Conservative MP Gerry Ritz was not using Barbie as a complimentary term when he referred to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna as "climate Barbie" on Twitter. The Barbie he had in mind was the one who thought math was hard; a blonde doll who couldn't add two and two, let alone work towards effective climate-change policy.
Mr. Ritz apologized; the Liberals made political hay from his ridiculous comment, and are using it to fund-raise. The partisan cycle of griping continues, and crushes the real issue here, which Ms. McKenna neatly identified: "It's not about me. It's about how women – especially women in politics – face these kinds of … sexist, misogynistic comments, especially from Conservatives."
Again, let's put away the partisanship for a minute. The public abuse of female politicians is a cross-party issue. It's serious, and shows no signs of going away.
There are more examples than I can possibly mention but here are just a couple: Cathy Bennett, the former finance minister of Newfoundland and Labrador, suffered so much online bullying that she decided to go public with it at the end of 2016. By July of this year, she'd resigned as finance minister, citing "numerous personal reasons." Iqra Khalid, the Liberal MP who introduced M-103, the motion to study Islamophobia, was threatened with death and called a terrorist.
An Edmonton Journal investigation revealed that Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has faced more threats requiring police action than the two previous male Alberta premiers combined. She holds "the distinction of being the most threatened premier in Alberta history," the CBC noted.
It's worse for women of colour. Consider Amnesty International's recent report that female politicians in Britain were sent more than 25,000 abusive Twitter messages in a six-month period this year; Black and Asian MPs were one-third more likely to receive abuse. Forty-five per cent of the vitriol was aimed at one Black woman, Labour MP Diane Abbott. When Ms. Abbott went on TV and quoted some of the foul racist and sexist terms hurled at her, she was admonished in the press for shocking the morning-show audience. Well, maybe it's time for people to be shocked.
Every time one of these stories hits the news, people are momentarily dumbfounded and then go back to pretending this is not a systemic issue of discrimination that keeps women from wanting to seek public office. At the beginning of this year, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is regularly disparaged in terms that have nothing to do with her policy and everything to do with her age, sexuality and appearance, wondered what kind of effect this gender-related garbage would have on young women who might want to pursue a career in politics. That hypothetical young woman, she said, would have to ask, "Why would I expose myself to that kind of personal attack?"
"Barbie" is the least of it, and that term is offensive enough. Ask just about any woman in politics and she'll have a story about an e-mail, a tweet or a phone call in which she was called names that are unprintable, and which suggest that she does not possess the right chromosomes to be seated at the table with the powerful boys. The abuse aimed at female politicians is specific because its target is gender – rape threats, suggestions that they return to that mythical kitchen – and its aim is exclusion.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recently talked about the problem of retaining female political talent against a backdrop of this kind of abuse. It's one thing to have equal numbers of men and women in Cabinet "because it's 2015"; it's another matter to keep politicians around when attitudes are stuck in 1915. They could do something less stressful with their lives, like bomb disposal.
Julia Gillard, the first (and to date, only) female Prime Minister of Australia, endured years of hearing "witch" and being compared to a barren cow. She offered some advice to young women in a speech she gave at a memorial for the murdered British MP Jo Cox: "Understand that you will encounter sexism and misogyny and prepare yourself to face it and ultimately to eradicate it."
When I read that, I nodded in agreement. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if there was a crucial piece missing: Why is it up to the young women to eradicate sexism? Why is it up to Dianne Abbott to feel awful that the morning TV audience had to listen for one minute to the abuse she gets every day?
Why don't we consider squashing sexism and misogyny at the source? Conservative MP Michelle Rempel wrote last year about her experiences – including, but not limited to, being called a bitch and having her ass grabbed – and suggested we shouldn't be looking in the mirror, but out into the world where this grotesque behaviour originates: "The responsibility for combatting everyday sexism doesn't lie with those who live with it," she wrote. "It lies with you."