We may be well into the 21st century, but the topic of women in politics apparently is still in need of a candid conversation. So letâs have it.
Pat Mella, former Progressive Conservative party leader and treasurer in the Pat Binns government, lifted the lid off the subject recently at the partyâs annual general meeting. On the agenda, among other things, was whether to amend the constitution to allow for a leadership review in 2013, before the next provincial election.
Those proposing the review have emphatically denied that it was an attack on the current leader, Olive Crane. But thereâs little doubt that in the minds of many Crane supporters, it was precisely that. In speaking to the motion, Mella shared what was clearly a strongly held view about women in politics: âThere is a certain percentage of people on Prince Edward Island that just feel women are smart and capable and women can be certain things, but when it comes to having one as your boss, theyâre not really sure. Letâs face it, we still have that issue to face.â
She insisted Crane has faced such sustained criticism of her leadership skills, in part, because of her gender, something she says she herself experienced 16 years ago when some within the party wanted a new leader. They didnât force a vote on a leadership review at that time, she said, but she was asked to step down, which she did. Gender wasnât the only issue in either her or Craneâs case, she conceded, âbut I think a lot of people, if they asked themselves honestly in their heads, âam I comfortable with a woman leader?â, I think there are some who would have to say âIâm not sure Iâm there yetâ.â And she emphasized that itâs time to âget overâ this hurdle.
Mellaâs comments seem to be generating a fresh new debate over an issue many people may have considered settled. Is there a residual resistance to leadership on the basis of gender? A former lieutenant-governor, Marion Reid, doesnât think so, if her letter to the editor today responding to Mella is any indication: âWomen have made great strides in the last century and I respectfully disagree that in this day and age, gender presents a barrier in political leadership.â She referred to the recent past when âat the same time, five women had the distinction of holding the top positions in Island political life...how quickly we forget.â Her advice: todayâs leaders of both genders need to focus on addressing âreal issues of illiteracy, poverty and addictions, to name a few.â
Regardless of who has the accurate take on this issue, it could be an instructive exercise to explore it further. For those who agree with Mella and believe women still face gender barriers, itâs an opportunity to identify what those obstacles are and how they can be overcome. For those who donât, itâs a chance to air those views as well.
Letâs not forget: each generation has its own unique challenges that must be addressed. Just as women during the last century broke new ground for succeeding generations, women today must do the same for those who come after them. Having a conversation about the current experiences of women in all positions of leadership could serve to remind us of what progress has been made, and what remains to be done.
Mellaâs right: itâs time to âget overâ the gender issue, but that canât happen unless the challenges or barriers experienced by todayâs women are faced, identified and resolved.