The 2019 election revealed that sexism is status quo

Anne Kingston: Misogynistic slurs, masculinity contests and lack of discussion of issues affecting all women serve as a blaring wake-up call
PM Trudeau and Marc Miller train at Ali Nestor’s gym in Montreal. October 2, 2019. (Adam Scotti/LPC)

The sight of Catherine McKenna’s Ottawa Centre campaign office defiled by a misogynistic attack days after the Liberal MP was voted into office offered an vile, yet telling, capper to a campaign that was unkind to women in overt and more insidious ways. The slur was sexist: the word “cunt” spray-painted across McKenna’s face as if to obscure and silence her. When it was discussed on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup last week, the host didn’t repeat the word but referred to it as “vulgar.” And yes, the word is vulgar; Maclean’s typically won’t publish it. But I’m repeating it without slashes or asterisks because the attack on McKenna needs to be called out as gendered; “cunt” is used to sexualize and demean a woman; it is not a word used to attack a male politician.

McKenna, minister of the environment, has faced sexist garbage for years—from being dubbed “climate Barbie” to threats so serious she needed a security detail. She’s not alone. Pernicious attacks on female politicians of all political stripes—in Canada, in Australia, and the U.S. —are now so common that it’s debated whether Western politics, a bedrock of democracy, is “toxic” for women. Recent reports indicate female politicians are “standing down” in Britain in response to “horrific abuse.”

It’s positive news, of a sort, that Ottawa police just announced they’re investigating the vandalism against McKenna as a “hate crime”; this recognizes the gravity of the attack. Less positive is the lack of collective bi-partisan political or public outrage. Nor has there been a call for zero tolerance, or a needed crackdown on abuse rife on social media platforms. No one would expect women to endure constant threats of rape, physical assault, or murder as a norm in other fields—medicine, law, teaching. After a terrorist act, no one says that a population should stop flying or going into the streets. Yet the standard response to news of the attack against McKenna even by those sickened by it was a resigned: “And that’s why women don’t enter politics.”

MORE: Why would anyone hate Catherine McKenna?

Yet this federal election began with a record number of women choosing to run for office—up some nine per cent from 2015. The NDP ran 49 per cent women (up from 43 in 2015), the Greens, (lead by Elizabeth May, the only female party leader), ran 47 per cent women/non-binary/trans candidates (up from 40 per cent), the Liberals ran 39 per cent women (up from 31 per cent), and the Conservatives ran 32 percent (up from 19 per cent). After votes were counted, we had 10 more women in Parliament, bringing female representation in the House of Commons to 29 per cent, a three per cent increase. At this rate, we’ll surpass one-third female representation after the 2027 election—and reach 50-50 representation decades after that.

We’ve heard the same theories floated for years of why unequal representation persists: Women are socialized not to see themselves as eligible candidates as readily as men; they have to balance career and family (in a way men don’t); they don’t have access to the same funding; they’re not positioned by parties in winnable ridings. There’s truth there. But the biases can be more subtle than that, as seen in the imagery and messaging of the 2019 federal election. Traditional “masculine” motifs—sports, warriors, shows of strength—prevailed. Obviously women excel at sports, but framing on the campaign trail tends to be as a testosterone-soaked masculinity contest. It’s imagery that excludes many who’d make excellent representatives—not only women, but some men, and anyone who is older or who lives with a disability.

National elections as masculinity contests have long existed in the U.S., as astutely outlined by Jackson Katz in his 2017 book Man Enough?: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity. Since Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter onward, Katz writes, U.S. elections have been debates about American manhood waged exclusively by white men until Barack Obama, who was often photographed playing basketball. It’s changing, seen with the election of a new squad of younger women, lead by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, yet it’s still one where the tough guy with certitude prevails, and the nuanced or indecisive is “emasculated.”

Using sports as a go-to political metaphor is problematic for many reasons—it’s intrinsically polarizing and sets a narrow perception what a politician “looks like.” We saw a breakthrough in Canada with the presence of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the first racialized leader of a major national party. That said, on the strong, macho front, Singh fulfilled the mandate: in August, gearing up for the election, he shared an image of himself after a mixed martial arts class with former ultimate fighting champion Georges St-Pierre.

Official Leader of the Opposition and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks at the FCM annual conference in Quebec City May 31, 2019. (Andre Forget/CPC)

During the campaign, when Singh slammed a big hammer to ring a bell at a Poutine Fest in B.C., Burnaby Now enthused: “He’s flexing his campaign muscles.” The NDP leader also introduced a strenuous “Jagmeet Jump” before rallies. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was less successful in the format: he appeared in party ads swinging a baseball bat, and was mocked; he was also criticized post-election by former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay who evoked another sports metaphor when he likened Scheer losing to a hockey player missing a goal on an empty net.


