May 19, 2016

Female representation in politics: the feminist’s dilemma

Written by Grace Lichtenwald 

North America has a serious problem with female political representation.

In the U.S., there have been no female presidents and there are currently six female governors. In Canada, we briefly had one female prime minister in 1993, and we currently have three female premiers. Though the current government has improved on the number of female members of parliament (from 77 in 2015 to 88 out of 338 in 2016), compared to the number of men in government, this is disappointing (though the 50/50 gender split in cabinet seems to be a step in the right direction). And it’s not as if greater female representation is unheard of: some countries in Africa (Rwanda, Seychelles, Senegal, South Africa and Namibia) and South America (Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador and Nicaragua) have governments made up of more than 40% women. And talking about this representation by just looking at them as women doesn’t begin to look at the lack of diversity among women (and among men) occupying the highest positions of power in the U.S. and Canada.

Why does this matter? Peoples’ life experiences and values impact their decision-making processes. When an overwhelming majority of the people making decisions that impact our societies are upper-middle class, white, able-bodied, heterosexual and cisgender men, their identities and their interests are prioritized above those who are marginalized. Sometimes its not intentional, and sometimes it is. But it’s the outcome that matters more than the intent, and the harmful effects of ignorant actions (or lack thereof) can hopefully be mitigated through better political representation.

Like many Canadians, I find the U.S. election cycle and political landscape to be much more entertaining than the Canadian one (the most recent election seems to have been an exception). There’s something about the American media’s take on it, the pop culture stemming from it, and the personalities that emerge that give it such a theatrical quality. This can also be scary when the likes of Trump become front runners – the whole process becomes an area of grave concern. Over the course of both the 2008 U.S. election as well as the current one Hilary Clinton, despite her accomplishments, has been the target of discourses that criticize her modes of dress and her mannerisms. While these kinds of pieces are highly problematic and have been rightly criticized for their sexism, there are also those who have critiqued Clinton’s brand of white upper-class feminism and her attempts to seem more progressive than what her record shows.

Within the context of these criticisms, I think it’s important for Canadian feminists to keep ourselves aware of the actors in our own political landscape, in order to hold them accountable and to advocate for progress. The prominence of American political theatrics makes it hard to focus on our own politicians, and I find that many Canadians seem to forget that our system also has problems. When we view any kind of female representation as good representation, it becomes more difficult to question those politicians whose values and actions could be considered antithetical to other forms of feminism, namely intersectional feminism. When Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem decry a supposed lack of ‘sisterhood’ among women who don’t support a candidate solely because she’s a woman, what and whose idea of sisterhood are they referring to? There are important questions to ask of women in politics: what do these women stand for, what have they done while in power, what do they have the potential to accomplish, how does this fit or not fit within a feminist practice, and how could they do better? Along those lines, a further question to ask is how we are meant to balance a desire for greater representation when it’s weighed against a problematic representative.

I think that Rona Ambrose, the interim leader of the Conservative Party, is an interesting figure to consider in this context. As former Minister for the Status of women, she prioritized the issues of violence against women and girls and has worked with crisis centres and women’s shelters. But this was in the context of Harper’s Conservative government, which came under sharp criticism for failing women through actions such as: inadequately addressing child care costs, changes to health care, and policies that negatively impacted or ignored indigenous women, refugee and temporary migrant women, women with disabilities, and trans women.

The abortion debate was re-opened during this time, with Ambrose voting in favor of the motion to re-examine the legal rights of fetuses. As a pro-choice feminist looking at Ambrose’s commitment to combating violence against women within the context of her party’s record, this is concerning to me and it complicates the idea that a female politician will necessarily represent women by virtue of being a woman.

So where does this leave us? I think it’s important to remain critical of these women, while supporting greater and more diverse female representation in general. We aren’t obligated to support female politicians just because they are women, but this does leave us with a bit of a dilemma: how do you support giving women a chance at higher positions of power when the options you have don’t necessarily reflect your values and/or standards? Is supporting them while being critical of them (compromising?) the best way to go? Or is it to only support those who absolutely align with your interests? In the latter case, what do you do if there is no one on the ballot who fits? It’s a tough call, but I think it’s important to at least consider these questions.


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