Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thompson moving on unheralded

Winnipeg has done nothing to honour its first female mayor

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I've been looking for Susan Thompson, Winnipeg's first female mayor, all over the city lately.

It started when I saw the sign delineating former city councillor Jae Eadie's little park on the Assiniboine River, just over a kilometre from Thompson's old home on Douglas Park Road.

It got me wondering what the city has done for the woman who served it for two terms, from 1992 to 1998.

The short answer is: Nothing.

There is no Thompson Park, street, bridge or back lane. There's no bust of her at the Citizens Hall of Fame in Assiniboine Park. Though two other mayors are honoured there -- Steve Juba and Bill Norrie -- the city's first female mayor doesn't rank.

Order of Manitoba? No again.

Mayor Sam Katz got his in 2004.

Mayor Bill Norrie was inducted in 2000, along with Mary Kelekis and former WSO conductor Bramwell Tovey.

But the lack of acknowledgement for the city's 40th mayor is baffling.

It's been 15 years since she ran the city, but she remains popular among women as a mentor and role model. She is charismatic and colourful, and took on a number of international speaking engagements when she became the first female consul general at the Canadian Consulate in Minneapolis.

I've been wondering what it was about Susan Thompson, what she said or did that made the establishment here decide to ignore her. I've also been wondering if she battled something more subtle than just the boys at city hall -- our underlying societal assumption is women leaders should play nice, and Thompson wouldn't.

Thompson was born and raised in Winnipeg, a graduate of the University of Winnipeg. Before she was elected mayor in 1992, she bought and ran her family's business, Birt's Saddlery, becoming the first female Rotarian in the province.

She astonished everyone but herself in 1992 by winning the mayoral race, a virtual unknown against heavy hitters with deep political pockets like Greg Selinger (NDP) and Ernie Gilroy (Liberal).

In 1995, she was handily re-elected despite opposition from Terry Duguid and Peter Kaufmann. (Three days before the election, the Winnipeg Sun headline crowed Thompson is toast!)

In her first interview with CJOB's hard-hitting journalist Peter Warren, he asked her who her date would be on election night. No other candidate fielded that one, surprisingly.

She endured comments about her personal life (a single divorc©e), appearance and, in particular, her weight, throughout her time in office.

She led the city through the "Flood of the Century" in 1997, its greatest challenge in living history. She also helped bring the Pan American Games back to Winnipeg in 1999, along with a number of other major events from the Brier to the Grey Cup to the World Junior Hockey Championships.

She hosted a Winter Cities Conference in 1996, with politicians from across the globe, and a summit of mayors in 1998.

One of the greatest knocks on her, from those who knew her then, was that she fought hard -- and won -- what she believed was her mandate from the voters: a balanced budget and a tax freeze. She was opposed by her own administration on this. She did not play nice.

In 1995, she dismissed the city's board of commissioners and replaced it with a chief administrative officer. She was autocratic and demanding, setting high standards for herself and others.

"Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend," writes Facebook's female COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In. "Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost."

So what's the cost for Susan Thompson? She declined a pension as mayor, and didn't get one as consul general. She went on to work for her alma mater, as founding CEO of the University of Winnipeg Foundation from 2003 to 2011, raising millions before a purported fallout (neither has discussed it openly) with president Lloyd Axworthy.

Other than a six-month contract job raising money for a local charity, she has kept busy writing two books, one of which is her memoir.

The men we honour every year deserve the recognition they receive. But it's time we honoured the first female mayor of Winnipeg, if only to show younger women that women can lead.

"For men, professional success comes with positive reinforcement at every step of the way. For women, even when they're recognized for their achievements, they're often regarded unfavourably," Sandberg notes, singling out "Attila the Hen" Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, the "Iron Frau."

Prime Minister Julia Gillard experienced such a massive decline in popularity in Australia -- even as global admiration grew -- that her Labor Party tossed her overboard last month, replacing her with Kevin Rudd.

According to The Guardian, "The slings and arrows rarely stopped coming throughout her three-year tenure -- with much of the criticism becoming personal. Gillard has been criticized over her voice (described by many as nasal and monotone), the length of her nose, her fashion choices, and even her figure.

"Whether Australians found it difficult to accept a female prime minister or not, her leadership placed sexism, particularly in public life, firmly on the agenda."

Can female leaders get past Sandberg's "unlikeability factor" through sheer critical mass?

Gillard seems to think so, tearfully telling a reporter last month, "What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that, and I'm proud of that."

Maybe so. But you won't find Susan Thompson in the city anytime soon. She's packing up and moving to Vancouver next week to be closer to family and friends. Maybe she'll find a job there. Maybe somebody will invite her onto a board or two.

Maybe she'll become a best-selling author. She's got one helluva story.

Though perhaps she's too much of a lady to tell.

Margo Goodhand is a former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 A15

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