Who’s Afraid of Women in the House?

The following commentary was first published by the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on March 8, 2017.

A hundred years ago, New Brunswick women couldn’t vote. No, this is not going to be about how women today are lucky and better off, or even thankful.

In 1917, women, who had been agitating for several decades already for the right to vote in New Brunswick, had their hopes up. They thought 1917 would be the year, given their war effort and that women from five other provinces had gained it. When a suffrage bill was proposed, women “flocked in such numbers to the Halls of Legislation that they had the Hall itself and the members went to the gallery”, according to the minutes of the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the times.

But that bill was defeated like others before it, due to indifference and political gamesmanship. Women’s suffrage was a chip in a play between parties. Some would say a political tradition to this day. But on that day in 1917, in a Legislature corridor, women mobbed – terrorized, according to some – some elected members. The 1917 “fiasco” got the political class to see the writing on the wall and New Brunswick women eventually won the vote in 1919. Though women elsewhere usually obtained the right to run for elected office at the same time as the right to vote, in New Brunswick it was another 15 years before that was granted (the idea of women in the House having caused such jocularity when it was suggested).

New Brunswick cannot claim that it has shown a particular appreciation of women or women’s rights in our history. Not that we are significantly worse than other regions, but we’ve managed to make sure we are no better.

These days, we have had the lowest proportion in Canada of elected female members to the provincial legislature for years, though recently Prince Edward Island took over that category. Not because we improved, but because their rate worsened.  Our Legislature is now 84 percent male. It has been as low as 82 percent. It goes up and down from tragic to marginally less pathetic. Who deserves 84 percent of the seats when they are 49 percent of the population? If you think the Legislature has so many males because of the merit principle, go sit in on the goings on at the Legislature.

Women’s low representation is not seen as a problem since there have been no attempts to change it, other than the incantations heard from the political parties before every election: “We really, really want more women.”

Here’s the thing: political parties are gatekeepers, and they receive significant public funding. They have a responsibility to act and for decades now, plenty of examples from around the world of what works. But the government has the main responsibility to act.

In 2003, when the New Brunswick government created the Commission on Legislative Democracy “to strengthen and modernize New Brunswick’s democratic institutions”, its mandate did not include women’s quasi-absence from our Legislature. However, the Commission’s final report, which has been lauded nationally, included a good discussion of the problem and of the levers that must be worked to increase women’s representation and improve democracy.

The Commission gave New Brunswick a plan that could have had us reach 35 percent female MLAs by now. The annual allowance that government gives to political parties would have been increased by $1 per vote for any party where males were no more than two-thirds of candidates. The Commission also recommended that government assist groups to encourage women to get into politics.

New Brunswick is a great place to live. New Brunswickers are kind, plain folks. If only we did our politics more responsibly. That goes for everywhere these days.

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