Watching Our Warriors become Housewives

Watching our warriors become housewives

National Post Comment October 2004 

The more prominent a woman becomes, the more likely she is to have her sexuality attacked.

On Thursday night, the fate of the world was debated by two white boys from Yale. A few weeks ago, the shape of our future health was decided by 11 Canadian men in navy blue suits. Next week, the Throne Speech will be read by a woman, but it will not be her speech. She is window dressing, and will be remembered primarily for spending our money like a brattish debutante. Where are all the women?

Ten days ago, the most promising young female politician in Canada, 38-year-old Christy Clark, quit the deputy premiership of B.C. to spend more time with her three-year-old. Clark was a bare- knuckle politician who had successfully taken on the fierce B.C. Teachers Federation. A woman capable of standing up to the public sector unions could go right to the Prime Minister's office and park herself there for quite some time.

Mozambique, the Philippines and Indonesia all have female first ministers -- why don't we? Will we ever have a Thatcher, or even, God help us, a Hillary? Will there ever be a strong female voice in Canadian politics? I don't count the set-jawed Anne McLellan, who is more a tokenistic emissary from the conservative West. Nor do I count those shrieking women from the Jean Chretien years. It seemed that they were fielded as scapegoats, Falstaffs masking Chretien's scheming with a lot of double-talk about liberal values.

This may actually be a problem within centre-left parties generally. The New Statesman noted recently how deeply unimpressive Tony Blair's women were. In a piece titled "The Well-Behaved Get Office," the magazine lamented how silent the women in Labour were, how little they achieved, how little they grew, even though there were a lot more female MPs appointed to government positions than male MPs. Conclusion? They were being nice girls, giving no trouble, hewing to party line and were therefore rewarded.

Here we reach the crux of the matter: the stall-out of third wave feminism. Just at the age that Christy Clark quit, when there is a toddler at home -- it is at this precise moment that equality takes a belly flop. It is when the female fight for parity stops.

And it is a fight. Many studies show that even in today's classrooms, female high-achievers receive less attention from teachers and are the least popular. High achieving males, on the other hand, are the most popular. This situation continues through education and out into the work world. Women seeking tenure are still considered "uppity" and "aggressive." The higher in a profession a woman climbs, the more likely she is to be loathed by the men and women in her company. The more prominent a woman becomes, the more likely she is to have her sexuality attacked. Indeed, a group of French female politicians recently described the unrelenting ridicule and sexist slurs they attracted as the most difficult part of their job.

When women are young, they club together in informal ways to give each other support. But when they retreat into their houses to take care of children, that support network begins to crumble. It is then that the attrition begins. According to one study of working women, more than 60% who quit high-status, high-paying jobs cite a "lack of support" as a reason for leaving.

The retreat into the home represents a huge economic loss to society. For a college-educated woman, it is estimated at about US$1- million in personal terms alone. What is arguably worse is the damage done to the woman herself. In Necessary Dreams, Ambition in Women's Changing Lives, psychiatrist Anna Frels writes that "the entire texture of women's lives is permeated with small events of non-recognition."

Eventually, women adapt. They become "nice." They learn to gracefully deflect resentment, and they learn to support the status quo. Rather than fulfill their ambitions, they become "selfless." They learn to reframe their work as an extension of women's positions within their immediate family. Former Turkish prime minister Tansu Ciller, for instance, said she was "mother, sister and daughter" to the people. Dominica's Eugenia Charles referred to herself as "mother of the people." Golda Meir liked being described as Israel's Jewish grandmother.

In Ottawa, we don't need mothers or sisters of "the people." We need a warrior queen. The thing is, we'd actually have to support her.