On Becoming Political.
By Zaren Healey White
The last few months have allowed me to think a lot about women in politics and, more broadly, women’s political engagement and participation in public life. Fresh off a federal election campaign that was very exciting and meaningful for many Canadians, including, as I see in my own circles, many younger voters, our own provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador is imminent.
On the federal scene, in a historic move Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to consider gender when appointing his new cabinet. Rather than ignoring systemic issues that cause women to be less represented in electoral politics, and further underrepresented in top jobs in which they must be appointed, Trudeau noticed gender. He recognized it’s not enough to say, “everyone is equal, sure, we’ll put the best people in” when, for so many flawed reasons, we often think the “best people” have to be men. A deliberately gender balanced cabinet shows the PM understands gender as a social factor, which is promising for future policy, such as following through on a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
As of the time of writing this, there are 33 women candidates running in our provincial election. That’s great, but of course at 40 seats with three candidates each (four in a few circumstances in which an independent is running), 33 candidates of a potential 120 shows gender representation is still far from balanced. And while, not surprisingly, I’d love to see more women involved in running for political office, I recognize the many challenges involved in undertaking a run for office, not least of all when you are a woman.
For me, I wasn’t that interested in provincial or federal politics growing up or even into my early adulthood. I was aware, I voted, and I tried to follow big stories, but I certainly found my engagements in public life elsewhere. As I’ve gotten older, and worked a few years in the media, as well as fostered my feminist beliefs, advocacy, and writing, I’ve come to really recognize how important it is for women to be engaged in political life, and how important this kind of engagement is for me as a feminist.
While the number of women seeking office in elections is still low, I know from working in the media and volunteering in the community that women are very engaged in many aspects of public and political life and that these engagements should not be underestimated. Women’s leadership should be cultivated to flourish in all arenas, and while politics is an important one for clear reasons, such as having women – half of the population – involved in creating policy and making decisions, I don’t want to underestimate all the other ways women and feminists are making a difference.
The NL Women’s Debate, organized by the St. John’s Status of Women Council earlier this month, was historic. A whole debate about women’s issues or issues pertaining to women! Women do make up over half the population in Newfoundland and Labrador and, yes, while any general issue also affects women too, there are many issues that specifically impact women and any women identified people in a greater way. They may also be more adversely impacted, depending on how the issue is tackled.
Violence, poverty, minimum wage, childcare, reproductive rights and health care access, wage parity, sexism, disproportionate levels of violence for women and gender non-conforming people, as well as people facing different intersecting ways of being socially marginalized based on race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and more – these are issues we should all care about, but which many women have no choice but to care about. They can’t be side issues or implied issues, they need to be front and centre alongside everything else we work towards in NL.
Based on the audience turnout, the social media engagement, and the continued discussions after the NL Women’s Debate, it is clear women are engaged in public life in this province. I met high school aged girls since the debate who told me they eagerly watched it, showing how meaningful engagement in women’s issues can start at a young age. From encouraging women to run for politics, to supporting women in community based programming and service delivery, it’s inspiring to see how many women in Newfoundland and Labrador are actively involved, voicing opinions and working for change, every day in a variety of formal and informal ways.
You don’t have to be a politician to have avenues for educating on gender equality and promoting tolerance and understanding related to gender or any forms of prejudice. If you’re a teacher, you have a classroom. If you’re a supervisor, you have your workplace and a culture you can actively foster to be fair, safe, and supportive. If you’re a parent, you have daily, informal interactions with your kids. We all have platforms, physical and virtual, that we can use every day to advocate for better lives for all genders and all people.