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In defence of dingbats, showboats

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A national columnist called our 19th prime minister, Kim Campbell, a dingbat last week. OK, it was Margaret Wente of the Toronto Globe and Mail.

She was writing about strong female politicians: She admires quite a few of them, including premiers Alison Redford and Pauline Marois, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

She contrasted these paradigms to two she does not admire -- the "showboat" Sheila Copps and the "dingbat" Kim Campbell.

It's a ploy columnists use to show they're not all soft and fuzzy on an issue, tossing a few negative examples into the mix to maintain their edge. And one might defend Wente's perception of Copps as a showboat, although those Rat Pack antics are more than three decades old, and Copps has aged gracefully -- which might be more than one could say about Wente.

Surely both Copps at 60 and Campbell at 65 are better known for breaking ground for women in what was then an Old Boys club.

But calling the Rt. Hon. Campbell a dingbat? Really?

It's an insult that TV sitcom icon Archie Bunker famously employed back in the '70s on his wife Edith. It means a woman who is stupid or silly, a nitwit.

Wente would probably have never called Campbell's predecessor, Brian Mulroney, a "meathead" -- Bunker's male equivalent of a dingbat.

Dingbat is uniquely feminine, right up there with harpy and shrew and all those other insults used to undermine a woman's leadership or intellectual abilities.

It's unusual, frankly, for a columnist of Wente's stature to use a full-on dingbat attack. Pundits usually prefer to take a more covert approach when it comes to female politicians, criticizing their clothing, their hair, their "shrill" voices.

(Interestingly, Hillary Clinton's voice became "shrill" only during the last few months of the U.S. presidential election, when some people feared she was getting too close to winning. It's nice and modulated again these days now that she's serving the president as secretary of state.)

Nobody ever mentions the tenor of a man's voice. They just don't seem to nag at pundits as some female politicians do. Nag. Now there's another quintessential female put-down.

So how did Campbell earn Wente's contempt? Who knows?

Campbell has a law degree from the University of British Columbia. While a student, she ran for Vancouver school trustee, and won, rising to chair the board. She became a Social Credit MLA in 1986 and a Progressive Conservative MP in 1988. She held four cabinet portfolios -- including minister of justice for three years (crafting the no-means-no rape legislation) before deciding to run for the PC party leadership.

And when she won that post, for a few months, at least, Campbell was a welcome relief -- the country's first female prime minister, succeeding its most unpopular prime minister of all time.

After losing the 1993 election in an unprecedented anti-Tory tsunami, Campbell would never run for public office again. Instead, she started teaching at Harvard University (only dingbats need apply there, surely), and then became Canada's consul general to Los Angeles for four years. She is an author and honorary fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She is on a number of international boards, too many to mention. Look her up; she's by far the busiest dingbat this country has ever produced.

I've often used a quote from Campbell to inspire young women to follow in her formidable footsteps.

"These women who push ahead create little islands of credibility," she once said. "They really are changing things because they're designing a new landscape."

Pioneering politicians such as Campbell and Copps helped design a whole new landscape for women like Redford and Christy Clark and Kathy Dunderdale, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. And most of us are grateful for that.

It's been almost 20 years, though, since Canada briefly had its first female prime minister.

Any wonder why we haven't had one since?

Clearly, what this country needs is a few more dingbats and showboats to lead the way.


Margo Goodhand is the former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. She is currently working on a history of the women's shelter movement in Canada.


-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2012 A10

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