Then there’s Justin Trudeau, whose political credibility and rise hinged on him winning a 2012 charity boxing match against Senator Patrick Brazeau. Trudeau’s fitness and physical derring-do—yoga poses, balancing babies, jogging shirtless—define his political identity. During the federal campaign, Trudeau ran up Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain, and his team summoned media to cover him training in a boxing ring the morning of the TVA debate. “Star” Liberal candidate and Trudeau protégé Adam van Koeverden took a page from the PM’s playbook on his first bid for political office in Milton, Ont. The four-time Olympic medalist posted a photo on Instagram showing him prepare for a local debate with a “killer” workout. Like Trudeau, van Koeverden pitched himself as a frontman for gender equality: one of his campaign boasts was his involvement at the federal government level to ensure gender inclusion in sports. He won the riding, ejecting veteran Conservative incumbent Lisa Raitt.

During the campaign, Raitt lamented in an iPolitics interview about how “virility” and “stamina” have become conflated with political competence and ability: “What am I going to do? I’m a fat woman over 50. I can’t compete in that,” she said.

Even before the campaign, we saw a focus on imagery over doing actual work. On June 17, 2019, for instance, May was the only leader in the House of Commons to vote to pass a motion declaring a national climate emergency. Trudeau,  Singh, and Scheer were all in Toronto gaining political currency being photographed at the Raptors parade. May told me she experienced sexism when I covered the Greens on the election trail—from being referred to as “quirky,” a word not often used to describe a man, to being criticized in one media account for learning about World War II history from the movies, (which is not the case). “That’s not something they’d likely say about Andrew Scheer,” May said.

MORE: Women remain invisible in debates about the future of Canada

We also saw May, the only woman at the leaders debates (she was excluded from TVA debate) drowned out as her rivals fought to defend women’s reproductive rights. “A man has no position on a woman’s right to choose,” Singh said during the official English-language leaders debate, to which May interjected: “How about a woman’s right to speak in a debate? It’s been really interesting for most of this campaign to hear a lot of men arguing about what a woman’s rights should be.”

Ironically, abortion became a cudgel used against May, who supports a woman’s right to choose, by the NDP, even as 67 Conservative candidates received endorsements by anti-abortion groups. Meanwhile, discussion about critical issues that affect women disproportionately—the epidemic of violence against women and girls, the need for universal childcare—was absent.

Post-election, it’s time to rethink and address inequities in the political realm, as Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, writes in Policy Options. Thomas, who researches gender and electoral politics, argues that the problem is entrenched biases at the party level, and not voters discriminating against women. Political scientists have looked for but found no evidence to support the idea that voters discriminate against female candidates, Thomas writes. Rather, political parties are “less likely to nominate women as candidates than men, they are also more likely to disproportionately nominate women in seats their party cannot win.”

Despite Trudeau’s 50-50 male-female cabinet, for instance, his party didn’t support the Gender Equity Act, a 2016 private member’s bill introduced by then NDP MP Kennedy Stewart to ensure greater parity. The bill, which proposed to financially penalize parties with a 10 per cent or more split between male and female candidates, didn’t pass.

It’s a bias that extends to party leadership, Thomas writes: “federal parties, particularly those that stand a chance to form government, simply do not select women as leaders.” There are exceptions, she notes: when a party is in crisis or decline, but more often women become party leaders when their party is “uncompetitive.”

History backs this up. Canada has had a female prime minister, fleetingly, in 1993, but never has come close to electing one. Kim Campbell became Conservative Party leader after the premature exit of then unpopular prime minister Brian Mulroney. Campbell never sat in Parliament as PM; the Conservatives were trounced in the 1993 election. (With speculation swirling that the Conservatives are planning to replace Scheer, it’s telling that one name being floated is Ben Mulroney, the son of Brian Mulroney, a TV presenter with no political experience, and not that of his sister Caroline, a cabinet minister in the Ontario Conservative government.)

The NDP, on the other hand, has been led by several women, though not for more than 15 years. In 1989, Audrey McLaughlin, an MP from the Yukon, became the first woman to helm a national Canadian political party. Alexa McDonough was the leader between 1995 and 2003. When Elizabeth May was elected leader of the federal Greens in 2006, the party had never held a seat in the House of Commons; it now has three, nine short of official party status. (On Monday, May announced she would be stepping down as party leader.) Women have run for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, but none has come close to winning.

The expectation that women leading provincial governments would offer training ground for the federal stage hasn’t happened, Thomas writes, noting provincial politics also reflects harsher standards applied to women leaders. For several months this year, Canada had no women premiers; Caroline Cochrane was elected premier of the Northwest Territories last month, the first woman in the job since 1995.

As Thomas sees it, it’s time to ask different questions: “Instead of asking why women should be more included in politics, we should ask why men merit being so overrepresented,” she writes.

While we ponder that, it’s also good to remember that, for all of the regressive imagery, election 43 brought us new, young female politicians, among them Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, an NDP MP in Nunavut and Jenica Atwin, a Green MP elected in Fredericton. We also saw the return of former Liberal Jody-Wilson Raybould as an Independent representing Vancouver-Granville and, of course, Catherine McKenna, who has refused to be silenced or obscured, and whose treatment should be seen as a slur across Canada’s face.

Update: This post has been updated to include Audrey McLaughlin’s 1989 election as leader of the NDP.