Saturday, December 17, 2005

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Last night, I watched the first English-language debate of the federal political campaign, which wasn’t so much a debate as a heavily moderated Q&A session with a carefully selected group of “regular" Canadians. It was, as you might imagine, a total snooze, except for one strange interlude.

Doris, one of the aforementioned Canadians, asked the candidates what they would do to control the “infighting” that has plagued the House of Commons since the last election. The moderator echoed Doris’ complaint, quoting a certain oft-namedropped “rock star” (I’m looking at you, Bono...) who apparently divulged that “he was appalled and shocked by the behaviour in Question Period.”

After a faintly lacklustre discussion about the importance of civility in Canadian politics, NDP leader Jack Layton pronounced, without a trace of irony, that his party would solve the problem of infighting by electing more women to Parliament. “Mark my words,” he intoned, “The tone of that House would change if we had a lot more women there!”

Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Paul Martin quickly agreed with Layton, adding that the primary reason that women declined to run for federal office was because of the “poisonous” atmosphere of the House. This was, I believe, the only time that the Liberals and the NDP expressed agreement on any subject during the entire two-hour debate.

As Carolyn Ryan remarked on the CBC’s Debate Blog, “Are the female MPs supposed to shush their male counterparts when they get raucous? Should they hold tea parties in the foyer? Will they bring in a "bad-word jar," with MPs having to pay a twoonie every time they heckle? Puh-lease!” The prospect of female politicians suddenly taking up the role of tight-lipped schoolmarms is as demeaning as it is ridiculous, yet the exchange speaks volumes about how little has changed in Canadian political discourse during the last hundred years.

In the early twentieth century, Nellie McClung and her colleagues in the Famous Five fought for, and eventually won, female suffrage in Canada. Given the provisions of the Election Act, which stated that “no woman, idiot, lunatic, or child” could vote, and the views of politicians like Premier Roblin of Manitoba, who blustered, “I don't want a hyena in petticoats talking politics to me—I want a nice gentle woman to bring me my slippers,” this was no small feat.

It bears noting, however, that like their contemporaries in the United States, Canadian suffragists were closely aligned with the Christian Temperance movement, which sought to “civilize” society by imposing prohibition and other social reforms. In the view of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and similar organizations, women were by nature morally superior to men, and were therefore duty-bound to protect the social order from the transgressions of the less spiritually adept half of the human race.

(In fact, the Temperance movement saw women’s suffrage not as an inalienable human right, to be won for its own sake, but as a means to a far more important end: increasing the number of voters who would support their broader program of social reform. The strategy worked: by 1919, the sale of liquor was banned in all nine of Canada’s provinces.)

The admission of women to provincial legislatures, and later to the House of Commons, would likely not have been achieved were it not for the reassuring tenor of Christian Temperance discourse. Even when engaged in the rough-and-tumble sport of politics, it was promised, women would retain their “natural” maternal virtues and bring a more sensitive and feeling influence to statecraft. They would, thus, tame the masculine excesses of the political sphere, from which “the whole race suffered.”

It is hardly surprising that such views continue to hold sway among both Canadian and American conservatives, whose political ideologies are firmly rooted in traditional Protestant values. As columnist and Rush Limbaugh fill-in Walter Williams recently opined:

“Men and women have different psychological make-ups. Women tend to be more nurturing, sensitive and submissive. They demonstrate greater feelings of love and tend to exhibit grief to a greater extent than men. On the other hand, men tend to be more competitive, aggressive and hostile than women. Female characteristics are vital to a well-ordered society, for they exert a civilizing influence. I'd never want to live in a society where women didn't have a major role in the rearing of children and management of the household. However, sensitivity, nurturing and a capacity to exhibit grief are not the best characteristics for political leadership.”

What is rather more surprising, and also deeply disheartening, is that a comparable view was advanced not by Stephen Harper’s Conservative party, but by the leader of Canada’s “progressive” party, the NDP. If not the others, shouldn’t Layton possess the intelligence and, frankly, the balls to challenge commonly held assumptions about gender? Or, is the notion that women are perfectly capable of playing political hardball with their male counterparts—or, at least, that nothing in their “nature” prevents them from doing so—now so dangerously subversive that it is anathema even to progressives?

To be, I suspect, continued...


Frank said...

Excellent discourse.

I hope I'm not being naive about this, but I wouldn't take his words as a hidden slight towards women. I believe that he genuinely meant it in a positive sense.

“Mark my words,” he intoned, “The tone of that House would change if we had a lot more women there!”

