Women in Politics

Women in Newfoundland and Labrador won the right to vote and run for political office in 1925. Five years later, Lady Helena Squires became the first woman elected to the House of Assembly. Female representation in politics has increased since then, but at a slow pace. Almost a century later, men still occupy the overwhelming majority of seats at all levels of government. Kathy Dunderdale became the province's first elected woman premier in 2011, but the same general election awarded 40 of the House of Assembly's 48 seats to men. Similar gender imbalances exist in other Canadian legislatures.

Suffrage Movement

The women's suffrage movement experienced tremendous success internationally during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women won voting rights in New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902, Great Britain and Canada in 1918, and the United States in 1920. After a hard-fought, decades-long battle, Newfoundland and Labrador women also won the right to vote and run for political office on 13 April 1925. Although a substantial victory, it was not complete - men could vote at age 21, but women had to be 25.

Ninety per cent of women voters cast ballots in their first general election on 29 October 1928, but none ran for political office. Two years later, Lady Helena Squires, wife of then Newfoundland Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires, became the first woman elected to the House of Assembly after winning a by-election at Lewisporte on 17 May 1930. She received 81 per cent of the vote, but was defeated in the 1932 general election in the district of Twillingate. There were no other women candidates.

After Confederation

More than 40 years passed before a second woman served in the House of Assembly. On 16 September 1975, Liberal candidate Hazel McIsaac won the St. George's riding in a provincial general election. She was defeated in the next general election on 18 June 1979, but two women were elected - Progressive Conservatives Hazel Newhook in Gander and Lynn Verge in Humber East. They became the province's first female cabinet ministers, when Premier Brian Peckford appointed Verge Minister of Education, and Newhook Minister of Consumer Affairs and Environment. Both were reelected in 1982. Newhook remained in office until 1985, and Verge became the province's first female Conservative leader in 1995.

Only three other women were elected to the provincial legislature during the 1980s: Conservatives Ida Reid (1982-1985), Shannie Duff (1989-1990), and Patricia (Pat) Cowan (1989-1996). Cowan held three cabinet posts during her career, as Minister of Employment and Labour Relations, Minister of Environment and Lands, and the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women.

Beginning in the 1990s, there was a surge in the number of women elected to legislative office. Provincially, three women were elected in 1993, seven in 1996, and eight in 1999. A record 10 were sent to House of Assembly in each of the 2003 and 2007 elections. On 3 December 2010, Kathy Dunderdale became the province's first female premier after Danny Williams resigned as Conservative leader; she led the party to victory in the 2011 general election, winning 37 of the House of Assembly's 48 seats. However, the number of women MHAs dropped from 10 to eight that year.

Increasing numbers of women were appointed to cabinet posts in the 1990s, from one in 1993, to four in 1996, and five in 1999. Since then, the number of female cabinet ministers has alternated between four (after the 2003 and 2011 elections) and five (after the 2007 election). Cabinet posts are where much of the real power lies in Canadian politics, so women's representation there can bring about significant policy change. In 1979, for example, Education Minister Lynn Verge established a Ministerial Advisory Committee on Women's Issues in Education.

As the number of women cabinet ministers grew in the coming years, so too did their influence. Joan-Marie Aylward, Minister of Health and Community Services in Brian Tobin's 1996-1999 Liberal administration, discussed the effect they had in 1997: "This was the first year ever we have put out a social budget with the focus on social policy and programs on a picture of our budget. It was a very moving time for us (the women in cabinet) because the focus was on children, early childhood education, the School-Lunch Foundation, licensed regulated daycare" (Lang 82-83).

At the federal level, Newfoundland and Labrador sent Liberals Bonnie Hickey and Jean Payne to the House of Commons in 1993. They were the province's first women Members of Parliament, elected 44 years after Confederation. Of the province's seven seats in the House of Commons, no more than two have ever been occupied by women at any one time. No women from Newfoundland and Labrador were elected in the 1997, 2000, 2004, or 2006 elections. In 2008, Liberals Judy Foote and Siobhan Coady won the ridings of Random-Burin-St. George's and St. John's South-Mount Pearl, respectively. In the 2011 federal election, Foote was the only woman elected from the province.

Reasons for the 1990s Surge

The surge of elected female candidates in the 1990s has been attributed to a number of factors. Most important was the modern women's movement, which had been active in the province since the 1970s and did much to change perceptions of women's roles in society. It encouraged women to run for political office through programs such as the 52% Solution, which sent Lynn Verge and other prominent figures on a bus tour across the island, and the Women's Mentoring Program, which helped female candidates organize election campaigns.

