Suffice to say, things have never been easy for women in politics. Some of us weren’t even considered ‘persons’ under Canadian law until the late 1960s.
Widespread challenges present themselves for every elected official; compounded by race, sex, religion, class and whether someone lives with a disability. But women – all women – have long borne the brunt of some of the most targeted and monstrous attacks, specifically due to their gender. In fact, many women in politics (like Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley for example) are despised by voters for one reason and one reason only: they don’t have a penis.
According to a 2015 report by the United Nations Broadband Commission, more than three quarters of women and girls online have experienced some form of cyberviolence. Millions are affected by this trend globally, but most countries including Canada are still stubbornly failing to address the problem.
Despite these apparent risks, both opposition parties in the Canadian House of Commons are undergoing leadership contests and both have attracted impressive women to the contests.
The wildly charismatic Lisa Raitt of Halifax, a scientist, Harper-era Cabinet Minister and current Shadow Cabinet Minister, is running to replace Rona Ambrose as Official Opposition Leader. Raitt’s caucus colleague, Dr. Kellie Leitch of Simcoe North is another former Cabinet Minister who held dual portfolios and famously moonlit as an orthopedic surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Her politics aren’t exactly favorable to women, but there’s no denying she’s a powerhouse. Niki Ashton of Manitoba recently launched her campaign to replace Tom Mulcair as leader of the New Democratic Party and is the only woman out of four candidates running to lead her party.
The governing Liberals have never elected a woman to lead them in their party’s history, but their party is certainly no stranger to exceptionally strong women. Recently, I had the honour of joining MP Karen McCrimmon, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defense, on a panel at Carleton University. There, I discovered that long before her time in politics, she led a distinguished career in the armed forces – another male-dominated profession where women are perpetually discriminated against and undervalued.
Political women hail from diverse backgrounds and ideologies. But they all have one thing in common: every day of their political lives, they face gender-based violence both on and offline.
Niki Ashton was first elected in 2008 just two years after Twitter was born. During her nine years in Federal politics, she has lost track of the bombardment of harassment, insults, threats and sexually explicit messages she’s received. She says the worst thing she’s experienced are rape threats over Facebook, and a man actually texting her an unsolicited photograph of his genitals.
Michelle Rempel, Conservative MP from Calgary Nose Hill, has first-hand experience with online harassment turning into an offline reality. Rempel received Twitter messages that she could not simply brush off as lewd comments. The tweets were life-threatening, and she went to the police. At the time Rempel received the tweets, she was travelling for work and grew concerned that the perpetrator was following her and would physically harm her. An attractive and charismatic young woman whose savvy social media presence has been lauded by many, she regularly attracts trolls and sexists on Twitter.
With the advent of social media and the anonymity it provides, violence against women in politics has grown increasingly commonplace, and increasingly violent. It seems the floodgates have opened, welcoming some of the least enlightened and most dangerous voices into our public discourse.
No matter how controversial your view, you’re likely to find an audience somewhere on social. Case-in-point: Many have said that Donald Trump, a prolific voice on social and one of the kings of this twisted new frontier, essentially hate-tweeted his way into the Whitehouse.
There are times when these violent words have actually precipitated violent actions: like in the case of last year’s femicide of British MP, Jox Cox. Cox reportedly received three months’ worth of hate-mail before arriving to her local office in West Yorkshire one morning in 2016, when she was wrestled to the ground, kicked, shot then repeatedly stabbed to death by a man who hated her.
While there is no obvious solution to this problem, organizations like Equal Voice have put forward a number of possible remedies to the culture. On International Women’s Day this year, Equal Voice organized an historic event invited 338 diverse young women from across Canada to come to Ottawa and “take their seat” (literally) in the House of Commons.
The initiative, appropriated titled Daughters of the Vote, was said to be born out of the desire to build a better understanding “of the struggles of women to join the Canadian political fabric” and to empower more young women to consider a run at public office.
The event generated widespread national and international attention – particularly given that the wisdom and tenacity of many of these girls far exceeded their ages. I was lucky enough to catch some of their powerful speeches before the House and direct questions to Prime Minister Trudeau and cannot deny that I had tears in my eyes, as I’m sure many others did. These girls are not afraid of anything.
So what to make of this hostile political environment, where women, regardless how talented, are often rendered casualties to a system designed for them to fail? Is this any hope for the future? Why would any women ever dare to put her name on a ballot, if she risks her life in the process?
Niki Ashton’s words at her recent NDP Leadership campaign launch may provide a possible answer. She stated that while she’s proud to be a woman in politics, she is far more than just her gender. Not unlike every woman who’s ever dared to run for public office, she’s just a person who wants to change things.