The importance of electing women to Parliament Hill
// Claire Vulliamy

A year ago at an estimates hearing in Australia, Finance Minister Penny Wong was interrupted in the middle of her sentence by Coalition senator David Bushby. “If I can finish now,” she said, glaring Bushby in the eye. His response? Cat noises.

Wong immediately responded. "You meow when a woman does that … that's a good idea. It is just extraordinary. The blokes are allowed to yell, but if a woman stands her ground you want to make that kind of comment. It's sort of schoolyard politics, mate.”

In all her 19 years on Parliament Hill, Hedy Fry, the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre, has not seen anything quite like that. However, she says, “It doesn’t mean that the snickering does not occur when a woman gets excited and actually is going after the point that she’s trying to make, and her voice raises a decibel or two, that there isn’t a little snickering, just quiet snickering, because everybody knows that it’s wrong, that it’s sexist, but they snicker,” she says.

“But people at least have the ability to know and to be embarrassed if they’re called out doing it, which at the end of the day I think is some kind of progress, really.”

The first female MP elected to the House of Commons was Agnes MacPhail, who served almost 20 years in office. She was elected in 1921. Currently, women make up about 25 per cent of the House of Commons. The most recent election saw a record high at 76 female MPs in the house, but this 25 per cent still doesn’t accurately represent the demographics of women in the general population.

As women are still a minority in Parliament, and in politics in general, sometimes their needs are not met and they find the structures of a system that was not designed for or by them to be lacking.

“I don’t think you could accuse the Canadian Parliament of discriminating against women in any way shape or form,” says Fry on being a female MP. “There is no basic overt discrimination against females, but there are things that do not acknowledge the presence of female Parliamentarians.”

There are very clear reasons for this, she says. “Men have ruled for the last couple of millennia, and therefore they built institutions of democracy, they’ve built of Parliament,” she says, institutions that “accommodate a male way of thinking, a male way of being.”

Having more women come into office is a step forward; however, the barriers continue even after entry into the House of Commons. What female MPs must face is a historically male institution that has only recently began to change.


As Fry puts it, drawing from her experience as a physician, the different needs of the sexes come down to completely physiological factors. “Female MPs bear children. That gives them a totally different set of responsibilities,” she says.

These differences are sometimes harder to navigate than one might think. Fry mentions a recent event where female MP Sana Hassainia brought her three-month-old Skander-Jack into the house, and was asked to leave. Failing that, she was told to give her baby to a page. “You can imagine, pages are young university students. What mother gives her baby to somebody she doesn’t know, who she doesn’t even know can hold a baby?” Fry asks.

The incident “is now being debated and discussed by a little committee,” Fry says, which may reach a decision about the rules surrounding babies in the House.

Women bringing their babies into the House has often been tolerated, although it was “never formally introduced,” which is why the incident with Hassainia and her son occurred.

Fry remembers two female MPs who had babies in Jean Chretien’s second term. They often had to bring their children into the house and breastfeed, “and the babies had to be accommodated within the actual lobby which is where MPs walk out of the chamber,” Fry says. This motivated a decision to install change tables in the women’s washroom.

Fry remembers one time where the house had three days and three nights of non-stop voting and one of the young MPs had their baby with them. She was allowed to feed her baby while she was not voting. It was very discreet, as “she had a scarf and nobody could see what she was doing,” says Fry.

Fry likens the needs of women to any other group. Parliament “has made room for disabled persons, it’s all wheelchair friendly,” she says. “So, that’s been accommodated, but some of the things we take for granted about women haven’t been accommodated.”

When Fry first came in under the Liberal Chretien government, “there were two washrooms, one for men just outside the doors into the actual chamber, so it took literally 20 seconds to get there.” On the other hand, the women’s washroom “was way down the end of a back corridor.”

It was an issue. “One female MP actually missed a vote because she had to go to the washroom; it was ever so far away that she couldn’t get back in time,” Fry says. At that time, Fry says, “we decided to take the existing men’s washroom and split it to create bathrooms for women there.”

The reason for the inconvenience of the bathroom wasn’t a deliberate exclusion, it was simply that the very building’s structure harkened from a time when there were little to no female MPs.


One of the most notoriously difficult things about being a politician is the long, grueling hours and the requirement to travel for work.

