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from saturday's books section

After 30 years as a leading academic, university professor and author on the subject of women and politics, Sylvia Bashevkin looks back and asks: Why is it so difficult for women to take their proper place in Canadian politics? Why can't we get much past being 20 per cent of elected officials in this country, when we represent more than 50 per cent of the electorate? Why are we stuck? And what can be done about it?

Bashevkin comes up with an unsettling overriding reason. She concludes that too many men and women feel a visceral "discomfort" in putting women in positions of power. She talks about the disconnect between what we publicly profess and what we privately feel, and act upon.

  • Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada's Unfinished Democracy, by Sylvia Bashevkin, Oxford University Press, 186 pages, $19.95

Bashevkin "unpacks the evidence" of this discomfort and it all rings true. People at home and in the press pick apart the leadership styles, the appearance, the personal lives of female politicians, only to conclude after this relentless dissection process that they are seriously lacking, no matter what their style. If feisty Sheila Copps, soft-spoken Audrey McLaughlin and assertive Kim Campbell were faulted, is it possible to find a leadership style that works? Pauline Marois in the Parti Québécois brought the experience earned after more than 25 years in politics, in 15 cabinet positions, but still lost the leadership race in 2005 to a young, inexperienced man. Only when her party lost the subsequent election, and it appeared the PQ had little chance of success at forming the government, did she get a chance to be leader.

Bashevkin points out that what is not dissected are women's policy proposals and opinions, and, in fact, these are often ignored. She argues that this makes it impossible for women leaders to operate effectively and dissuades talented women from pursuing political careers.

She points out that this "women + power = discomfort" equation makes people focus on the contests that women lose and extrapolate from that, that women are losers. Many do run in ridings they have no chance of winning, or for parties that have no chance of governing.

The examples she provides are persuasive, including Agnes MacPhail, Thérèse Casgrain, Kim Campbell and Belinda Stronach, but the one that resonated with me was Flora MacDonald. In 1976, she was considered a shoo-in for the Progressive Conservative leadership; members of her party had promised her enough votes to assure a win. But when they went into the voting booths, they didn't vote for her. Has Bashevkin provided the explanation about 30 years later? Were MacDonald's supporters just plain uncomfortable with a woman in power? It would seem so.

Bashevkin puts the issue in context: Politics has become devalued; fewer people vote; politicians as a group are less respected. Women's political organizations have lost not only their public cachet but also their public support and funding, primarily under the Mulroney and Harper conservative governments. Bashevkin describes the Harper government as "closer to organized anti-feminism than any regime in the country's history."

Fortunately, Bashevkin does not just wring her hands in despair; she suggests solutions - interesting, intriguing, debate-worthy solutions and tough lay-down-the-law rules. She proposes that each political party must run a legislatively defined quota of women as candidates. She makes a convincing argument that existing public-finance laws make the people of Canada major shareholders in the political parties, and we as citizens and taxpayers have a right to demand accountability.

Proportional representation is another of her legislative proposals, and she points out that just about every study of existing proportional systems concludes that proportional representation is more likely to result in women's increased participation.

The book proposes the requirement that everyone eligible to vote must vote in order to revalue political citizenship and remind people of their duty in a democracy. Other countries have this rule for mandatory voting, Belgium since 1892, for example, and Australia since 1924; their voter turnout is much higher than Canada's. However interesting this idea is for democracy generally, she fails to link it to improved participation rates for women in politics.

A media-monitoring program with court-imposed sanctions is the book's proposed way of challenging biased portrayals of women in politics. This is one of the least viable options, in my opinion. The freedom-of-speech protections in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms could stop it in its tracks, if the cost of litigation didn't do it first.

Voluntary measures are also canvassed, the main one being to reinvigorate a parliamentary-focused feminist movement. Readers are challenged to create a united voice of women, as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women was in its heyday, as a Canada-wide umbrella organization of women's groups.

The disturbing premise and the extensive range of solutions offered in Women, Power, Politics is worthy of widespread discussion and debate. People must face their own internalized, often unrecognized feelings of discomfort with putting women in positions of power. Rationally, we all know that women are just as capable of governing as are men. If awareness is a precondition to change, then this book promotes awareness.

Women, Power, Politics is a slim, highly readable volume. It is clearly intended for a general audience, and is a must-read for every politician, male or female, and everyone interested in advancing our democracy, including parents of girls who want to see them have equal opportunities in public life.

Linda Silver Dranoff is a Toronto lawyer and author of Every Canadian's Guide to the Law.

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