Our first female premiere has just stepped down and St. John’s has its first all-male council since 1969. Why should we care about the lack of women in government and what should we do about it? I asked Sheilagh O’Leary, former St. John’s City Councillor at Large, what she thought and talked to her about an upcoming Equal Voice St. John’s forum on women in politics.
I just saw on Twitter that you’re organizing a forum for women in politics. Can you tell me about that?
It’s the local chapter of Equal Voice. Equal Voice is a national non-partisan organization that aims to encourage women to get involved in the political sphere. They’ve been on the go for quite some time and we’ve had a local chapter that’s oscillated back and forth for quite some time and it’s mostly been inactive, but there seems to be a new wave of interest in getting it going again. The beauty of Equal Voice is that it is non-partisan, so you get people from all different parties. And it’s all different levels of government: provincial, federal, municipal, it doesn’t matter.
I would never vote for somebody just because they were a woman or man, but you need to have more people encouraged to actually put themselves forward for that call.
Why should we even care if there aren’t many women in our governments?
Women do have a different perspective. When a woman steps up to the plate, [she] brings different life experiences. Not just about being a mother, but certainly women who are mothers and juggle childcare and balancing work and family life, it’s a big issue. So we know that those kinds of issues are going to be dealt with in a different way when you’ve got women in those roles. Maybe daycare’s not as huge a priority for the male sector as it is for the female sector, I’m not saying yes or no, but I’m saying there are many issues that affect women that don’t get represented if they’re not at the table.
(Interesting tidbit from Equal Voice’s Fundamental Facts: “The United Nations says that a critical mass of at least 30% women is needed before legislatures produce public policy representing women’s concerns and before political institutions begin to change the way they do business.” – Ed.)
For me, personally, we’ve had a lot of interesting comments lately because we had our first female premiere and a number of female premieres across the country which has given a bit of false security about the numbers of women that are actually in politics… Oh, can you hold one second?
[No kidding: she pauses to take a call from her son’s school, as he is home sick and she’s in charge of the child care.]
But the stats actually show that we’re still so far behind. Having a couple of women that have risen to premiere is phenomenal, but it’s not really representational of the full scheme. And as we can see on the local level in the city, we have no female presence on our city council. If you look at the provincial government (pictured left, as tweeted by then-priemere Kathy Dunderdale), it’s the same thing. The numbers [of women in government] are extremely low. Look right across the country, you’ll find the same thing.
My personal feeling is that we are in a regressive time right now and it is our responsibility to encourage young, vital women — and they are out there — to get involved in politics.
And that’s what Equal Voice is about, it’s about encouraging young and older women who have something to offer, and to be a supportive organization to let them know that there are learning tools out there, and that everyone has to start from scratch. Often times women are the ones in the communities who are behind the scenes working on boards and committees and they need extra encouragement to actually be the front runners.
Why do you think this is a regressive time?
That’s my personal feeling, I don’t say that as a representation of Equal Voice. Look at the federal scene, under a Harper government. We’re certainly not seeing much in terms of extra supports to women, we’re not seeing a lot of women represented in the federal government. Again, same thing at the provincial level it’s and certainly now on our doorstep in St. John’s. It seems like it’s gone backwards. And that concerns me greatly. I’d like to see more multi-cultural representation, as well.
What will happen at this forum?
It’s in the formative stages right now, but there seems to be a lot of new energy: I’ve had a lot of younger women come up to me and tell me that they’re doing political science, that they’re really involved and really interested, but that they don’t know where to start. I guess the first thing is demystifying the process, so that people aren’t fearful, and letting them know that everybody has to start from zero but that there are supports out there.
Ultimately, one of the things that happens with Equal Voice is mentorship. For me, personally, the former deputy mayor Shannie Duff was an important mentor for me and I was fortunate enough to have some encouragement from her to push myself forward. And I know that I’m not the only one that she encouraged. But to have strong female role models like that, I think, is crucial. So I think that will be the focus. And to have representatives from all political parties come in and talk about their experiences, and share their experience, I think there’s nothing greater than that: mentorship is it.
The Equal Voice St. John’s forum will take place on April 26th in the E.B. Foran Room at City Hall. Times and more details TBA. Main photo by Adrian Wyld / CP files, taken from this National Post article.