Canada is abuzz with talk of the showdown between two Alberta women, locked in a race for the right to lead one of the country’s most economically buoyant provinces. Observers have emphasized what they see as odd dimensions to an election campaign that pits Alison Redford as chief of the governing Progressive Conservatives against Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith. Yet, much of what’s considered strange is, on closer inspection, consistent with precedents in the area of gender and politics.
Let’s begin with the view that Alberta is an unusual place in which to see two accomplished women leading rival parties. If political history helps inform the present, then Alberta is one of the first places we should expect to see this phenomenon. The Prairie provinces were the earliest in Canada to grant women the right to vote as well as the right to contest legislative office, starting with Manitoba in January of 1916, Saskatchewan in March of that year and Alberta in April. In June of 1917, Alberta’s Louise McKinney became the first woman to win a seat anywhere in the British Empire. Also in 1917, Albertans elected a second woman to the provincial legislature via overseas voting by military personnel, and Calgarians elected a woman to city council.
This pattern is consistent with an international trend that saw women’s rights move forward far more rapidly in frontier environments rather than traditional societies. Among the path-breakers were Finland, which enfranchised women and extended the right to hold office in 1906, and New Zealand, where suffrage was granted in 1893 and the right to run for parliament in 1919. Given this background, it’s not surprising that the Finnish legislature was among the first to reflect roughly equal proportions of male and female members; moreover, the country saw a woman president govern alongside a female prime minister in recent years. Similarly, the historical record helps explain how New Zealand’s 1999 election featured women leading two major parties.
The past sheds light on another noteworthy dimension of the Alberta campaign – namely, women’s top positions in parties of the right. Again, the trend has multiple precedents, including Margaret Thatcher’s ascension to the British Tory leadership in 1976, followed by the keys to Downing Street three years later. During the subsequent 35 years, no woman has become leader of either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. A parallel story emerges in Germany when we compare the centre-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, where Angela Merkel has served as CDU leader since 2000, with the centre-left Social Democratic Party. While women are generally more numerous as candidates and legislators on the left than on the right, winning a party’s top post is more an individual than collective challenge.
Finally, there’s the growing gender gap in Alberta, where women seem more hesitant than men to endorse Wildrose. Research since the suffrage era shows that, as a group, female voters worldwide have favoured moderately reformist parties rather than extremes of either right or left. This trend has been accompanied in recent decades by women’s reluctance to support parties with platforms that threaten to increase the chances of war, interfere with reproductive and sexual orientation freedoms, or otherwise undermine social cohesion. It would not be surprising, then, to see Wildrose tack toward the centre in this campaign.
Albertans will wake up on April 24 with a female premier. The appropriate question is which woman, not how did this race happen.
Sylvia Bashevkin is a political science professor at the University of Toronto.
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