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Three Canadian nurses cast their votes while serving overseas during the First World War at the Canadian Hospital in Orpington, England, 1917. These women serving abroad were the first women able to vote in federal elections. The Military Voters Act and Wartime Elections Act of 1917 extended the federal vote to nursing sisters. Credit: Library and Archives Canada.

Library and Archives Canada/The Globe and Mail

During the only English-language debate of this election season, those who vie to lead the country talked loudly over each other. They launched personal attacks. They sidestepped meaty questions. They gathered afterwards with strained grins for showmanship handshakes completely at odds with the verbal vandalism they had just committed.

A pox on all their houses, a reasonable Canadian might conclude. Indeed, many viewers did, if The Globe’s letters page is any gauge.

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Except we’re talking about our house, the House of Commons. While the temptation for voters to simply turn off and tune out is understandable, it’s a bad idea that itself can contribute to the growing malaise and distrust of our political system. Voter turnout in Canada has been ratcheting downward since 1963. So has the estimation of politics.

Female voters, though, provide some hope.

I’m Wendy Cox, the bureau chief for The Globe in British Columbia. I’ve spent the bulk of my years in journalism covering politics and politicians in legislatures in Victoria and Toronto and on Parliament Hill. I know that the calibre of the people in those places and the quality of the decisions they make are the result of votes by as many Canadians as possible from as varied backgrounds as the country offers.

Since 2008, when voter turnout in Canada hit a historic low of 58.8 per cent, women’s participation in voting has been slightly higher than that of men, and it was significantly higher in the last election. That perseverance is surprising given what researchers know about how women feel about their voting choices and the differences between what concerns female and male voters.

A national Leger survey conducted between Aug. 16 and Aug. 20 this year found women were less confident in their choices than men, struggled more with competing messages and were less likely to trust that the average person was reflected in media coverage. Women were more concerned than men about issues of health care, affordability, climate change and human rights. Men worried more about the economy, trade, pipelines and leadership.

Still, in 2015, which saw a hopeful uptick in overall voter turnout to 68.3 per cent, 70 per cent of women eligible to cast ballots did, as compared to 66.5 per cent for men. And maybe the determination to have a voice is in part because for women, the opportunity has been especially hard-won.

After decades of demands, most women got the right to cast a ballot in Canada in 1918, although Asian women (and men) and Indigenous women (and men) living on reserves were excluded from the vote until 1948 and 1960, respectively. A 1903 essay in the Atlantic – written by Lyman Abbot, a man – goes into entertaining detail about not only why women shouldn’t get a vote, but why they shouldn’t want one. “She must choose,” he writes, of a woman’s conundrum of giving up a life dedicated to higher things.

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“She may give her time and thought and energy to building a state, and engaging in that warfare of wills which politics involves; or she may give her time and thought to the building of men, on whose education and training, church, state, industry, society, all depend.”

He’s got it partly right. When I parade my three children off to the polling station for every federal, provincial, and municipal vote so they can watch me fill in a ballot, I’m making my own private effort to build a state, to participate in the warfare of wills and to build the democracy my family lives in.

Choosing to cast a ballot demonstrates an understanding that votes matter. Nowhere is that more obvious than what is going on in the U.S. now. In the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats were able to take back the U.S. House of Representatives from Trump Republicans because of the votes of women of colour. Ninety-two per cent of black women and 73 per cent of Latina women who marked a ballot voted for Democratic House candidates. If President Donald Trump is impeached – proceedings that began only because the Democrats are in control of the House – it will be in large part because of female voters.

I can hardly blame women who despair about the tone and policy content of this election. But voting offers Canadians a voice, a chance to register hope or disapproval, a chance to have a say.

It’s also a chance to send leaders and candidates a message like the one received by the irascible Dale Lovick, a long-time NDP MLA and former Speaker at the B.C. Legislature who was campaigning for his party during a tough 2001 by-election. At a time when his government’s popularity was in the basement, Mr. Lovick was asked what voters were telling him. His response: “Not only do I dislike your politics, but I hate you and wish you were in hell.”

What else we’re thinking about

Trying to stay informed while ignoring the rhetoric takes a voter some dedication. The Globe can help. This explainer lays out the parties’ positions side-by-side on the major issues of this campaign. It will be required reading in my house.

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