A big talking point this federal election campaign has been whether or not to talk about "women's issues." Last month, Stephen Harper refused to participate in a debate proposed by a group of women's organizations, which in turn led NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to bail. Up for Debate, an alliance of 175 women's groups, turned to Plan B. Earlier this week, it hosted a Toronto event that showed pre-taped interviews with all party leaders, minus Harper, followed by a panel discussion with female experts.
The format was a great way to make sure "women's issues" (i.e. issues everyone needs to worry about) weren't completely ignored, but the event had one serious flaw: there was no real debate. The panel consisted of four left-leaning women who are leaders in fields such as law, social justice and community health. While they were all whip smart, they also all agreed with one another on issues like childcare, the niqab ban and the need for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. I agreed with them too. But a real political discussion would have included a conservative woman's perspective.
Lefties too often believe that right-wing women are not feminists. While it's true that on the whole the NDP, Liberal and Green Party platforms tout women's equality and protection from discrimination, not every policy is obviously more feminist than another. Take the childcare debate, for example. The Tories tout their monthly lump sum that parents with kids under 18 can spend however they like. The NDP has a plan to create a million daycare spots across Canada for no more than $15 per day (the average Ottawa family currently pays $1,139 each month). But as Althia Raj, The Huffington Post's Ottawa Bureau Chief, pointed out, the former might not be every mother's preference.
"I suspect if there was somebody who was on the right of the political spectrum (at this debate) they would have made the argument, well, the state shouldn't be telling you how to raise your kids," she said in the media panel, the last portion of the Up for Debate event. "There are some people who will prefer to have a $15/day daycare plan or some sort of subsidized plan...but other people would prefer to have direct cheques."
Political beliefs are opinions, not dogma. Lauded feminist Lena Dunham recently refused to sign an Amnesty International petition to decriminalize sex work. Many of her liberal fans were outraged, but Dunham's stance on prostitution doesn't cancel out her progressive views on body image and abortions. As the creator of the hit HBO show Girls wrote on Twitter: "The total decriminalization of the sex trade is a complex issue, one that intelligent feminists can disagree on."
No political party should act like security guards to the feminist club. As a woman, if you fight against discrimination, you're in. Cabinet ministers Lisa Raitt and Michelle Rempel, who support the criminalization of sex work and the niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies, also use their public platforms to battle misogyny. Earlier this year, Raitt told CTV's Canada AM that the toughest part of being a woman in politics was the constant criticisms of her appearance. In 2013, Rempel spoke in the House of Commons about the "sexist vitriol" female politicians face online. She tweeted that this scrutiny dissuades women from running for office.
I worked with a staunch Conservative who thinks women should be married before moving in with a man, have long hair and impress their date with homemade pot roasts. But in the workplace, she never let gender hold her back. This woman was fierce, opinionated and didn't hesitate to tell any male - whether her subordinate or superior - what she thought. She always sat at the head of the table.
Had the Up for Debate event included a right-wing speaker, she would not have showed up in an apron. She would have argued how different values can still lead to equality. That kind of diverse political debate would have proved women aren't a special interest group; we represent the entire range of a political spectrum. Just like the economy and foreign aid, our "issues" should be examined from all sides.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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