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...