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 let’s 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 party’s 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 there’s 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: “There 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, they’re not really sure. Let’s face it, we still have that issue to face.”
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 didn’t force a vote on a leadership review at that time, she said, but she was asked to step down, which she did. Gender wasn’t the only issue in either her or Crane’s case, she conceded, “but I think a lot of people, if they asked themselves honestly in their heads, ‘am I comfortable with a woman leader?’, I think there are some who would have to say ‘I’m not sure I’m there yet’.” And she emphasized that it’s time to “get over” this hurdle.
Mella’s 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, doesn’t think so, if her letter to the editor today responding to Mella is any indication: “Women 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.” She referred to the recent past when “at the same time, five women had the distinction of holding the top positions in Island political life...how quickly we forget.” Her advice: today’s leaders of both genders need to focus on addressing “real issues of illiteracy, poverty and addictions, to name a few.”
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, it’s an opportunity to identify what those obstacles are and how they can be overcome. For those who don’t, it’s a chance to air those views as well.
Let’s 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.
Mella’s right: it’s time to “get over” the gender issue, but that can’t happen unless the challenges or barriers experienced by today’s women are faced, identified and resolved.