left parties and uncompetitive parties is striking.

Consistent with Margaret Thatcher’s breakthrough as the first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom and Kim Campbell’s as the first in Canada, this study finds left/right party ideology is not a meaningful predictor of women’s leadership at the subnational level. Just as Thatcher and Campbell both came from parties of the right, this volume shows that seven of the nine female premiers who led party-based governments in Canada came from centrist or right-of-centre parties. In chronological order, the Liberals included Catherine Callbeck in PEI, Pat Duncan in Yukon, Christy Clark in B.C., and Kathleen Wynne in Ontario. The conservatives were Rita Johnston in B.C., Kathy Dun derdale in N.L., and Alison Redford in Alberta. As discussed in Chapter 11, one NDP woman has thus far held office — Rachel Notley in Alberta. Quebec has had one female premier, Pauline Marois, whose government was criticized for abandoning progressive Parti Québécois policies (see Chapter 7). Although party ideology seems to shed little light on who becomes a premier, left/right distinctions are often relevant to the substance of what women do in top office. I develop this argument further in the section below on substantive impact, where I introduce the concept of critical actors.

One crucial dimension of left/right markers in Canadian politics involves variation among parties with the same name, not only across jurisdictions but also longitudinally within them. For example, the Ontario Liberals under Kathleen Wynne were arguably more progressive than the same party under Dalton McGuinty, the B.C. Liberals under Christy Clark, and the federal Liberals under Justin Trudeau. The federal Conservative Party established in 2003 was not constitutionally linked to Progressive Conservative organizations in any province and was generally more right-wing than the older federal PCs. New Democrats in Alberta under Rachel Notley tended to be far more supportive of energy pipelines than NDP activists in other provinces and at the federal level.

The fact that women from across Canada’s political spectrum gained power under varied competitive circumstances encourages us to probe how circumstances at the point at which they became premiers may have shaped their careers. In the next section, I present a threefold typology for understanding how females reached top office in subnational systems with party organizations.

Excerpted with permission from Doing Politics Differently: Women Premiers in Canada’s Provinces and Territories edited by Sylvia Bashevkin, 2019, UBC Press, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada. For more information: www.ubcpress.ca/doing-politics-differently
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