Why won’t Canadians (re-)elect women political leaders?

By Steve Paikin - Published on Jun 20, 2017
Canadians will sometimes elect women leaders; re-electing them has proven much rarer. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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We’ve had male prime ministers and premiers in Canada for all of our 150 years since Confederation. But female political leadership at the highest levels — well, that’s a much more recent phenomenon.

British Columbia’s Rita Johnston became the first female premier in Canadian history, in 1991. Kim Campbell, from the same province, made history by becoming the first female prime minister two years later.

While both women earned their first ministers’ titles by gaining the confidence of the party faithful, neither was able to win the ensuing election — a usual step in a politician’s path to accruing greater legitimacy. Other women leaders have won elections, but not a single female Canadian premier has ever been re-elected.

There is a clear pattern relating to female political leadership in Canada. There have only been eight female provincial premiers in Canadian history and, of course Campbell remains our one and only female prime minister.

Another pattern: It seems that political parties have chosen female leaders particularly when a male leader has led the party into perilous circumstances. Ontario’s own Kathleen Wynne may be the best example of that, having been chosen to replace Dalton McGuinty, whose departure from politics was fraught with controversy. But other women leaders fit that description as well. Christy Clark in B.C. rebranded that province’s Liberal Party, after her predecessor Gordon Campbell’s popularity dropped to dramatic lows. Same story for Alison Redford in Alberta, who seemed like a breath of fresh air compared to the dreary Ed Stelmach, who lasted less than five years at the helm. In 2012, Pauline Marois from Quebec became the first female leader to defeat a sitting premier in a general election — the first her party had won in more than a decade.

But as much as parties turn to women to get them out of trouble, none of these leaders has been able to secure re-election.

Why not?

Did they make the kinds of mistakes any male leader would have made, and for which they also would have been booted? Were they only able to paper over the problems their governments were experiencing — problems that turned out to be much more difficult than first thought and which they couldn’t ultimately overcome? Or is something else going on?

I’ve talked with numerous women politicians, political observers, and strategists, and among many of them, a different narrative emerges: Voters find women refreshing in a crisis, but then turn on them quickly. It certainly helps explain Wynne’s success at the helm of the Ontario Liberals in the 2014 election. Many had considered the party done like dinner after McGuinty’s departure. But is there a chunk of the electorate that then feels less enamoured seeing female leaders actually leading? Are too many of us still uncomfortable watching women wield power?

It’s hard to argue that sexism plays no role in politics and the way women leaders are perceived. Of course, in each case, there are other reasons given to explain why those premiers lost popularity. Alberta’s Redford and Quebec’s Marois were both seen as too imperious, having lost touch with their parties’ values and grassroots. Wynne’s critics would say her tumble in popularity has less to do with her gender and more to do with how she’s handled high electricity prices, selling off the majority of Hydro One shares, and pursuing an approach to governing that has prompted a major police investigation.

But there is also the question of whether the public reacts to those issues differently when women are leading. (Imperiousness, famously, is far more often cited as a criticism of women than of men.) The classic example here is, of course, Hillary Clinton — a flawed candidate, to be sure, but one whose gender clearly had an effect on her failed campaign for the presidency.

“There is a stark difference between men and women when it comes to success and likability,” Clinton recently told New York Magazine. “The more successful a man is, the more likable he is. The more successful a woman is, the less likable she is. And it’s across every sector of society. Once I moved from serving someone — a man, the president — to seeking that job on my own, I was once again vulnerable to the barrage of innuendo and negativity and attacks that come with the territory of a woman who is striving to go further.”

Yes, many will say those words are the sour grapes of a candidate who lost. Others, who have had similar experiences, will say that Clinton is stating the obvious, and the rest of us are fools not to acknowledge it.

I doubt we’ll ever get consensus on the degree to which sexism hurts our politics. But Ontario Liberals are trying to figure out how to break these patterns. And they’ll have their chance to put those theories into practice in 11 months and three weeks, when Ontarians are scheduled to go to the polls.  

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