Joyce Murray, the MP for Vancouver Quadra, emphasizes that the demands are relentless. “Women work, like men do, in Ottawa, many, many hours a day, and then the expectation is to be home on the weekend and serve the needs of the constituency,” as well as the needs of their family.

While she stresses that this weighs on everybody, it can affect women in particular. “Even when both partners in a marriage or relationship are working in the work force, women still shoulder more of the family and administrative and the children side of the household activities,” she says.

Indeed, though partners in a relationship both often work, women do spend more time on unpaid work such as household chores, childcare, and elder care, according to 2006 data from Statistics Canada. Based on this kind of data, Murray says, “it may be more challenging for women [to be involved in politics], especially women that have young children.”

Murray believes that many structures of Parliament are “still holdovers from a time when Members of Parliament were primarily men, who came out by train from wherever their constituency was, brought their families, lived in Ottawa, and went home by train in the summer, or for Christmas.”

This doesn’t have to be the case, she says. The structure set up is “not utilizing modern technology communication tools, it’s not utilizing meeting technology in the way it could, it’s relying heavily on long air flights, especially from far-flung ridings, and that’s got an environmental impact, a time impact, and a stress impact on men and women alike.”

Factors such as these, Fry says, are what make it so that more women go into positions in municipal or provincial governments. She describes her own personal commute, “traveling sometimes eight hours with a three hour time difference,” as something that would definitely impede having a family. “If you leave your children home, you’re an absentee parent. And you know, socialization still expects that the woman should be there,” she says.

She notes that a lot of women aren’t interested in becoming MPs for this reason or will “wait until their kids grow up, like I did.” However, waiting it out is not the solution, Fry says. “Why should they? I mean, the whole idea of having a Parliament is to have a representation of society.” This includes people from all groups and of all ages.


These kinds of demands on women, of family and work, are just some of the many issues that are discussed in the all-party women’s caucus. “We haven’t reached any conclusions,” says Murray, “but we want to make it [Parliament] a more family-friendly place.”

The all-party women’s caucus has existed off and on since 1989. For some time it was just a meeting of female members of the Liberal party; however, in October of last year Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett invited female MPs of other political parties to join.

“We’ve now had three meetings, once a month for the last three months with women from all of the parties,” says Murray. The Conservative senator is a co-chair and the other co-chair is Liberal. “Our discussions have covered the general terrain of women’s equality, women’s portrayal in the media and in politics, and barriers to having more women in Ottawa.”

“I am very sorry to say that there are very few female Conservative MPs who are members of this group; the female Conservative senators are [part of the women’s caucus],” says Fry. “Originally, when we first started [the women’s caucus], a lot of the Conservative women came, but they’ve dropped off; maybe they’re just busy, I have no idea.”

“I do know that I have spoken to some Conservative women MPs who have told me that they don’t like this issue of ‘women’s this’ [and] ‘women’s that’ because women have to stop being seen as victims and treated as victims,” she adds.

Conversely, Fry doesn’t see it that way: “We’re not saying women are victims at all.” She points to something that was brought forward to the United Nations in her time as Secretary of State Multiculturalism and Status of Women, called gender-based analysis. This analysis is “how to analyze every policy, every piece of legislation that is coming through Parliament, to ensure that it does not unintentionally create a challenge for men and for women.”

Fry emphasizes how important it is to uphold this, and that certain policies, such as the Harper government’s job creation plan, haven’t. “[If] you know that only one per cent of women are in the construction trade, how is that an equal opportunity job creation program? It isn’t. If you’d done gender-based analysis, you might have recognized it wasn’t,” says Fry.

She also stresses the importance of women working together on Parliament Hill.

It has happened a few times, she says, “where women coming together have been able to cross partisan boundaries, to make significant changes, like when the Liberal, and the NDP and the Progressive Conservative women came together to make breast cancer a really important and seminal issue.”

In June 2011, Rona Ambrose, present Minister for the Status of Women for the Conservative government, spoke at the Equal Voice reception, an organization that aims to get more women elected into office. “As elected women to the House of Commons we have a special opportunity, and I believe a real obligation, to work together to improve the lives of women and girls,” she said.

In conjunction with Equal Voice’s mission she also encouraged more women to run, but the message that she sent about female solidarity in Parliament was clear. “I look forward to collaborating with all of my 75 women colleagues from across the political spectrum,” she said.

