Kathy Dunderdale has faced plenty of scrutiny as the province’s first female premier, but she’s up for it
Kathy Dunderdale — Photo by The Telegram
Part two in a three-part series
“I think it’s about time we voted for senators with breasts. After all, we’ve been voting for boobs long enough.”
— Claire King Sargent, American political activist and author
Premier Kathy Dunderdale welcomes you into her eighth-floor office with a smile that has nearly enough wattage to burn off the fog creeping menacingly from the harbour towards Confederation Building.
It’s a cosy office, with floral patterned wing chairs and toffee-coloured round wooden end tables. It’s vibrantly decorated with works by local artists, as is befitting the office of the province’s 10th premier, a warm and quick-witted person who gives you her undivided attention.
Dunderdale is a thoroughly modern woman, but I’ve no doubt she’d agree with the old adage that a woman’s place is in the House.
Provided we’re talking about the House of Assembly.
In fact, she’d like to see more women there. Only nine of the province’s 48 MHAs are women, and that’s not an accurate reflection of the population, the premier said.
“All governance, in my view, should reflect the community it serves …,” she said.
“Communities should be able to look at (governing) bodies and see themselves reflected.”
And it’s not enough to just ensure there’s gender balance in the House — it should reflect the whole of society.
She points to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Patty Pottle as a person whose unique insights as an Inuit woman have helped improve government programs, particularly for people along the Labrador coast.
“She’s the first Inuit woman to sit in our cabinet. We’re much better for it,” Dunderdale said.
Out of all the members of cabinet, it’s the premier herself who’s been getting the most notice lately, particularly since she’s gone through a physical transformation — taking up running and shedding more than 100 pounds. She radiates the warmth and ease of someone who’s at home in her own skin.
“Most of the comments I get are positive ones about being healthy,” she says of the feedback from the public.
Though she admits she loves clothes and fashion, she doesn’t spend too much time scrutinizing her own appearance.
“When I’m ready for work, I’ll have a look at myself, and I might not look at myself again until I’m brushing my teeth at night before going to bed,” she said.
Asked if she’s changed her style since she’s gotten more fit, she laughs heartily.
“My style hasn’t changed any,” she says. “Why would I do that? … There’s always going to be somebody smarter. There’s always going to be somebody more beautiful. There’s always going to be somebody richer. You’ll always be unhappy (if you’re not satisfied with yourself).”
But she does believe female politicians come under greater scrutiny.
“I think that’s how society is structured generally,” she said. “I’ve had people send me things: makeup, (face) powder. I’ve had admonitions about my lipstick.”
She takes it all in stride. “They really don’t mean anything by it — they think they’re helping you.”
It helps that she is far from thin-skinned.
“You have to be true to yourself,” she said. “You’ve got to have a tough hide on you. It’s not always easy to stand out there and let others judge you. (But) you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself.”
She grew up in Burin in a large family, including her seven sisters, and she jokes that the girls had one wardrobe that they shared between them. But she says you don’t have to be a clothes horse to look your best.
“If you’re healthy, clean, well-groomed, then I think you look pretty good,” she said.
Levelling the playing field
Aside from having to deal with the extra emphasis on their appearance, women in politics have faced challenges that men have not had to contend with, Dunderdale acknowledges, though she thinks that’s changing now.
She grew up in a family where politics was often discussed and she became politically active as a teenager, despite the lack of female role models in elected office.
“There were no women involved in governance that I knew of at all. At the same time, as a young woman, it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t have a (point of) view.”
Back then, women did most of the child-rearing, and they didn’t have access to the same network of support and financial backing that men did through fraternal organizations and business connections.
That’s no longer the case, and Dunderdale said young male and female political contenders often find themselves grappling with the same pressures of home, family and career.
“Life, in lots of ways, is more demanding on young families,” she said.
Still, it was when she and her late husband Peter’s own children were young that she began to wade deeper into the political pool by getting involved with the school board.
Her next step was municipal politics and then the provincial arena, though she figured she had the “snowball’s proverbial chance” of winning in Fortune-Hermitage at the time.
Sure enough, she got left behind in the Liberal sweep of ’93 with Clyde Wells at the helm, losing out to Liberal Oliver Langdon. But her second-place finish was respectable — she won 1,391 votes to Langdon’s 3,057.
A decade passed, and with it, she thought, went her opportunity to become an MHA.
“By 1995 to about 2001, I wasn’t thinking I had a future in elected politics at all,” she said.
But opportunity knocked in 2003 and she enjoyed a thunderous victory in Virginia Waters, garnering 4,193 votes and knocking off Liberal heavyweight Walter Noel.
She learned along the way that her favourite place is on the hustings.
“Once I got through that, I loved campaigning — talking to people about what’s important to them. It’s still one of my favourite things about politics,” she said.
One of her least favourite things is wasting time.
“I don’t like the way the House of Assembly is structured,” she admitted. “When people oppose for the sake of opposing, that’s not constructive. Still, we haven’t found a better way.”
She says while she believes it’s very important that opposition parties be able to question the government, “The House of Assembly should be far more productive than it is.”
There’s far too much “You say yes and I’ll say no,” rather than raising the bar on debate and presenting alternate points of view, she said.
“I find all of that a terrible waste of time.”
She concedes that debate in the House can get pointy at times.
“We’re not saints — far from it,” she says, laughing.
Even so, she encourages people of both genders to consider a life in politics, particularly young women.
“I say to them that they need to get it in their heads as an option,” she said.
It’s an option she intends to exercise as she winds up for her first election as premier.
“I think we have a sterling record of the last eight years to stand on,” she said. “We’ve been a principled government and we haven’t strayed from that. … It’s such a privilege to be here and do this kind of work at this time in our history.”
Next week: Yvonne Jones
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.