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Women settling into politics

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When's the last time someone asked Premier Gary Doer what he's done for men lately?

For Doer, there's no expectation that he will represent men more avidly than women. There's no expectation that he must take into account his gender while doing his job. And while some of my cynical colleagues will say everything Doer does is aimed at helping men, he's not required to actively speak on behalf of men, simply because he is a man.

We're at a halfway point of sorts in Manitoba. Our last provincial election was two years ago in May. Because we have set election dates now in this province, we know we're going to be heading to the polls on Oct. 4, 2011. In the last two years, more than a third of our representatives have been women. Not a Canadian record like the 38 per cent seen in Quebec, but certainly well above the average of 20 per cent being experienced in most legislatures and a Manitoba record. And every time a woman gets elected, there are pundits (like me) who ask the question, "What are you going to do for women?" Well, I'm here to do the unthinkable in political punditry. I'm going to admit that I was wrong.

For the longest time, feminists have talked about the idea of "critical mass." Critical mass theorists believe that once women hold a particular percentage of seats in their elected assemblies, they will then begin to act as women for women. That percentage point is generally set at around 30 per cent -- exactly what we have today in the Manitoba legislature. Now is the time, some would suggest, to look at how this particular critical mass of women are representing women. But that would be ridiculous. Because it ignores the complexity of women, it ignores the complexity of politics, and it ignores the complexity of representation.

This past year hasn't been a particularly good one for women in politics. We watched as the "bros before hos" phenomena took off in the United States, with race trumping gender and Obama making history as the first African-American president. Two women were the losers in the discussion: Hillary Clinton, reviled for being too ambitious, and Sarah Palin, reviled for being too stupid.

It seemed to me that there was a particular level of cruelty in the way both women were treated. Columnists and comics seemed to salivate over the opportunity to highlight their latest gaffes and the attacks at times seemed highly personalized. Manitoba's own Sharon Carstairs once observed about women in politics that "once we fall from grace, we do it with a thud that the male candidates don't seem to do. There seems to be very little tolerance for women's failures."

Recently, the finance minister for one of Canada's most powerful provinces, Alberta's Iris Evans, was taken to task for suggesting that in order for children to be raised properly, one parent needs to stay at home. Unless you've been living under a rock, it's not a stretch to believe what was really meant is the mom should stay at home. Evans correctly apologized for those remarks later, saying that there is more than one way to raise a child and then used her own experience as a working mother who raised her children while serving as reeve of the county in which she now represents provincially.

I doubt if a male politician would have ever made that remark, and I really doubt a male politician would have used his experience as a father to get out of it. But Evans has been put in that tough position of balancing her personal life with her public persona. Like other women politicians, she has been forced to decide if she's a woman or a politician.

Prominent feminist scholar Linda Trimble suggests that trying to pigeonhole politicians on the basis of their gender is akin to asking the Cirque du soleil to perform in an elevator. Far too limiting and the outcome is not pretty.

Here in Manitoba, there are no headlines blaring the ill-conceived statements of our female representatives. In fact, all our provincial reps seem to be keeping things low key, working on the business of the province, and its many different intersections of gender, class, sexuality and race. As I've been told repeatedly, the media never cover the 3,000 successful arrivals and departures at the airport, but they always cover the one flight that crashed.

The work that dedicated women like Nancy Allan, Jennifer Howard and Myrna Driedger are doing right now is relatively crash-free. Their end goal is getting re-elected on Oct. 4, 2011.

From my perspective, it'll be nice to see even more women's faces in the legislature, but I for one won't be asking them what they've done for women lately; although, I am still tempted to ask Doer that.

Shannon Sampert is an assistant professor in the department of politics at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2009 A10

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