The 52% Solution was created by the Provincial Advisory Committee on the Status of Women (PACSW) and various women's community groups in 1987. That year, women accounted for 52 per cent of the province's population, but held only one of House of Assembly's 52 seats. The Women's Mentoring Program was also supported by PACSW. Created in 1997, its advisory committee was composed of women from all political affiliations who together provided encouragement, advice, and support for new female candidates.

With the growth of the women's movement, political parties recognized they could gain voter support by nominating more women candidates. An early problem, however, was that women were often asked to run in unwinnable ridings, where an opponent was much more likely to be elected. This tactic allowed parties to boost the number of female candidates they ran, while reserving the safest seats for men. According to Vancouver MP Hedy Fry: "When all of the polling and everything show that you have a chance of forming a government, suddenly people want to run in winnable ridings and it tends to be the 'old boys network' who also have been in the party for many years" (Lang 63).

By the mid-1990s, this was beginning to change. Voters and politicians were more accustomed to women taking on public roles and positions of power than in the past. At the same time, greater numbers of women were working in law, business and other professions that not only served as traditional recruiting grounds for political candidates, but provided them with the financial resources and professional networks to help organize election campaigns. As a result, more women were entering politics and being nominated in winnable ridings.

Party leaders in the 1990s also had the political will to increase women's representation. At the federal level, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien received a mandate from his party to ensure that 25 per cent of all Liberal candidates running in the 1993 election were women; he fielded 64 women candidates, appointed 11 in winnable ridings, and 36 were elected, including Newfoundland's first two female MPs, Hickey and Payne. Provincially, all three mainstream political parties tried to boost women candidates during the 1990s. Twenty two entered the 1996 general election, 27 in 1999, and 30 in 2003.

Support from party leaders does much to foster a welcoming political culture for women and create swift change in government demographics. Julie Bettney, a Liberal MHA from 1996-2003, stated that support from then Liberal Leader Brian Tobin during the 1996 election helped create a better atmosphere for women: "I had a base, a presence, to build on that was well respected, and I also had a leader who went out of his way to encourage and to show others that he wanted to have women in his government, but that made it publicly very acceptable to support me. I did run for a provincial nomination one other time, a number of years ago, and it wasn't the same experience, it was quite a negative experience where the 'backroom' kind of ganged up" (Lang 50).

Challenges Still Exist

Despite advances, barriers still prevent women from achieving gender parity in politics. Time, money, and political culture are among the most significant. According to the 2006 Canadian Census, women perform more hours of unpaid housework than men. They are still the primary caregivers to children and the elderly in our society, and often do not have schedules flexible enough to accommodate the significant time demands of public office.

Women also earn less on average than men and have fewer business networks, making it difficult to finance expensive political campaigns through personal incomes and fundraising. Women interested in entering politics have fewer role models than men, while chauvinistic or sexist comments directed at female legislators by their colleagues often receive significant media coverage, adding to a perception that political culture is more hostile to women than it is to men.

Various solutions to the problem of women's chronic under-representation have been advanced by the women's movement, academics, and politicians. For example, political parties can set quotas for women candidates in each election, nominate women in winnable ridings, and set aside funds to either help women finance campaigns or do educational work to promote women's involvement in politics. Various forms of electoral reform have also been suggested, including proportional representation, where legislative seats are more or less in proportion to votes cast, and dual-member constituencies, where voters would have to elect a man and a woman representative for each riding.

While women's participation in government is greater now than in the past, gender parity has not been achieved and progress towards this goal is slow. Women generally account for between 51 and 52 per cent of the province's population, but, as of 2012, have never exceeded 20.8 per cent of its MHAs (in the 2003 and 2007 elections) or 28.6 per cent of its MPs (in the 1993 and 2008 elections). Similar situations exist in other provinces and most other countries.

Nonetheless, important groundwork has been laid, which may encourage more women to enter politics in the coming years. Although the number of women in government is still small, girls and young women today have more role models than previous generations did. The gender gap has disappeared in post-secondary education, and has narrowed dramatically in labour force participation; polls and academic research also indicate that Canadian voters have no bias against women candidates. Gender parity has not yet been achieved in Canadian legislatures, but it is not an impossible goal.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2012, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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