The percentage of female candidates in political parties ranges from the low 22 per cent of the Conservative candidates, to the high 41 per cent of the NDP candidates. As with the Liberal party, the NDP party has its own women’s caucus. MP Djaouida Sellah, who is chair of the NDP women’s caucus, announced her election last year, saying that, “The evolution of the status of women in the Western world has created a domino effect that can still be seen today around the world. The fact that Saudi Arabian women obtained the right to vote in municipal elections shows that the path forged by Canadian women is still guiding the evolution of many societies.”

Unfortunately, despite this strong role, it seems that it is not enough to avoid the usual scrutiny, particularly from the media. Last month, Huffington Post put up a very brief video clip entitled “Another vain NDP MP in the House of Commons” of Sellah brushing her hair out of her face while looking into a mirror, saying that the MP was the latest to be “caught doing something embarrassing.” She can be seen fixing her hair for approximately five seconds.


While the Conservative male-to-female ratio is the least equal, they have increased their ratio the most in the last half-decade: while now representing 22 per cent of the Conservative candidates, women accounted for only 12 per cent in 2006. As noted in a parliamentary publication on Women in Parliament by Julie Cool of the Social Affairs Division, the Conservatives have not implemented any special measures to achieve this.

With consideration to the fact that women, on average, earn less than men, other political parties will sometimes provide additional campaign funding to women who are nominated. The NDP, who have the highest ratio of women to men, actively seeks out minority groups and women to be nominated. Most parties have minimum quotas.


According to the Parliament of Canada’s website, since 1997, the number of female-held seats in the Parliament has remained at around 20 per cent, most recently jumping to 24 per cent in 2011. The number has been steadily increasing, with the exception of 2004 to 2006, when four female seats were lost.

There are still needs that could be accommodated, Fry says. Better childcare would be a good place to start: “Some places, like Sweden, and Scandinavian jurisdictions, they do have childcare available in the precinct, they also do have neonatal care available, they have breastfeeding rooms … they have very female-friendly precincts,” she describes.

Another issue is the opportunity for women to prove their equality with their male counterparts. This is often impeded by the tendency to give women “soft portfolios,” Fry says, where “in many countries, [women are] given social services, health, human resources, [and] labour… [instead of] the hard-nosed political things; finance, and international affairs, and trade, and that kind of thing, which is kind of sad. Because you know, I think it’s time that we start judging women on their ability.”


A big question hanging overhead as well is whether electing more women will in fact change the structure.

“Some Parliaments that have a large number of women are beginning to say, ‘Well, have they?’ Have women actually fulfilled the promise of change? Or have women, suddenly finding themselves in a male-dominated arena, decided instead of sinking they would swim, and in order to swim, they actually join the club?” says Fry. “And they behave like a man, and they don’t want to be spoken of as women, because there is a tendency for us people in business, in Parliament, and the media, to stereotype women as shrill, if they raise their voices, as ambitious in a negative [way], aggressive if they are ambitious and they want to move forward.”

It’s this attitude, she says, that sees many women fall silent, or adapt to the ideas of others.

This is one pitfall, but conversely there are also success stories that avoid this. Brigitta Dahl, former Speaker of Parliament for Sweden, explained her impressions of the Swedish Parliament. It’s not just the representation of women, she says that makes a difference, but “that a majority of women and men bring relevant social experience to the business of Parliament. This is what makes the difference. Men bring with them experience of real life issues, of raising children, of running a home. They have broad perspectives and greater understanding … Neither men nor women have to conform to a traditional role. Women do not have to behave like men to have power; men do not have to behave like women to be allowed to care for their children.”

The presence of women in Parliament, then, can also make change beyond uniquely female needs. Because women often hold a strong role in supporting family, their push for more family-friendly amenities in office also paves way for male politicians who want to have a stronger family life.

Greater representation from all groups in society strengthens democracy, but it can also lead to the ability to break out of traditional roles, to and make change. Female politicians often hold this promise.

Fry emphasizes that for this reason, it’s important that female politicians stand their ground. “I think most people instinctively … when they elect a woman … elect change. I think they really instinctively believe that things are going to change,” she says. “And if it isn’t, they’re going to say, ‘What the hell’s the difference?’”

//Claire Vulliamy, arts editor
//Graphics by Marco Ferriera

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: