Inside the political sisterhood

Pam Frampton
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Female politicians have their own unique challenges and attributes

Lorraine Michael is shown at her home in St. John's. — Photo by Pam Frampton/ The Telegram

“In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.”

— Margaret Thatcher

Part 1 in a three-part series

It’s depressing to realize that I first started writing about women in politics more than 20 years ago, and it’s still seen as something of an anomaly here.

And if you don’t believe me, consider the fact that when Danny Williams left office and Kathy Dunderdale took the reins of the provincial government — resulting in the three mainstream political parties in this province being led by women — it made national headlines.

“When Danny Williams closed the book on his political career this week,” The Toronto Star’s Ottawa bureau reported in November 2010, “he opened a new page in Canadian history: women now rule on the Rock.”

“With women leading all major parties,” the National Post reported as recently as Aug. 6 this year, “Newfoundland’s seas are changing.”

What’s surprising is that those seas did not change sooner.

(And if you have any other doubt as to there being too few women in politics, consider that I had to turn to an ultra-conservative former British prime minister for a quote to illustrate this column.)

Sadly, Newfoundland comes second only to Nova Scotia in having the fewest women participating, at least at the federal level. In this year’s election, only 20 per cent of the candidates in this province were women, as compared to Nova Scotia’s 13 per cent. The province with the most women candidates seeking office was Manitoba, with 33.8 per cent.

Only one woman — Liberal MP Judy Foote — was elected here out of seven ridings.

Things aren’t much better at the provincial level. Only nine of the province’s 48 MHAs are women — that’s roughly 19 per cent.

Now, few people would have the temerity in this enlightened society to suggest that men and women aren’t equal, so why isn’t there more girl power in politics?

Provincial NDP Leader Lorraine Michael will tell you there are several reasons.

And she should know.

Calm and serene

Sitting in the eclectic living room of what used to be her parents’ east-end St. John’s home earlier this week, Michael spoke candidly about what she perceives to be general differences between men and women in politics, and why it’s harder for women to get there.

She exudes a zen-like calm as she speaks. Dasha, her calico cat, seems to resent having been woken from her nap in the living room and sidles up for some affection.

A lifelong social activist, Michael said she decided to get involved in politics when she realized the huge role government plays in people’s lives.

“Even if you turn on your tap to get a glass of water, there’s a whole political substructure behind that,” she observed.

She has no regrets about her career choice and is optimistic about October’s provincial election.

“I think we will gain seats,” she said, just minutes after learning she will be challenged for her own by the former auditor general, John Noseworthy. “It’s going to be quite interesting.”

Roadblocks for women

Michael said while she hopes she has inspired both men and women to enter politics in this province, there are still too few women. Among the barriers they face are the demands of parenting and looking after parents, and less access than men to financial backing to mount a campaign.

We may have come a long way, baby, but the truth is we haven’t been here — in the workplace, in the voting booth, in positions of power — long enough to have built up as extensive a network as have men.

“I think (women) do have different considerations,” Michael said. “Too many have had to make the decision that they can’t (run for election) because they’re mothers and they work outside the home.”

She said she’s only ever heard one man say he couldn’t run for election because he had a young child. Of course, that’s not to say men don’t raise their children.

But it’s often women, too, who end up caring for aging parents, and that can put constraints on the time they have available for their careers.

“I would not have been able to run federally (at one time) because I was my mother’s main caregiver,” Michael said. “All of these factors come into play.”

While this province boasts many women in high-profile positions — the federation of labour, the physicians’ association, the nurses’ union, judges — women in high-paying positions are still in the minority, Michael said, and they can’t all call up their buddies to look for financial support.

And, yes, there are still some holdouts to an earlier era who would simply rather elect a man than a woman.

