Female politicians deserve respect from municipal councils

First published: May 17, 2007

While doing some research on the history of Cobourg newspapers recently, a letter to the editor jumped off the page. A woman wrote the Cobourg Sentinel in February 1861 complaining about her vote being annulled while trying to cast a ballot in the local municipal election. While she could run for office as a trustee of the school board, she could not hold office on municipal council, she wrote. So, in one way she could participate. But, in all others, she could not.

“If a woman has the right to vote for a trustee, then why not a municipal election,” the author said.

It ended with “O”, a common practice in letter writing in those days. Many people did not identify themselves since communities were very small and everyone knew everyone else. To hold such radical views would be dangerous and make them an object of ridicule.

What incredible letter to publish. It would be another 56 years before women were given the vote in a federal elections. A year later, in 1918, the right to hold public office would also be extended. Sadly, aboriginal women would not gain those rights until 1960.

This letter also appeared before the woman’s suffrage movement in Canada began in 1878 under the leadership of Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, one of the founders and first president of the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association. Ontario was a bit more progressive in those days, like New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and the Northwest Territories, who gave women the right to vote in municipal affairs in 1884. Women were also allowed to run for school trustees because it was generally accepted they were responsible for the children.

All of this came to mind over the weekend when a tribute to journalist/activist Doris Anderson took place at Convocation Hall in Toronto. Anderson, who was a great proponent of women’s rights during her tenure on Chatelaine magazine. She helped lead the second wave of feminism in Canada during the 1960s and 70s through her extraordinary journalism. She was able to write about such topics as reproductive rights, job equality and rights for women both inside and outside the home, bringing these issues into the mainstream of public debate.

Toward the end of her life, Anderson was involved with a political organization called Equal Voice, a group of more than 1,200 women and men from across Canada fighting to get more women elected at every level of government. This multi-partisan, non-profit organization lobbies governments, but also provides support and information about women in politics. Despite their efforts and the dedication of people like Anderson, women continue to be under-represented in Canada’s political life. Federally, 20.8 per cent of the House of Commons are women, compared to other countries like Scandinavia, where it sits around 40 per cent.

Northumberland is lucky in some ways, since we are fortunate enough to have many capable women who have represented us in the past and continue to do so today. Pauline Jewett, Christine Stewart, Joan Fawcett, Joan Chalovich, Linda Thompson and Erin Brown are only a few names of the many who contributed with distinction to our public life, a list far too long to write out completely here.

Still, there continues to be many barriers for women in politics. While some are able to gain respect of fellow politicians, far too often there is a systemic unfairness. In an interview in 2005, former MP Christine Stewart suggested more women needed to be heard and respected. And, while the situation is much improved, it is far from equal. Also communities and political organizations need to encourage women and support them financially through the election process, something Equal Voice tries to address.

Currently, women continue to be under-represented proportionately in local municipal politics. Hamilton Township is a bright spot with three councillors, one who is deputy mayor. Port Hope is next, with two women on council, one as mayor and the other as a councillor. Cramahe has one woman on council, as does Haldimand/Alnwick Township. Sadly, Cobourg has one lone woman councillor.

But, it is not just a numbers game. It has much more to do with the issues Stewart identified: listening and respect. Far too often, the men marginalize women on council. One screaming example is Cobourg. Miriam Mutton is treated by her fellow councillors with a complete lack of respect. While handling one of the most important portfolios on council, her wishes are often overturned and she is berated for questioning the authority of others. Sadly, Mayor Peter Delanty allows this to occur without any reprimand or support for Mutton. While not conscious, it is a blatant example of the type of chauvinism typically found in municipal politics. And, it is undemocratic. Mutton won the most votes in the last municipal election. If anyone has a mandate to represent the majority, she does. This is particularly vital in her portfolio as co-ordinator of planning, but also when she questions other councillors. And, Delanty better intervene or he is no better.

Doris Anderson and others fight for equality for women in politics. Northumberland County’s history contains some proud moments where we can feel a great sense of accomplishment in this area. Still, there continues to be examples of the kinds of treatment beneath any reasonable person or politician. It is time more women felt empowered to participate. And, for those who already are on councils in West Northumberland, they should be heard and respected.

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