Last week, for the first time in my adult life, I became a participant in federal politics. I helped organize a women’s event in support of the Judy LaMarsh Fund. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was the honoured guest. The Judy LaMarsh Fund helps to advance the ambitions of female Liberal candidates pursuing office.
Full disclosure: I am not ‘political’. A conversation at my dinner table might include policy one day, and pop culture the next. I decided to get involved in this fundraiser because I truly felt that I am representative of many women who are interested in getting involved with the decisions that shape our country but who are distinctly outside the circle of ‘inside baseball’ politics.
I decided that I could help create an event that would resonate with women like me – women who would like to hear Justin Trudeau’s views on senate reform and the environment, but who would also like to know more about him as a human being. We even asked participants what issues and topics they would like covered in a candid Q&A.
To get the word out we created an invitation that would be the polar opposite to invitations we’d received to other political fundraisers. We chose a fresh, light-hearted aesthetic and selected three questions to give a sense that the event would allow participants to get a window into Justin Trudeau’s personal views on a diverse range of topics.
Did the evite include a question about the Keystone XL pipeline? Well no. It wasn’t a platform document. It was an invitation.
The evite circulated for a month with nothing but positive response. And then, a tweet went out from a female Conservative Minister accusing our event of being ‘patronizing’.
More tweets followed accusing our event of being sexist and offensive. Suddenly, our event was dubbed “Ladies Night” and “ladies” had somehow become a dirty word. Women used our hashtag (#askjustin) to mockingly ask Justin Trudeau such questions as: “My mascara is clumping, what should I do?”
A polemic developed that characterized the event – an event that was designed FOR women, BY women – as a gathering of giggly school girls gushing over Justin’s looks. References to pastel colours, pink cosmos and Sex-in-the-City abounded.
One particularly disturbing and high profile Op-Ed offered a storyline wherein the event was portrayed as a one-night stand from which women would wake up feeling used.
I and my co-organizers defended the event in the media. Ironically and sadly, the federal minister who started the firestorm of criticism refused a televised debate. She opted instead to be interviewed separately, so she could safely deliver her partisan talking points in a controlled environment. Instead of debating other women publicly, she opted not to give the women on our committee the opportunity to respond one-on-one.
As a newbie on this ‘scene’, it’s been an incredibly eye opening experience for me. The criticism has included cheap shots and manufactured issues, driven by an aggressive, Conservative partisan agenda.
Here, in my view, is the crux of this tempest in a teapot: One didn’t have to like the aesthetic of the invitation, didn’t have to like the questions asked – but to label the organizers as sexist – all women who took time away from work and families to create an event that will ultimately engage women in the political process and help women in their political careers – is insulting to women who truly face real issues of sexism around the world.
This experience has reinforced for me why it is so important that ‘non-political’ people get involved. Frankly, the public discourse has been fantastic, and the event was a complete success. It was sold out. There is nothing like a little unintended controversy to drive ticket sales. Addressed during the event were questions covering both policy (foreign affairs, the environment, senate accountability) and human interest issues in what was, proudly, a curiosity-inducing conversation. Women who attended ranged from students to business owners to retirees. They told us it was unlike other fundraisers they had attended. They said it was an extremely interesting evening – that was both engaging and thoughtful.
What was the most gratifying aspect of the event? It raised $25,000 for the Judy LaMarsh Fund. The contributions will help ensure that more women will take seats at our country’s political table.
That was our goal. And that is what is important.
In Justin Trudeau, I see a leader who will continue to engage more people like me, a political novice, to get involved and to get excited about politics again. I see a leader who offers the potential for change to the status quo of politics in Canada. After experiencing the way partisan-inspired criticism has been used to generate headlines, I know more than ever how important that change is. I know more than ever that I need to be a part of that change.
Lindsay Mattick Davidson is a Toronto public relations executive