It's been an eventful few weeks in the world of Alberta politics. Since the second session's first question period on March 4, Premier Alison Redford has faced stiff criticism for the $45,000.00 price tag of her November 2013 South African trip to honor the passing of Nelson Mandela. As the weeks progressed, however, additional information regarding misuse of government airplanes came to light in question period, including allegations that Redford's daughter and friends travelled, free of charge, on government planes. Redford promised to repay these costs and grounded all out-of-province flights until the Auditor General could weigh in on appropriate use for publicly-funded travel.
Although Redford repaid the funds associated with the South Africa trip soon after, she -- and her government -- continued to face mounting criticism regarding issues of entitlement and financial mismanagement, not just from the media and the public at large, but from within the PC caucus. On Wednesday, March 19, Redford resigned her position as premier, acknowledging that her government had become weighed down by party infighting, distracting them from the important work of governing.
Amid the turbulence, a question has been asked. And as the saga draws to a close with Redford's resignation, I find myself pondering it still: Does Redford face additional criticism because of her sex?* Would a man, in the same situation, have been treated as harshly? In a March 13 Calgary Herald article, Naomi Lakritz highlighted numerous instances where former Premier Ralph Klein misused government planes to the tune of $250,000.00. Unlike Redford, however, Klein was never urged to make financial amends, leaving Lakritz to conclude that misogyny may have played a part in the criticism and eventual downfall of our first female premier.
Lakritz's argument was further fueled by comments made the day before by MLA Len Webber, who resigned his seat in the PC caucus to sit as an Independent, citing among his reasons that the premier is a bully who is "not a nice lady."** The gendered nature of his comments prompted not insignificant debate on social media about the appropriateness/necessity of gendered insults and the frequent double standards women in positions of power face: men are "tough," "austere" and "aggressive" while women are "bossy," "impolite" and prone to "temper tantrums." (Paula Simons, of the Edmonton Journal, tweeted that she doesn't care whether the premier is a "nice lady", but whether the Premier is a good leader).***
"This is the first time the PCs have faced an effective opposition," says Dr. Doreen Barrie, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. "The scrutiny that [Redford] and her government have faced is unprecedented and plays an important role in all of this. Albertans are unaccustomed to a constant stream of accusations in question period."
And coming out of this adversarial atmosphere: audio and video clips of question period; damning comments from opposition members; hints of a PC uprising on Twitter and Facebook; a constant stream of vitriol directed toward Redford on the established #ableg hashtag and the more specific #resignredford. Regardless of whether Albertans today are more or less engaged in political discourse than they were under Premiers Klein or Stelmach, social media has enabled more and more Albertans to source current events, engage in discourse, and give voice to their concerns.**** However, the very nature of these platforms -- Twitter, for instance, limited as it is to 140 characters -- makes it ever easier to absorb only a small percentage of the story via heavily-curated and truncated content.
While there are a myriad of reasons Redford has faced such heavy criticism, we have to recognize that systemic misogyny -- an entrenched prejudice against women and girls that is inherent in a given system, like our society -- plays at least some part. It's not the only source of Redford's troubles, but it's certainly one piece in the much larger puzzle.
"We can't underscore the fact that she made some significant mistakes," says Dr. Barrie. "First, there was the long-time denial of her ex-husband's law firm's (involvement in 'Tobaccogate'), and then her initial refusal to repay expenses (associated with the South Africa trip). So she made some serious errors and is now suffering the consequences. But I don't think a male leader would have faced the same kind of treatment when it comes to their management style. You won't often see a male leader referred to as a 'bully' or said to throw 'temper tantrums'."
Politicians face often stiff criticism -- from detractors, from the media, the public, opposition members, even their own colleagues. But the language used to criticize, say, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is different than the language used when speaking about a woman, like Redford. When the masses throw stones at the likes of the Prime Minister, they do so for tangible reasons, whether true or not -- he's a cheat; he plunged Canada back into debt; he's anti-women; he's cold and calculating; he wrote a book about hockey; he won't stop signing Beatles songs. But at the end of the day, he's disliked for "being a dick," not because he has one.
When a woman in a position of power makes a mistake, she's emblematic of all women everywhere. In the case of Redford, her mistakes were held up visibly before the court of public opinion in ways that male leaders in this province traditionally are not. Redford faced "very public humiliation by party executives," explains Dr. Barrie. "She was grilled for several hours and then given a work plan. These are unelected officials telling the premier what to do, and one gets the sense that, in the past with male leaders, these conversations were more private."
