We’ve been told that more women in the Legislative Assembly would result in New Brunswick women being better served by politics, but is it true?
There are currently 14 women in the Legislature, the highest number ever in New Brunswick. Fourteen women in a 49-seat Legislature is less than a third, but nine of them are on the government side, and six of the 16 cabinet ministers are women, another record for the province.
Does this advance women’s equality? Has the status of all women improved as a result?
New Brunswick has elected 47 women since 1867. The first was Brenda Robertson in 1967.
1,161 men and 47 women.
Aldéa Landry. Andrea Anderson-Mason. Ann Breault. Arlene Dunn. Beverly Brine. Brenda Fowlie. Brenda Robertson. Carmel Robichaud. Carole Keddy. Carolle de Ste Croix. Cathy Rogers. Cheryl Lavoie. Dorothy Shephard. Elizabeth Weir. Francine Landry. Georgie Day. Isabelle Thériault. Jane Barry. Jill Green. Joan Kingston. Joan MacAlpine. Kathy Bockus. Kim Jardine. Laureen Jarrett. Lisa Harris. Mabel DeWare. Madeleine Dubé. Marcelle Mersereau. Margaret Johnson. Margaret-Ann Blaney. Marie-Claude Blais. Marilyn Trenholme Counsell. Martine Coulombe. Mary Schryer. Mary Wilson. Megan Mitton. Michelle Conroy. Monique LeBlanc. Nancy Clark Teed. Pam Lynch. Pat Crossman. Pierrette Ringuette. Rose-May Poirier. Sherry Wilson. Shirley Dysart. Sue Stultz. Tammy Scott-Wallace.
Did these pioneers advance women’s rights? Have they on occasion banded together in a non-partisan way to achieve feminist gains?
If they did, no one noticed and women did not celebrate. In fact, the spats in the Assembly, and the current status of women in New Brunswick, disabuse us of the idea of possible feminist complicity.
In this regard, a recent event is damning. In December 2020, two months after boasting of appointing a record number of women to his cabinet, Premier Blaine Higgs asked four of his MLAs to represent the party in the Legislature to defeat a proposal under consideration that would have improved access to abortions by allowing them to be performed in clinics, like elsewhere in Canada.
The four women complied with Higgs’ request: three ministers and one MLA. It was probably an easy decision for the Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, who is known for attending anti-choice protests. Hopefully it was an excruciating decision for the Minister for Women’s Equality Tammy Scott Wallace, and for those who had run as pro-choice in the election three months earlier.
This was a show of male power and ambient anti-feminism and is reminiscent of another moment in 2011 when then Finance Minister Higgs announced the abolition of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women in his budget. He asked the eight Progressive Conservative MPs to represent the party in the House to justify the move; Dorothy Shephard, Madeleine Dubé, Marie-Claude Blais, Martine Coulombe, Margaret-Ann Blaney, Sherry Wilson, Pam Lynch and Sue Stultz did this enthusiastically. The government regretted the abolition and made efforts to recreate a council before the election three years later (which it would lose).
Few of our elected women have declared themselves feminist, have acted feminist, have embraced collective struggles and feminist issues. If asked if they have encountered discrimination in their party, we often get a chorus of #NotMe. They are the party, and the party finds them useful to deliver the party message on occasion.
Is this phenomenon similar to what we have seen with some New Brunswick governments that had many Acadians and (therefore?) avoided supporting the Acadian community for fear of being perceived as only interested in this issue and being stigmatized?
In 2018, a female MLA proposed the creation of a caucus of elected women that would work across partisan lines to prioritize certain feminist issues. That idea was nipped in the bud by the elected Conservatives. Higgs’ then Justice Minister, Andrea Anderson-Mason, said she was more than just a woman and that it was not women’s issues that would bridge partisan differences. She added that she was not one who lacked confidence as a woman, and that perhaps it was because she was young that she felt this way. We don’t know how the other elected women, especially those younger than this minister, reacted.
It is easy to conclude that in New Brunswick there is no evidence of a link between the election of women and feminist gains. It would be difficult to credit the gains made by New Brunswick women since the 1970s to the 47 elected women. These gains have more to do with the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the resulting obligation to adjust provincial laws and practices, to the actions of a few feminist politicians such as Richard Hatfield, and to lobbying by the women’s movement.
Elected women continue to have difficulty in obtaining better conditions in their own workplace, the Legislative Assembly: maternity leave, anti-harassment policy, work-life balance policy, virtual work.
The situation, and my analysis, are no doubt influenced by the fact that the majority of women elected in New Brunswick – 24 of the 47 – have been conservative: 22 from the Progressive Conservative Party and others from the Confederation of Regions and the People’s Alliance. The Progressive Conservatives recently governed with eight women elected and no women in the Liberal Opposition, and currently govern with nine women elected and only four women in the other three parties in the Assembly. Conservative parties advocate for government austerity and a free market, which is not a formula for reducing inequalities.
The provincial Liberal Party will have its first ever female leadership candidate in 2022: Susan Holt. Obviously, the political parties in New Brunswick, and even in the Atlantic provinces, are from a different era.
It is becoming clear that more elected women will not advance gender equality. Studies by Canadian researcher Manon Tremblay have come to the conclusion that better representation of women among elected officials does not mean more feminist representation: “Moreover, one might actually be a cover for the other (…) The election of conservative female members during the 1980s was a handy smokescreen for launching a neo-liberal and neo-conservative policy, with one consequence being the attack upon gains made by women.”
Tremblay says that of course more women in power is essential for building a “critical mass” but that may not be adequate for feminist change. For that, elected women must also be feminists. Substantive representation of women is different from quantitative representation.
The distinction between electing more women and feminist politics may not be one that should exist, but it is real because of the socialization to patriarchy, the prevailing misogyny, the forces at play in politics, and the ways in which our political parties operate.
It should be noted that it was not the feminist movement that claimed that more elected women would be enough to abolish the systems that produce inequality. Feminists have never celebrated the election or legacy of the Margaret Thatchers of the world, but have supported the right of any woman to run for office, even when she has no intention of advancing the feminist project. The real feminist project – gender equality and a better world for all – requires feminists to engage in feminist politics, occupy political parties, attract feminist candidates and demand feminist platforms.
It’s not uteruses that change politics. It’s feminist analysis and action.
Since a strong feminist movement no longer comments on what is done in feminism’s name, “feminism” has been reduced to meaning individual autonomy, empowerment, or what I call “let’s add women to photos of the status quo”. This is far from the feminist change that is advocated and needed.
We need more women in the Legislature because the Legislature should look like the provincial population and because more diversity means more talents, views and ideas. But, if we expect feminist change and gender equality, it is more feminists – of all sexes – and more feminist and gender analysis in the Legislature that is needed.
About ten years ago, at a lunch conference on women in politics with the expert on the topic, Joanna Everitt of the University of New Brunswick Saint John, a young woman commented that while she agreed that more women were needed in politics but on the rare occasions when she had the choice of voting for a woman, either the candidate had no chance of being elected or she was not a feminist. She asked Everitt: “Should I vote for a woman just because she is a woman?”
Everitt replied that we need more women in all parties so that we have the choice to vote for a candidate who represents our views. I would add that we should have parties with feminist platforms, so that we can vote for any candidate without fearing for women’s gains.
Rosella Melanson is a Fredericton-based Acadian feminist and blogger. A version of this commentary is available in French here.