My take on it is that he was suggesting that women would bring a reasoned and non-confrontational attitude to the House. Though, that is a stereotypical view also.

bob said...

I understand your objections, Vila, but in my experience the introduction of women into a previously exclusively male space, does tend to have a 'civilising' effect. I doubt Layton meant that women were more deferential or incapable of confrontation, but simply that the presence of both genders leads to a better working atmosphere.

Vila H. said...

Frank: Actually, what I suspect Layton was doing was hammering his “talking points” into every one of his responses, whether or not they addressed the question being asked. Q: What do you think about political infighting? A: We like women! Q: What will you do to combat poverty? A: Ed Broadbent! Q: What are your thoughts on the sovereignty question? A: Vote NDP! (Note to NDP advisers: this strategy sucks!)

Vila H. said...

Bob: Wow, really? Just from being in the same room with ‘em? OK, so if that’s the case, how come it isn’t working now? There are presenty 65 women sitting in the House of Commons, and yet, Bono remains shocked. Do they have to reach a certain percentage before they start to take effect?

Admittedly, I ran a fair distance with my point, but I think it still stands. Now, if Layton had promised to populate the House with drag queens, he might have been on to something...

Vila H. said...

Antonia Zerbisias weighs in: Girl Talk

Frank said...

Good point.

I like Layton and think he is still the best candidate out there (not counting Duceppe, who I still don't know), but he still plays the political games. Like the one you mentioned. But if it's a means to an end, is it really that bad? It was an effort to lull the feminine vote, but I still think it was meant positively.

bob said...

Behaviour generally changes when people are in the presence of the opposite sex. I don't think that's controversial. And yes, I would think that there is a critical mass. I will set to work on an equation...

Vila H. said...

It looks like we will have to agree to disagree on this one, but before we do, I want to be sure that what we are actually disagreeing about is clear.

Frank: I did not say, nor did I mean to imply, that angling for votes, female or otherwise, is in and of itself a bad thing.

Bob: Similarly, I did not say, nor did I mean to imply, that gender has no effect on interpersonal behaviour.

What I tried to express--poorly, it seems--is the following:

Three reasonably clear statements were made during the Leaders Debate, which are a matter of public record:

1. That the House of Commons has recently had a problem with “infighting” (Doris) and a lack of civility. (Martin);
2. That this problem would be remedied by the addition of more female MPs to the House. (Layton); and,
3. That the primary reason that women do not run for political office is because of (1). (Martin)

From this point on, the statements are open to interpretation. In mine, statement (2) implies that:

(a) Men are uncivil. (Thus, the problem of political infighting in the House of Commons);
(b) Women are not uncivil. (Thus, the presumption that the addition of more women to the House would not add to the amount of infighting.); and,
(c) The mere presence of women has a civilizing effect on men. (Thus, the presumption that the addition of more women to the House would, in the absence of other actions, decrease the level of infighting.)

I disagree, in part because I reject the premises upon which (a), (b), and (c) are based, and also because I believe that there are other, more plausible reasons that the House of Commons has recently had a problem with infighting. These are:

(i) The fact of a weak minority government,
(ii) The presence of politicians, who, irrespective of gender, are prone to grandstanding, deal-making, and power plays, especially in the context of (i); and,
(iii) The presence of an audience, both actual and televisual, which tends in politicians to exacerbate (ii).

To continue, it is my view that statement (3) implies that:

(a) Women are dissuaded from running for political office by political infighting;
(b) Women are put off by political infighting because it makes them uncomfortable in some way; and,
(c) Women do not have other important reasons for declining to run for political office.

Once again, I disagree, in part because I reject the premises upon which (a) and (b) are based, and also because I believe that, contra (c), there are other, more important reasons that women in certain instances choose not to run for political office. These include:

(i) Exclusion from the social and employment networks (e.g. law firms, large corporations, etc.) from which the membership of the Canadian political class is largely drawn;
(ii) A lack of both material and strategic support from major political parties (this includes the long-stranding tradition of running female candidates in historically unwinnable ridings); and,
(iii) A feeling of frustration with the assumptions that are commonly made about what is “normal,” “natural,” or “acceptable” behaviour for women engaged in political work.

In any case, this is what I was trying to get at. Now, I will bid you both a cheery adieu and set about writing my next post, which will concern the subject of how very, very much Christmas sucks.

Frank said...

Well said. Sorry I missed the point. NPR had a good article the other day on how women politicians are seen differently in the public eye. More in a negative sense like celebrities than politicians. More scrutiny on their personal lives.