In the early days of the second session, when Redford was still assuring Albertans she had apologized and "taken responsibility" for her South African expenses, there were already catcalls echoing through the annals of social media, snidely congratulating her for her misstep as our first female premier. Now one might argue that these are the asinine comments of online trolls taking to the Internet to flame Redford in their typical vernacular. But the fact remains that unlike a male leader, Redford faces additional performance-based criticism highlights, or is linked to, her sex or gender.
And this isn't the first time. In 2005, Conservative MP, Belinda Stronach, crossed the floor to join the Federal Liberal party--a contentious move if made by anyone, regardless of their sex. But Stronach faced significant gendered condemnation, with Conservative MPs alluding to her as a prostitute and whore, offensive and brutally sexist criticisms no man in the same position would or could face.
In the March 5 question period, recently-appointed Deputy Premier, Dave Hancock, rose to defend Redford saying, "one of the fundamental values of Albertans are family values. When you're elected to government, whether you're an MLA or cabinet minister or premier . . . one should not have to abandon their family to do their job." This PC government has hitched its cart to the "family values" brand for decades now, so it wasn't surprising to hear Hancock trot out this old chestnut in defense of a woman's right to bring her daughter on business trips.
However, the moment the government played the "mom card" in defense of Redford's actions, it opened the door to gendered debate -- and therefore, gendered criticism – and left it wide open for proponents of biological determinism (the belief that a woman is, by virtue of her genetics, a natural-born mother/caregiver, etc.) Hancock's words lent credence to the argument that Redford is an ineffectual leader because of her biological imperative to care for her young at the possible expense of her constituents. A man, detractors would--and have--argued doesn't need to take his offspring on a business trip because, presumably, there's a mother at home to ensure the child is adequately nurtured.
Which leads us to a discussion around gender equality and the need for equitable distribution of labor in the home, all of which is too broad and too lengthy to tackle at present.
Things could always be worse, of course. In Alberta, the leader of the official opposition is female, while British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario currently each have a female premier. But women still account for a disproportionate percentage of political representatives in Canada, whether as councillors, MLAs, MPs, etc.; and there's still a highly vocal minority (one would hope they're the minority) of the population who still believe that having a uterus negates a woman's ability to lead. Does the appointment of these women, and others like them, represent a changing trend in how and why we select elected officials? Does it hint at a move toward a more inclusive and accessible political environment? I hope so. But there is still significant room for improvement in the way we think about, speak about, and challenge women leaders, in politics and elsewhere.
*According to the World Health Organization, "sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women", whereas "gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women" (http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/)
**Len Webber recently announced his intention to run in the 2015 federal election for Calgary Confederation, at which time he would also likely have abdicated his PC seat, suggesting his leaving was two-pronged and not that difficult a decision to make.
Albertans will likely be aware that, on March 17, PC MLA -- and recently-appointed Associate Minister of Electricity and Renewable Energy -- Donna Kennedy-Glans, also left the PC caucus to sit as an Independent, explaining that her decision was "not just about leadership", but rather that she fears this Progressive Conservative government lacks the ability to evolve to meet the changing needs of Albertans: http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/03/17/alberta-pc-associate-minister-donna-kennedy-glans-quits-in-another-blow-to-alison-redfords-already-shaky-leadership/
***A recent Calgary Herald article by Valerie Fortney beautifully highlights some of the trouble of “gendered language” in relation to MLA Webber's “not a nice lady” comment, specifically: “This will be a case study... on how language is used differently to talk about women in power.”(http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Gender+appears+determine+political+damage+nice+label/9642739/story.html)
****According to Statistics Canada, 83 percent of Canadians 16 years of age and older used the Internet for personal use in 2012, compared to 80 percent in 2010. Of those, more than two-thirds (67 percent) visited sites such as Facebook or Twitter, compared to 58 percent in 2010. And those are dated stats! (http://www.techvibes.com/blog/internet-social-media-and-mobile-use-on-the-rise-in-canada-2013-10-31)
Other reading: http://www.thecord.ca/social-media-use-climbs-in-canada/
Shannon McClennan has a Master of Arts in International Journalism from Leeds University, UK. Her graduate thesis, Advertisements, gender and violence: Examining violence against women in contemporary western advertising (2006) explored the use of graphic depictions of violence, abuse and sexual assault in western print advertising. She continues to take an active interest in gender relations and the gendered politics of violence.