One day, a highly qualified woman will defeat a loud-talking man in politics

OPINION: Let’s make sure the 2018 Ontario election doesn’t invite any more comparisons with the 2016 U.S. election, writes Lauren McKeon
By Lauren McKeon - Published on March 14, 2018
PC leadership candidate Christine Elliott
Christine Elliott won the popular vote but lost the Tory leadership contest to Doug Ford. (Justin Tang/CP)

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​The results of the recent PC leadership contest evoke a depressing sense of déjà vu: immensely qualified female career politician (Christine Elliott) loses campaign to significantly underqualified, cynical male populist (Doug Ford). For anyone who cares to listen, the echoes of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are like geese honking in a canyon —obnoxious and hard to miss.

The Huffington Post called the similarities between the two pairs (and outcomes) “uncanny,” the comparisons “irresistible.” In the hours following the vote-counting debacle at the Tory leadership convention, many pointed out that Elliott, like Clinton, had won the popular vote. Others underlined the fact that she, like Clinton, had considerable political experience —nine years as an MPP, not to mention two previous leadership race losses to male politicians. Ford, for his part, rejected comparisons between himself and the current U.S. president, telling reporters, “We’ve been in politics for 30 years, before even Donald Trump even existed.” (Um, math, Doug.)

Sigh. I don’t particularly agree with Elliott’s politics. For that matter, I don’t agree with all of Clinton’s, either. But it’s deeply unsettling to live in a time when women’s political accomplishments continue to be undervalued. Consider that Clinton was dogged by accusations that she appeared “cold.” Consider that even though her daughter was a grown-up, questions about her mothering skills persisted.

Imagine: the Ontario provincial election could have seen three women vying to be premier. It would have been incredibly significant, especially considering that, even with recent gains, women are still hugely underrepresented in politics. In 2014, for instance, 38 MPPs elected in Ontario were women — or just 36 per cent of Queen’s Park. Federally, 88 women were elected in 2015 — 26 per cent of Parliament.

While Canada leads the world when it comes to the proportion of female federal ministers in power — although they’re usually responsible for portfolios considered “soft” — it does not rank well when it comes to general parity. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as of January 1, Canada sits in 59th place out of a total 193 countries when it comes to its percentage of national-level female politicians. For perspective, Bolivia, Mexico, Norway Rwanda, and Sweden are far ahead of us.

In late January, when Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the PCs in the wake of sexual-misconduct allegations (which he denies), many people asked me whether I thought his exit signalled good things for women in politics. Maybe, the thinking went, they’d see what happened to him as proof that the days of the political old boys’ club were over. Maybe they’d see that the party, and politics in general, no longer tolerated gender-based power imbalances.

But power imbalances can’t be shifted so easily. A harassment-free work environment doesn’t count for all that much when so few women are at the table. I’ll be more optimistic when qualified women don’t face such uphill political battles. When the idea of three women vying for power doesn’t seem so novel. When we are no longer celebrating so many “firsts,” “seconds,” or even “thirds.”

There’s a good chance Elliott herself would roll her eyes at the notion that sexism cost her the leadership. Maybe that’s fair. But Ford’s policies — his political musings, rather, as his website is conspicuously lacking in policy ideas — should give women pause. In his acceptance speech, he toed the party line and promised that Kathleen Wynne’s days as premier “are numbered.” If he wins on June 7, that could mean a repeal of her progressive sex-education curriculum. He’s also suggested that minors should need to obtain their parents’ permission to get an abortion. While he later clarified that he would not personally reopen the debate on reproductive rights, he’s also said that he won’t stop members in his caucus from doing so.

Ford may not be Trump, but this brand of social conservatism feels similarly backwards and regressive. And I hope the prospect of going backwards enrages women in this province. I hope it pushes us to consider what we want the future of Ontario to look like. Because, as many observers noted after the results were announced this past weekend, more than 50 per cent of white women voted for Trump. In June, let’s not invite another comparison.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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