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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

Elizabeth Renzetti

Having an opinion while female: You’ll need a thick skin Add to ...

I have an idea that will revolutionize political life in this country. You know how all new parents in Finland receive a baby box, filled with delightful but practical Nordic necessities for an infant? In this country, we could give a similar box to women who are about to enter political life, except that it would contain only a very large bottle of gin and a rhino’s hide, sized extra-thick. Maybe the whole project could be called Baby It’s Cold Inside (the House.)

Sandra Jansen, late of the Alberta provincial Progressive Conservatives, freshly a member of the provincial NDP, stood up in the legislature this week to share some of the lucid correspondence she’d received following her decision to cross the floor: “What a traitorous bitch … Now you have two blonde bimbos in a party that is clueless. Another useless tit goes NDP. Dead meat. Sandra should stay in the kitchen where she belongs.”

As Ms. Jansen read the vitriol aimed her way, and made a plea for politicians to stand together against sexism and misogyny, the CBC noted that her colleagues in the house appeared “stunned into silence.” I’m not sure why they would have been stunned, considering that they were presumably conscious and possessed ears in the past two, 10 or 20 years.

Perhaps the Baby It’s Cold Inside box could also include some recent press clippings to give to doubting constituents and colleagues, who like to say, “Aw, honey – it’s not so bad really, is it?” These would be stories like the one in which Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s face was used as a target during a golf tournament for oilmen, and then driven over by some yahoos in a golf cart. (And yes, “golf tournament for oilmen” sounds like something from The Beverly Hillbillies, but it took place in real life this year.)

The box could also contain Conservative MP Michelle Rempel’s article in the National Post about the “everyday sexism” she faces on Parliament Hill, which runs the grotty gamut from being called a bitch to being disregarded, with the occasional ass grab thrown in for “shock value.” We could include a transcript of Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo bravely answering the attacks on Ms. Jansen with ones she’d received. Some of Ms. DiNovo’s critics used insults she couldn’t repeat in the legislature, and another suggested “try rape, you’d like it.” Ms. DiNovo is a sex-assault survivor.

I would also include a couple of plane tickets in the box so that the fledgling politician would see that she is not alone. She could visit Israel, where 28 of 32 female MPs acknowledged in a recent poll that they’d been sexually harassed, or France, where a group of top female politicians recently wrote an angry manifesto denouncing sexism directed at them, or Britain, where a cross-party group of female MPs started a campaign against misogyny on the Internet (the day it launched, one of the MPs received hundreds of rape threats). I probably wouldn’t include a ticket to the inauguration of the new president of the United States, an admitted groper who has shown little interest in women not wearing bikinis.

This stuff is not stunning. It’s barely even eye-opening, because many women in public life, especially in politics, are exposed to this level of vile, anonymous criticism every day. They just don’t talk about it, because it’s exhausting, and because it’s easier to keep trudging ahead than to complain. The complaints they save for each other, wryly, in back rooms where new kinds of networks are formed.

Global TV took its camera into an Edmonton high-school class to get reactions to the attacks on Ms. Jansen, and one of the young women interviewed said that she wasn’t really surprised by the comments. That was heartbreaking, but I nodded my head when she said it. None of us who are alive and female and dare to have an opinion is surprised.

The conundrum is that we need that young woman, and others like her. We need them to be mayors and city councillors and MLAs and prime ministers. We need them to think that council chambers and legislatures are places that welcome them, not grudgingly but wholeheartedly, where they won’t have to spend most of their days hitting the “block” button on Twitter.

There are hopeful initiatives out there. Equal Voice Canada is holding a “Daughters of the Vote” gathering next year, in which young women from every riding will meet in Ottawa to discuss important issues. Status of Women minister Patty Hajdu is working on a national online harassment strategy. And even as she was facing death threats and had been given extra protection, Sandra Jansen talked about how important it was that her experience not deter young women from politics: “We need their voices at the table. It’s crucially important.”

I often think of the speech Julia Gillard, the first (and only) female prime minister of Australia, gave after the murder of British Labour MP Jo Cox, who was killed by a white extremist: “As you forge ahead, understand that you will encounter sexism and misogyny and prepare yourself to face it and ultimately to eradicate it.” Then one day when the trolls are extinct, it truly will be a surprise to hear from them again.

Eds note: An earlier version incorrectly identified Julia Gillard as Australia's first prime minister.

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Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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