Minister of Health Jane Philpott (right) listens to Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould respond to a question, Ottawa, April 14, 2016. CP/Adrian Wyld.
Political parties are contested spaces. Few know this better than Canada’s Liberals. Regularly derided as the party that campaigns on the left and governs on the right, that aphorism captures a long-standing split in its zeitgeist and membership. Since at least the days of Laurier and Mackenzie King, the party’s ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings have been regularly at war. Most recently, the contest manifests itself in the resignations of cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott. As Monique Bégin’s 2018 memoir, Ladies, Upstairs! My Life in Politics and After, similarly demonstrates, the feminist liberal left can be a force to be reckoned with. Philpott’s hopes, summed up in the phrase which provides the title for these observations, match those of many feminist liberals.
Feminists have a long history of trying to force liberalism, which is sometimes credited with a ‘radical feminist future,’ to the left. Just as Wilson-Raybould, Philpott, and Bégin struggled for reform in times of uncertainty and protest, so did their suffragist predecessors. Activists such as Ishbel and John Gordon (the Aberdeens), Nellie L. McClung, and Mary Ellen and Ralph Smith likewise counted on progressive liberalism to combat extremes of wealth and power. While they largely failed to see racial oppression, they intended a modern liberal state to serve as an instrument of justice for white women and workers and as an alternative to sex and class war. Until at least WWII, left and right wing liberals alike largely ignored or endorsed the exclusion of Indigenous peoples and most non-Europeans from the ideal body politic. Both Smiths, in their determination to exclude Asian immigrants, offer a reminder of the failures of the left, feminist and otherwise, regarding race relations.
The British vice-regal aristocrats, the prairie writer and politician, and the BC lib-lab and ‘lib-fem’ politicians relied on the emergence of a progressive alliance, which escaped “clear ideological cleavage between liberal individualism and socialist collectivism.” To this end, they supported a ‘big tent’ politics, just the kind of putative alliance invoked by liberal suffragists in general and Canada’s ‘Parliament of Women,’ the National Council of Women (founded, not coincidentally, by Lady Aberdeen) in particular.
Divides of gender and class, and potentially of race and religion, were, ideally, in the National Council and the country at large, to be bridged by adherence to a supposed common set of ‘human’ or ‘universal’ liberal values, notably individual merit, industry, and compassion. The limits of such a creed in countering personal and collective investment in the structural inequalities of patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism did not, and do not, deter liberal left hopefuls.
Political pragmatism or, to employ their critics’ terminology, opportunism, encourages optimism. Continue reading