“There is an aspect there of a sense of comfort in having a man as a leader,” she said. “I’m not sure why. I don’t think men have necessarily done such a good job of leading. I hope it’s changing in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Judged on appearance

Even the women who do summon the reserves — time, money, energy, supporters — to throw their hat in the ring, might find once they’re elected they are still treated differently than men.

Let’s face it, aside from people’s strange fascination with the part in former premier Danny Williams’ hair, do you hear much talk about what a male politician is wearing? OK, so there was that Stockwell Day wetsuit incident. … But I’m talking provincially.

(“Look at poor old Jerome, what a sin. Someone should tell him purple’s not his colour.”)

It’s not the same for women, whom people like to dissect in terms of wardrobe, weight and appearance.

“Because women have always been sex objects and how they are perceived is part of that,” Michael said. “I think that’s still there in society. People don’t stop to think why.”

A few years ago, Michael’s staff got a call from someone who said, “Tell Lorraine she’s got to wear lipstick.”

“Men can wear the same suit, shirt and tie every day of the week and it doesn’t get noticed,” she said. “There’s added pressure on women to look good. I try to wear something different five days of the week. Believe me, if I wore the same suit every day — not that I have a lot of suits — it would be noticed.”

Unfortunately, she said, not having enough money to build the kind of wardrobe you need in political life can also be a detriment to potential female candidates. At the provincial level, the NDP actually has the Helen Fogwill Porter fund — spearheaded by labour activist Nancy Riche — which provides funding to female candidates who need it, whether for temporary child care or new shoes.

“We don’t just talk about (encouraging women to enter politics), we really are trying to do something about it,” Michael said of the NDP. “We give it to women in recognition that they don’t have the same access to money that men have, and I’m proud (we’re doing) that.”

Michael said while everyone in the public eye should strive to look their best, she doesn’t spend hours worrying about hair and makeup — though she does draw the line at being interviewed in front of TV cameras outdoors in a gale-force wind. And when she chooses to wear blue, she makes sure it isn’t Tory blue.

Different strokes

She said while women have a different style of leadership — they tend to collaborate and try to build consensus — she doesn’t think that has made a big difference to decorum in the House, where juvenile heckling reigns supreme.

“I would like to think that women could change that,” she says, “but men could change it as well.”

Michael tries to keep questions in the House focused on policies and not personalities, but there are those who are big on bombast and below-the-belt barbs.

“Men tend to be more physical and aggressive in their choice of language,” she observed.

As she plots strategy for the coming election, Michael intends to keep to the high road, as she always has. And she has no plans to give up the good fight anytime soon.

“Who knows what will happen in one’s life,” she says, smiling her enigmatic Mona Lisa smile. “But right now, I have no intention of looking to leave politics.”

Aug. 27: Kathy Dunderdale

Sept. 3: Yvonne Jones

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: National Post, NDP

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ottawa Manitoba

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Recent comments

  • Carl
    August 22, 2011 - 13:49

    The main thing holding women back in Canadian politics today is not how people see them, but their own apprehensions about how people see them. Lorraine Michael is dead wrong if she thinks anyone views her (or Kathy Dunderdale, Judy Foote, Siobhan Coady or any other political woman I can think of) as a sexual object. I certainly don't notice what suits they wear from one day to the next. Perhaps other women talk about what female politicians wear (although I have never overheard such talk), but the men I know certainly do not. I care far more about what their lips are saying than whether or not they wear lipstick. I believe most voters feel the same way. So if these female politicians feel that they are not fully accepted or highly respected, then perhaps they should look at their policies and professional performance.

  • Olga
    August 20, 2011 - 07:43

    I consider myself a bona fide feminist. I deserve the same rights as any man. But an awful lot of women need to do away with the clique mentality and learn to adopt a more professional attitude. Nothing against Ms. Michael personally, but a tendency to "collaborate and try to build consensus" is really just codespeak for being too timid to take a firm stance. Give me a politician (or anyone for that matter) who is capable of thinking for himself/herself and is also able to be respectful of the opinions of others.