Why the election of Doug Ford could set back women's rights

OPINION: The premier-designate wants to scrap the sex-ed curriculum and has mused about rolling back abortion rights, writes Lauren McKeon. Is that how he’s going to “take back Ontario”?
By Lauren McKeon - Published on June 14, 2018
Much of Doug Ford’s support hinged on his promise to dismantle Kathleen Wynne’s sex-education curriculum, introduced in 2015. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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I am not surprised that Doug Ford won the provincial election. Our current political climate — not just in Ontario, but in much of North America — is dominated by backlash, much of it against social progressivism (which has somehow, at least according to those railing against it, become synonymous with “elitism”). Today, women must contend with a culture in which individual political candidates face sexism and party platforms are defined by it. Ford’s anti-feminist rhetoric isn’t hidden; it’s front and centre, spotlight on. So while I worry about what his win will mean for women, I also fear what it might reveal about us — as Ontarians and as Canadians — and our tolerance for women’s advancement in the world.

After all, we have always known that Ford’s tenure might have the potential to roll back women’s progress — and we know because that’s what his policies, and his record of behaviour, have essentially told us. He has not been shy about letting us know these things; they are not skeletons in closets.

For example, it’s no secret that, as a mayoral candidate in 2014, he referred to a Toronto Star reporter as a “little bitch,” saying that he couldn’t stand her (presumably for having the audacity to do her job). When confronted about the incident, he didn’t deny having sworn — he simply claimed to have been talking about someone else. And that wasn’t the only time during his run that he used disparaging language. He advised another female reporter to get off her “lazy ass.” A third, he called “vicious.” This type of rhetoric invokes the worst stereotypes about women at work — that we are mean, emotional, and incompetent. And it’s not just Ford who subscribes to them. (More recently, he’s made repeated remarks about Kathleen Wynne’s smile — recalling the tired expectation that powerful women be pleasant.) That’s what makes it all so enraging: the outcry over such normalized language is often characterized as an overreaction.                                                                                                    

Then there are Ford’s actual policies. Arguably, much of his support hinged on his promise to revisit (read: dismantle) Wynne’s revamped sex-education curriculum, introduced in 2015. “Sex-ed curriculum should be about facts, not teaching Liberal ideology,” Ford said in February. That “ideology,” however, is rooted in an LGBTQ-positive, consent-focused — and, indeed, fact-based — mindset. It gave us an unabashedly feminist sex-ed curriculum, and that’s precisely why it’s under attack from the conservative right, who see it — correctly — as having been designed to reinforce the agency of those who have not traditionally had it. None of this bodes well for another of Wynne’s big projects, “It’s Never Okay,” an initiative aimed at addressing rape culture.

Beyond sex-ed, Ford has also strengthened his “nation” by making concessions to the anti-abortion movement. He has identified publicly as pro-life, and while he has seemed to balk at the idea of criminalizing abortion, in the run-up to the election, he also mused openly about revisiting the issue of reproductive rights in Ontario. He has since said that while he, personally, won’t re-open the debate over abortion or introduce legislation regulating it, he won’t stop others from doing so. He said that he would also welcome proposed legislation related to parental permission, saying that he can’t think of a more “life-changing procedure” for a young woman than abortion. (Never mind that a recalibrated take on sex-ed might, depending on the concerns it addresses, undermine the progress we’ve made when it comes to informing students about contraception.)

Before the election, a CBC Vote Compass survey asked Ontarians to rank each candidate’s trustworthiness. More than 35,000 women responded; on average, they gave Ford a score of 1.6 out of a possible 10. Nearly 60 per cent of women gave him a zero. This doesn’t tell the whole story of course — obviously, some women voted for Ford. But it does suggest that most women know that his platform is bad for us. In his victory speech, Ford said that “help is here” and that “Ontario is open for business.” He has, he believes, “taken back Ontario.” In doing so, he and his team are also trying to take us back to the past, to reverse the advances of recent years. But it is one thing to worry what Ford’s government will do. It is another to realize that Ontario wanted this.

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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