Michael Adams is president of the Environics Institute and author of Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit
No socio-cultural change in North America has been more consequential over the past century than changes in attitudes and expectations related to the role and status of women in society. Over the past couple of weeks, two stories in public life have illustrated how two seemingly similar countries, Canada and the United States, diverge on the issue of gender equality.
Americans and many Canadians were transfixed as a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court defended himself – with truculence and plenty of allies – against charges of sexual assault. In Canada, the seemingly egalitarian, sister/brother-like team of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have led Canada to dodge the bullet of a trade war with the United States under the leadership of an America-first chauvinist.
These are just anecdotes – individuals and episodes in large, complex societies – but in these cases the actors on the public stage reflect deep socio-cultural trajectories in each country.
Among the social values Environics has been tracking in the two countries for four decades is the degree to which people agree or disagree that, "the father must be master in his own house.” For some, it’s offensive to even pose such a question. For others, the question isn’t worth asking because the answer is so obvious: Who else would lead the family? We do ask, and the answers are revealing.
About half of Americans believe the father of the family must be master in his own house. In Canada, the proportion is about one-quarter. Our most conservative province, Alberta, is much less patriarchal than the most egalitarian region of the United States, New England. American women are 2½ times as likely as Canadian women (40 versus 16 per cent) to believe father must be master.
The changes associated with evolving gender norms are many. Some are public, like women’s increased political and economic participation – aided by higher levels of education and diminished deference to religious authority among both sexes. Gender equality has, of course, changed family and household dynamics, too. This has been true in many societies around the world over the last century, but not all societies have changed at the same pace – and the forces of backlash are stronger in some than in others.
One of the major correlates of the sustained belief in patriarchy is religiosity. The United States is exceptional among liberal democracies in the degree of religious belief and observance of its people. Most Americans profess religious belief, and a quarter are conservative Christians or evangelicals. Canada is less than half as religious as the United States, and – not coincidentally – half as patriarchal.
Among Republicans who supported President Donald Trump in the primary, 63 per cent believed father must be master. Their man, now their President, channels their backlash against feminism, as well as other modern sensibilities like environmentalism and respect for ethnocultural diversity.
It’s significant that roughly half of Americans reject "father must be master” just as three-quarters of Canadians do. But the U.S. political system privileges conservatives by privileging rural areas. In the Senate that will vote on Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the majority (52 senators) represent the 26 least-populous states, which contain only 18.1 per cent of the U.S. population. Money plays a larger role in U.S. politics, as do voter suppression and gerrymandering. America is still a democracy but its status as a liberal democracy and a healthy democracy are both under threat – an issue that is itself mired in partisanship, since Republicans, on the losing side of demographic and social change, are eager to preserve their structural advantages.
Gender equality was entrenched in Canada’s 1982 Constitution, but failed in the same year to become part of the U.S. Constitution as the Equal Rights Amendment failed for lack of support in the states. It’s hard to be a prominent woman in both countries. (Ask Rachel Notley, who has received more death threats than any other Alberta premier; the province’s only other female leader, Alison Redford, is in second place.) But the playing field is even more steeply tilted in the U.S. – as Hillary Clinton, Anita Hill, and now Christine Blasey Ford might well attest.
Could it happen here? Could Canadians elect a prime minister caught on tape boasting of sexual assault? If a judge were accused of sexual assault, could we see partisans circle the wagons around their man instead of responding with sober concern? We can only hope that public attitudes regarding gender equality and pluralism, and our traditions of civility and the rule of law, will keep us on the path toward fairness and respect. In the meantime – even those of us who are religious skeptics – pray for our American cousins.