By Christine McLaughlin and Councillor Amy England
We’ve come a long way from the days when women were denied the vote and barred from public office. Because of the efforts of a few willing to challenge the status quo, women won the right to vote and serve as political representatives in twentieth-century Canada. But many barriers remain for women in politics in 2013; this is evidenced by the low number of women elected relative to their representation in the general population. In Canada, 16 per cent of mayors and 25 per cent of councillors are women; the United Nations recommends 30 per cent women in order to have government reflect the concerns of women. No provincial legislature in Canada has ever achieved gender parity, with current numbers ranging between 10 and 35 per cent of representative who are women. The numbers are just as bad or worse federally: even though a record number of women were elected in the most recent 2011 contest, only 25 per cent of sitting MPs are women.
Sometimes these barriers to women’s political participation in politics are cultural rather than systemic. For example, the image of a man with a young family and pregnant wife triggers perceptions of an ideal political candidate. Reverse that image by placing a young pregnant woman in the position of political candidate, and perceptions can shift. While few question the ability of a young father to be a good political representative, the idea that a young woman can be a good mother and politician remains contentious for some. Oshawa Regional Councillor Amy England’s recent announcement that she is pregnant illustrates some of the major institutional and informal barriers to young women’s participation in politics. Elected officials are not entitled to Employment Insurance, which covers maternity leave. Municipal politics are governed by the Municipal Act, which is silent on maternity. According to the Act, any municipal representative who misses three consecutive meetings must vacate their seat unless a vote from Council approves this absence.
I sat down with my good friend and Regional Councillor Amy England recently to discuss some of the challenges facing women and mothers in politics:
What made you decide to run for office?
I was actively involved in a student housing issue as the president of my student union, and while on a week-long campout protesting at City Hall, we thought: wouldn’t it be a crazy idea if I ran for office? And that’s how it started. Seeing all the great things I could do for students on one level inspired me to think about what I could do for all residents at the next level.
Have you faced any particular challenges as a young woman in politics?
Let’s see, I’ve been accused of getting into office on my looks and was almost audited as a result. When that first scandel hit, I was referred to as snaggle-tooth on the front page of the Toronto Star. Later on, I was publicly attacked for participating in a drag show to raise money for a local youth camp – the male councillor who I performed with the next year did not get any flak. Sometimes I feel like I’m under more scrutiny, and don’t get the same level of respect as other members. I always have to prove and validate why my points and arguments are logical much more than some of the seasoned male politicians. One rule I have learned though is always be persistent for the issues my constituents care about and follow my gut.
Now that I’m pregnant, there has also been discussion about whether or not I’m married, whether or not I know who is the father of my child. Apparently because I didn’t change my name, some believe I am not actually married. However, I’m not even sure why that matters in 2013.
Why is your pregnancy a political issue? How can this help other young women who want to enter politics?
At least in the last 30 years, there hasn’t been a pregnant woman on Council in Oshawa or Durham region. Since there haven’t been very many young women, the Municipal Act is silent on maternity and breastfeeding. For example, you need special permission of your Council to miss three successive months of meetings. Also, there is no policy on how to deal with breaks for breastfeeding. And although we aren’t considered to be employees, the lack of provisions or policies could keep young women out of government. Since announcing my pregnancy, I’ve been told to wait until my term is up – what kind of logic is that? As if women who have children are no longer valuable to the political arena. Politics can be a very cut-throat and vicious game, and when you’re pregnant and dealing with that…I can see why many young women choose to stay out. I think by not being silent, and by offering inclusive policies that allow women to enter the game – and I call it a game because it’s still the old boys club – more women can get involved. I don’t think many appreciate the flexibility of the job, and that you can manage with a little support from the province. It should not be an individual Council decision because then it is left up to the political whim of your colleagues.
How does this fit into the Municipal Act?
We already know breastfeeding is a human right. And women can breastfeed in any public place without fear of discrimination. And since I’m not an employee the Council Chambers is a public space. Logic would state I am able to breastfeed while at work. However because the Municipal Act is silent on maternity and breastfeeding, it becomes the individual decision of a Council. And when it comes to women’s rights, this should not be an individual decision. If provisions are made to allow breaks for breastfeeding, it shouldn’t be that I leave and Council continues voting. What if there is a politically contentious issue where the difference of one vote matters? As long as my baby is not disruptive, I should be allowed to stay. But I also I think it’s time we start discussing alternative modes of voting for these exact situations.
What has the public reaction been to your announcement of your pregnancy?
For the most part, very positive. However, the angry negative reactions have been harsh and archaic. I’ve had hate mail. There have been posts on news articles suggesting I should “shut my fish-trap,” and be a good mother and stay home with my child where I belong. Some have accused me of choosing my voting rights over my child. I’ve been told I should have kept my legs closed until my term was up. And I think the worst accusation is that I’m using my unborn child as a prop for political gain. It makes me sad to think one day my child might read this hateful stuff on the internet. And it should make us rethink how we do politics in general, when even future children are being attacked. Another issue is that many don’t understand the difference between breastfeeding and bottle-feeding, and that it isn’t as simple as “go pump,” especially in the first few months. I think the negative comments highlight even further the barriers to women getting involved to begin with. There are at least three young women on the municipal level making this an issue across the country – one is in Saskatoon, one is in Alberta, and me in Ontario. In one case the Council took breaks so she could breastfeed; the woman in Saskatoon chose to miss out on voting. Three out of how many municipal elected officials? Backlash from right-wing media outlets could further hurt women thinking about coming into politics. How different would things be, like access to childcare, food and shelter, issues that many women care about, if we’re better represented at the table? Less than 25 percent at the table is just tokenism. Maybe this will open the discussion about how to support people with young families in government. Instead of continuing to focus on outdated policies and acts that keep them out.
As it stands, issues surrounding breastfeeding and young mothers engaged in political careers have remained largely unchallenged across the world. Rules on women breastfeeding in parliament are largely non-existent, except where elected women have tackled this issue. In 2003, newly elected Australian Member Kirsty Marshall breastfed in Parliament, and was ejected as a result. Her actions ultimately led to provisions allowing Australian women to breastfeed in Parliament. It is never easy trailblazing a new path. The history of women in politics shows that those willing to challenge the status quo have often been subject to attack and ridicule as a result. But their perseverance widened the path for women’s political participation. There is clearly more work to be done here.
Christine McLaughlin is a PhD Candidate in History at York University and Co-Editor of ActiveHistory.ca. Amy England is currently in her first term as Oshawa Regional Councillor and her second trimester.