Solidarity, Sister: Sandra Jansen Sparks Conversation on the Abuse of Women in Politics
By: Sam Mathers, News Editor
Traitorous bitch. Blonde bimbo. Useless tit. Dead meat. Dumb broad. After feeling there was no longer a place for her with the Progressive Conservatives and crossing the floor to the New Democratic Party, MLA Sandra Jansen used her member’s speech on November 22 to share some of the harassment directed at her online and to shine a light on the harassment faced by female politicians every day. Deviating from the type of language normally used in parliament, Jansen received a standing ovation from MLAs of all parties and sparked a conversation about the abuse of women in politics. While Jansen got people talking, the conversation itself is not new. In the House of Commons in 1985, Conservative MP John Crosbie told Liberal MP Sheila Copps to “just quieten down, baby,” to which she retorted, “I resent the comments of the minister who is responsible for the equality of women in this country…I’m not his baby and I’m nobody’s baby.”
Fast forward to 2016, and not much has changed. In fact, on Tuesday morning, MP Michelle Rempel took to Twitter to share an anonymous letter she received discussing the way she dresses. She posted a picture of the letter with the caption: “Wherein a creepy weirdo anonymously writes my office to tell me that it’s my fault that he’s a creepy weirdo.” Rampant with spelling mistakes, and referring to her as Michelle Hempel, the sender tells Rempel the way she dresses is too revealing, and advises her to take note of the attire of her male counterparts, the Queen, and First Lady Michelle Obama. The sender writes “if we can see it, you know that we can see it, so don’t be surprised that hetero males will look. Hide the skin and people will look you in the eyes.” The letter goes on to say “Were you wearing a bra on Thursday?” and “I’m a girl watcher, [I’m] a girl watcher… and you are not that bad looking.” She followed up with another tweet saying, “I normally don’t post stuff like that, but you’d be surprised how much of it we get.”
Earlier this year, Rempel wrote an op-ed for the National Post titled “Confront your sexism,” in which she discusses the misogyny she faces on a daily basis. Rempel recalls the time she was told a discussion would be revisited when she was “less emotional,” and the times she was told to be nicer, to look more cheerful. Rempel writes of the “bitch epithet” she must confront every time she doesn’t comply with a request or change her position on an issue. She writes of commentary equating her competence to her appearance and her “ass being occasionally grabbed as a way to shock [her] into submission.”
In June, Brooks Big Country Oilmen’s Association used a cut-out of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s face as a target at a golf tournament. A video was later posted that showed the cut-out being run over by a golf cart, with laughter heard in the background. Ernest Bothi, president of the association, said “It’s called freedom of speech. We’re still living in Canada and as far as I know, it hasn’t become a communist nation, not as of yet.” Notley responded to the incident by saying “I think political debate is great…but I think the best way to deal with that is through intelligent, thoughtful, respectful dialogue.”
On top of this, Lakehead University professor of Political Science, Laure Paquette says that for women, “media coverage is gendered, with a much greater emphasis on appearance than men.” She says that women are often excluded from the huddles where important decisions by party or government are made, and that “parties are much less forgiving of mistakes” when they come from women. “And then” Paquette says, “there’s sexual harassment.”
In 2014, two female NDP MPs came forward with allegations of sexual assault against Liberal MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, who were suspended and after an independent investigation, permanently expelled from the Liberal caucus. The independent investigation found two more possible victims. This incident prompted Copps to reveal that she too had been sexually assaulted by a fellow member of parliament, more than thirty years before. After an all day parliamentary session on violence against women, Copps said a Hamilton MPP pushed himself on her, groped her and attempted to kiss her. Copps kicked her assailant “where it hurts,” and never reported it. Being the only woman in her caucus, she said “there wasn’t a safe place to go talk about it,” and served on a committee with the MPP for another year.
With this type of vile abuse against female politicians, it’s no wonder Canada ranks 63rd in the world classification of women in politics. Women represent a mere 26% of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons – and that is a record number for Canada. Paquette says not only are women nominated as candidates less often, “but worst of all I think are rarely given the most important portfolios like justice or finance. To be Prime Minister of Canada, you need to be at Defence or Foreign Affairs, and women rarely hold those portfolios.”
Many female politicians across party lines are standing in solidarity with Jansen. Green Party leader Elizabeth May tweeted “I can confirm women politicians get vile abuse” with a link to an article on Jansen’s statement. Patty Hadju, who represents Thunder Bay – Superior North in the House of Commons and is the Minister of Status of Women stated: “I share the member’s disgust at the misogyny that women in politics, in fact in public spheres, receive every day in the cyber world, but in the real world as well.” Cheri DiNovo, an NDP MPP in Ontario used her member’s statement in a similar way, acknowledging Jansen’s statement and saying, “I’d like to add to that list.”
After pleading with her colleagues to reject the violent rhetoric directed at female politicians, Jansen said “our daughters are watching us. They are watching the challenges facing women in politics today, and imagine if we let that poison become normalized or if our daughters forgo the political arena altogether. That scares me.” Young women should fear entering a career in Canadian politics. In fact, it was our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who famously quipped “because it’s 2015” when asked why it was important for him to have an equally male and female cabinet. Yet more than a year later, Sandra Jansen was told to “stay in the kitchen where she belongs.” That scares me.