Our NWT correspondent, Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, on the culture of misogyny in NWT politics. She argues that a proposed Women’s Parliament is an inadequate measure for encouraging women’s electoral participation and success in the territory.
For most women in the NWT, it is a significant disappointment that women tend not to be elected to the territorial Legislative Assembly. This happens partly because far fewer women than men run for seats – for example in the last election, 9 of the 47 candidates (19%) were women.
If a woman is elected to the Legislative Assembly, as a rule, she will not be chosen by the overwhelming majority of male MLAs to sit in Cabinet. This despite the fact that if she does get elected, her experience and qualifications will far outstrip those of her colleagues.
What is going on here is not something that a Women’s Parliament will fix. Proposed in March by the Premier and met with approval by the NWT Status of Women’s Council, such an exercise is being touted as a route to encouraging NWT women to run for office.
The Premier, and the Status of Women’s Council, should know better.
Instead of pursuing important social policy goals based on random thoughts, they might more productively embark on a thorough and sustained approach to first understanding and then remedying underlying conditions leading to this lack of women in politics. Instead of wasting time and energy putting on an expensive and pointless political exercise, the Status of Women’s Council should be resourced to understand – both broadly, and with respect to the experiences of actual women who have run in territorial elections – the perceived barriers to women in the NWT running for office and to being elected.
The NWT Status of Women’s Council is part of the problem. Not that their board and staff are not capable or trying. But their ability to independently and substantively critique public policy proposals, resource development proposals, social issues – anything really – from a well-researched and credible position has been successively gutted by lack of resources and lack of independence from the Legislative Assembly. If the Premier is sincere about encouraging women in politics, then he should take a substantive and long-term approach to solutions. This should be done by increasing the independence and credibility of the Status of Women’s Council as 1) a representative body and 2) giving it the latitude to intervene in processes ranging from environmental assessments to reviews of proposed legislation in order to provide government with a consistent and cross-cutting understanding of how women effect and are effected by government laws and policies.
A solid start toward this would be the Council’s board being appointed by NWT women’s service and advocacy organizations – not by the Premier. And then by providing the Council with adequate resources, including expertise to research, analyze, advocate on and participate in public policy formulation across multiple sites and over the long term. This would replace the marginalization and stove-piping of the Council’s current activities from broader public policy initiatives, rendering the Council’s focus almost exclusively onto domestic violence and similar initiatives which would more appropriately be undertaken by community organizations and NGOs.
During the last election I was a commentator for CBC North TV on election night. I was struck by the poor treatment of some women candidates by both their male competitors and partisans in their constituencies. There are two examples that stood out for me, perhaps because other than the incumbent women candidates (Jane Groenewegen and Wendy Bisaro), these two women were viewed as likely to win their ridings.
The first example: Arlene Hache, a recipient of the Order of Canada, who has tenaciously and fearlessly advocated for women and children’s dignity and rights for over thirty years. In a leak allegedly connected to the campaign of the incumbent MLA in Yellowknife Centre, Robert Hawkins – or as the candidate maintained, just some anonymous random people, and not his campaign – someone blanketed that constituency with damaging smear campaign literature in the form of a leaked confidential GNWT Briefing Note, aimed at questioning Ms. Hache’s honesty and credibility. Based on her record of accomplishments and her lifestyle, honesty and personal sacrifice in the service of social justice are not sites of ethical vulnerability for her. That smear campaign against her was ugly, cynical – and a very clear negative message to women thinking of running for office.
In this and previous elections, there were reports of “slut” and “whore” graffiti on her campaign signs. Those sorts of slurs beggar belief. But such attacks on women candidates are not about the women as individuals – rather, they signal deeper issues with respect to societal attitudes toward women that in turn discourage women from running in elections. But more on that later.
Another well-respected and highly accomplished woman, Bertha Rabesca Zoe, ran against incumbent Jackson Lafferty in Monfwi. An accomplished lawyer, personable, articulate and confident, Ms. Rabesca Zoe lost by a slim margin. After the election, she continued her important work as Lawkeeper with the Tlicho Government. While Ms. Rabesca Zoe was subjected to a smear campaign on Facebook that went to court after the election and resulted in her receiving an apology, the smear campaign against her – similar to Ms. Hache’s – could not credibly assail her on her abilities, but rather attacked her personally.
So why did these two women, who are individually far more accomplished, well-educated and capable of performing the duties of MLA than most sitting MLAs – lose their elections?
One of the most significant contributing factors: each ran against incumbents. It is no secret that unless the incumbent commits some outrageous act – like getting drunk, fist-fighting with another drunk MLA then passing out in an Inuvik hotel instead of attending an MLAs’ meeting; or voting for a motion that allows the Prime Minister instead of voters to extend the legislature’s term of office – in other words, an act that could only be characterized as sheer stupidity or negligence, running against an incumbent is an uphill battle. Name recognition counts for a great deal. Another factor in many constituencies is family ties. In each of these races, large families or the support of specific demographic sectors were seen to be major factors in the incumbents’ success. As likely were the smear campaigns a factor in the defeat of their closest competitors.
That of the seven women who ran and lost, that the two seen as front-runners were subjected to overt smear campaigns calling into question their personal suitability, is no coincidence. The public is hostile to capable women who “lean in”: who dare to move out from behind the scenes, into decision-making positions.
This is evidenced by the less-specific and more generalized hostility evidenced on campaign signs. Graffiti on campaign signs such as “slut” and “whore” are not about any sexual licentiousness on the part of the candidate. Rather, such obviously inapplicable slurs are about putting women in their place, as it were: recasting capable individuals as out-of-place primarily sexual service objects – assuming that women are there for male consumption on men’s terms. Women candidates are sexualized by such slurs, and their courage is re-cast as sexual aggressiveness and therefore an inherent threat to family values and male sexual/political dominance and male privilege. This upending of what is viewed as the way things should be – men in charge – is at odds with the “normal” constituted by unearned and undeserved male dominance. So the “slut” and “whore” critique is, at a deeper level, about denying women permission to define themselves as capable and credible candidates for public consideration.
Alternatively, women candidates may be targeted as “bitches”, “aggressive”, “bossy” – labels that again make the assumption that women should not determine the narrative, be in control, make decisions, have power or make it felt, or presume to exert superior knowledge or skills in ways that require cooperation of others. Intellectually, not many people would argue with that critique. However, every time we put a little girl in seemingly harmless yet physically hobbling high heel shoes and makeup and praise her for being pretty, or constantly reward her for being quiet and not speaking out of turn – we are paving the way to normalizing both women and men to understand and structure strong women leaders as undesirable outliers: running for office becomes the equivalent of speaking without asking permission by raising her hand, or leaving the house without the makeup that renders us more pleasing (sexualized and subservient) to the male-privilege-reinforcing gaze.
My intention is not to get all big-word gobbledygook – rather, this analysis is necessary because it makes plain what people really mean by invoking the slut/bossy paradigm to undermine women candidates. Unpacking some of these usual and almost unquestioned ways in which women candidates are structured and attacked is important to consciously address. Because this analysis provides evidence grounding my main contention that a Women’s Parliament is not only substantively pointless, financially wasteful and therefore inadvisable, but could actually be harmful. Because in holding a Women’s Parliament, the men over at the Legislature are letting themselves – and all other men, and society generally – off the hook with respect to the fact that the attitudes of each of us toward women and what we view as their natural or normal role in society, deeply influences the participation of women in politics. A bizarrely patriarchal solution to put the women in a room together to play at politics further solidifies a view of women as a special interest group in need of male instruction and “help”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What would be a far better use of everyone’s time and money – other than funding and empowering the NWT Status of Women Council to actually do its job with respect to research and analysis on this issue, and to provide badly needed gender critiques of public policy decisions across government – would be an Understanding Patriarchy and Male Privilege Parliament for male MLAs. This exercise could include assigned debates on topics such as understanding male privilege and how men deploy it unconsciously and strategically to dis-empower women. This should be focused not only with respect to how they might collude in smear campaigns against women candidates at election time, but also how they use patriarchal assumptions and male privilege in their personal and domestic spheres, and with respect to relations with the staff at the Legislative Assembly and the bureaucracy, for example. At the end of that Parliament, which would include lectures and role play exercises led by Indigenous and non-Indigenous feminist thinkers, and perhaps thinkers exploring conceptions of masculinity and oppression, the NWT would be far better positioned to increase women’s political participation than any make-believe Women’s Parliament might achieve.
Laughable? It actually makes more rational sense than having a Women’s Parliament. The fact is, men’s attitudes not only at election time, but generally, constitute a huge factor discouraging women from running for office. Changing men’s attitudes and society’s attitudes is crucial to removing the fundamental barriers to having more women in public life. That will not happen if men are left to be sexist and women are excluded from questioning sexism.
Given the experiences of women in NWT elections such as those outlined above, why would any accomplished, well-respected woman take time from her family and work, and volunteer commitments, to run for office? To endure the humiliation and slander of campaign signs bearing her image overwritten with “slut” and “whore”? To have her appearance analyzed and criticized and loaded with an importance that men are not subjected to? To be cast as aggressive and overly ambitious at the expense of her family and children’s well-being? And then on being elected to the legislative assembly – to then be marginalized and shut out of Cabinet and subjected to what is likely constant and ubiquitous male privilege structuring everything from policy discussions, to the time of day the legislature sits (in the afternoons only, directly disrupting family lives and presuming MLAs cannot be primary caregivers to children)?
I know I speak for many women in opposing a Women’s Parliament specifically. Instead, I think most women would support the government in taking more meaningful and longer-term measures to promote women’s political participation. A Women’s Parliament idea may be well-intended. But ultimately it would be a misguided initiative that will have a harmful impact on women’s political participation. The NWT Status of Women’s Council has little credibility as an independent and robust voice for women, and is not put in place by women, but instead by a Premier that they obviously feel intimidated by, as evidenced by their immediate acquiescence to a play-acting political participation exercise that is both insulting and patronizing. The Council has descended into a mere symbolic shell of the robust advocacy organization it was once was under the capable and necessarily outspoken leadership of former Executive Director Ms. Lynn Brooks. That former credibility has been decimated by the Council’s consistent silence on major public policy decisions, providing no or little meaningful or relevant analysis that would otherwise be factored into decision making on environmental assessments, health and social policy, and environmental sustainability. The Council’s analytical torpor is a big indication that the Premier and his Cabinet think that improving the lot of women is not a priority for this government.
This Premier and Cabinet have an opportunity to understand and remedy the vital connection between the marginalization of the NWT Status of Women Council under their watch, and the barriers to NWT women’s involvement in politics. A Women’s Parliament would be a purely political move. Providing the resources and fostering the political independence and social policy capacity of the Status of Women’s Council would be a substantial and meaningful start to long term and substantial change – change that the Premier himself recognizes is badly needed.