Top News

WENDY ELLIOTT: Gender parity in cabinet is about more than numbers

Wendy Elliott. File
Wendy Elliott. File - SaltWire Network

Fifty-one years ago, much of Washington D.C. was in ruins after Martin Luther King’s assassination and in Ottawa the Liberal party was in tatters after Pierre Trudeau won the leadership.

The untypical Trudeau had to unite the party after three Liberal stalwarts, Paul Hellyer, Robert Winters and John Turner, opposed him for the job of replacing Lester Pearson.

On the convention floor Canada’s second female cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh urged Hellyer to throw his votes to another candidate in order to foil Trudeau. Without her knowledge, LaMarsh’s plea, "Paul, you've got to go to (Robert) Winters. Don't let that bastard win it, Paul – he isn't even a Liberal" was broadcast live on CBC Television.

Not surprisingly, that remark spelled the end of the ever brash and outspoken cabinet minister’s political career.

The recent fracas on Parliament Hill related to the way women practice politics made me think about LaMarsh again. She was a dynamo and my Dad’s boss during Canada’s Centennial.

In April 1968, one of Pierre Trudeau’s friends, Mme. Gerard Pelletier, made an interesting side note about the bachelor Trudeau to a Toronto Telegram reporter after the leadership race. She said that French Canadian women went through a phase of being their own bosses.

In that era, I think it’s fair to say that a large percentage of women in the northern hemisphere cottoned onto being their own bosses. Just ask Gloria Steinem. After LaMarsh left politics, she wrote a tell-all memoir. Parts of it make powerful reading today.

"Visitors in the Commons' gallery couldn't help seeing one woman among so many men," LaMarsh wrote. “They made no effort to disguise the fact that they regarded me as a curiosity and stared whenever I could be seen.”

I want to share a few of her best quotes, like, “Women understand that men must often be kept from soiling themselves with the dirty little details of life in order to accomplish the big shiny jobs unimpeded.”

Like the late British PM Margaret Thatcher, who said regarding politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman,” LaMarsh believed one had to “pity the party without enough woman power - there will always be dreamers and leaders, but the dreams won't come true, nor will the leaders reach their goal, without the ready doers.”

In Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage, LaMarsh described how she discovered Pearson was only human. She remembered, even worse “we had our first dismaying confrontation with the fact that he would not back up his ministers.”

Sound familiar? Isn’t that what Jodi Wilson-Raybould would say? Trudeau didn’t back her up. In fact, he demoted her.

LaMarsh believed “that one of the signs of natural leaders of men (and women) was their readiness to take the necessary pains to keep their followers with them."

During her decade in the halls of power, LaMarsh backed Medicare and spoke out against smoking. She was responsible for starting the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and lowering the pensionable age to 65.

And when she was done, she called out the boys’ club in Ottawa. She maintained the power structure in politics was designed for men and unprepared for women. In fact, there was no washroom for her because a woman in that role was so unusual.

As Mary Beard wrote in Women & Power, “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.” Is that what we still need in Ottawa? Perhaps that’s what the resignation of not one, but two female cabinet ministers, will promote.

In an interview with the CBC’s Adrienne Clarkson, LaMarsh said her memoir was an effort to let women know what politics was like.

In 2015 women became more than exceptions in the federal cabinet when Justin Trudeau chose 15 diverse women to help make up the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history.

At the time, the second Trudeau as prime minister got huge cheers when he cited "because it's 2015" as his rational for gender parity. Certainly, he abruptly counter balanced Stephen Harper’s masochistic attitudes. With some perspective today, we can contend he did not know what he was getting into by enabling feminist governance. Otherwise, he would have listened to his female cabinet ministers.

Former Advertiser and Register reporter Wendy Elliott lives in Wolfville.

Recent Stories