On Monday, Cathy Bennett announced she was resigning as MHA for Windsor Lake. Tuesday, the pundits came out in droves. Politicians did, too, but let’s focus on one pundit.
Memorial University political science professor Steve Tomblin said in an interview with CBC: “She was a potential leader, she ran for the leadership race, but I think she was inexperienced. I don’t think she fully understood the political game. It’s a blood sport. … She was an amateur. I think that she was savaged. I think that she was pushed under the bus … so I think it’s really kind of a sad story because somebody who had some potential … skill sets … was basically brutalized or bullied.”
Let’s take this commentary apart. On the face of it, Tomblin sounds sympathetic — Bennett was sacrificed, she was savaged, she was pushed under the bus — and yet those compassionate phrases are wrapped in some condescending observations about Bennett herself, and women in politics. I’m left with more questions than answers and a continuing frustration with the limits put on women by observations like those made by Tomblin.
He starts by describing Bennett as a potential leader but then says she was inexperienced. Later he says, “she was an amateur.” Conveniently, Tomblin forgets Bennett managed a successful franchise along with other businesses for significant period of time before entering politics. Just how experienced should Bennett have been to be eligible for political leadership roles?
One of the things said about Bennett was that she hadn’t held office before seeking the leadership role. Tell me again where Ches Crosbie was MHA before he became the Conservative Party leader? Oh wait, he wasn’t. He’s going after Bennett’s soon-to-be vacated seat. As Ted Russell said famously, politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador are merchants and lawyers, lawyers and merchants.
Tomblin also says, “I don’t think she fully understood the political game. It’s a blood sport.”
Bennett, like many women, knows how hard politics can be. Many are reluctant to enter public life because of the painful scrutiny to which they are subjected — scrutiny that is far above what men get every day.
One of the things said about Bennett was that she hadn’t held office before seeking the leadership role. Tell me again where Ches Crosbie was MHA before he became the Conservative Party leader?
Tomblin notes Bennett was savaged and bullied. I don’t know how Bennett could sit down with all the knives in her back. But the bullying and harassment women face is different from that of men. Bennett was body shamed, as many other women have been before her.
I know women who worked in politics, from municipal councillors to MHAs and MPs. The amount of “advice” they got was unparalleled, and no place was exempt — not even the grocery store fruit and vegetable aisle — when it came to people suggesting hair, makeup and clothing tips.
But why must we see politics as a blood sport? Why is it acceptable to see this area as one where people are torn apart? Every day we make decisions, some good, some bad. Yes, we must hold accountable those who hold office, but there is a difference between pointing out poor decisions (hello, levy and library closures) and bullying.
We know from research that when women enter fields previously dominated by men, they end up making that environment better, often at great personal cost. In 1991, I was part of a team that studied the impact of women in the offshore oil industry. I remember one manager telling us that sales of deodorant went through the roof and the amount of swearing dropped when women were allowed on the rigs.
Smelling and speaking better notwithstanding, the experience of the then few women on the rigs in those early days was of isolation and marginalization. So, too, with women in politics.
I think Bennett knew and still knows the political game. I think her goal and those of others was to make it, if not smell better metaphorically speaking, at least set a new standard for better behaviour.
Windsor Lake’s loss is one the whole province will bear. Tomblin’s comments were a disservice, not just to Bennett and her record, but to the contribution of women in politics to this province generally.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living in St. John’s. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org