Family lives force women to bide their time
For longer than I’ve been alive, Penny Collenette has been waiting to run for public office.
Politicized at age 15 over Lester Pearson’s bid to give Canada its own flag, she threw her support behind the Liberals. “I wanted very much to run at an early age,” she told me.
Instead, her husband, David, got the opportunity first. No surprise there: it was 1974, and he was a bit older than Penny. And a man. David’s victory that year launched him on a 30-year career in federal politics that saw him in and out of the House of Commons and cabinet.
With a young son at home, Collenette put off her plans for public life.
“I made the decision that it wasn’t going to work,” she said. “We couldn’t have had any kind of family life.”
But Collenette continued to work for the Liberals, fought for human rights and eventually got a law degree.
Jean Chrétien named her his appointments director in 1993, with a mandate to promote women. It was a struggle. She left that job four years later, “exhausted.” She calls the decision “very personal.” David was defence minister at the time, which made life complicated.
An energetic, qualified woman putting aside her ambitions because of family obligations is a familiar story: Women downscaling their careers so the kids don’t grow up on Kraft Dinner.
Collenette bristles at any hint that her husband ever suggested she not run, saying, “I made the decision to wait until I was free and clear.” And that’s also part of many women’s stories. We take it upon ourselves to put families first.
So it shouldn’t be a shocker that even though women make up more than half the population, we hold only 20 per cent of seats in the House.
Of the 20 major-party candidates in the five Ottawa ridings, only four are women, and not one is a Conservative. Three—an NDP candidate and two Greens—hardly stand a chance. That leaves Collenette fighting a tight race in Ottawa Centre with NDP incumbent Paul Dewar and well-known Tory businessman Brian McGarry.
Consider this: Canada has no female premiers, no female major-city mayors. We have fewer women in parliament than most countries in Europe, not to mention Mauritania, Uganda, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq.
These are statistics that Equal Voice is trying to change. A non-partisan, non-profit organization made up of women and men, Equal Voice is launching a cheeky ad campaign, urging voters to support female candidates and, perhaps more important, to consider factors other than how they look.
One ad reminds voters, “Election’s in the air, and it’s not about the hair,” with a picture of a woman flashing a quasi-beehive like the ‘do’ of newly-minted Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
It goes on to admonish that “a woman should not be judged on her role in the home or family, much less her hair or pantsuits"-- a nod to Hillary Clinton’s signature ensemble.
A 2004 poll for the Centre for Research and Information on Canada found that 90 per cent of Canadians want more women elected. When women run, they win nearly as often as men. (At last count, there are 57 women running as Tory candidates, 101 as Liberals, 77 as NDP, 19 as Bloc, and 34 Greens.)
So what’s the problem? Getting us to run, of course.
Isabel Metcalfe, who was in charge of recruiting women to hit Stéphane Dion’s target of one-third female Liberal candidates, told me that women need to be convinced. “There’s always some guy who thinks he’d be terrific,” but women are “reticent.”
Family is usually what’s holding them back. Provincial or federal politics means weeks at a time away from home, and that conflicts with the larger share of domestic baggage women still carry.
It happens in the best of families. In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Kerry Kennedy—daughter of Bobby and Ethel—was asked if she has ever considered running for office. She said she has thought about it, but her children are 13 and 11, “and as a single mother, I think that would be just too tough on our family. Their father is a politician.” (Kennedy was very publicly divorced from New York’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, in 2003.)
If a daughter of the U.S.’s most storied political family thinks running for office is too hard on the home life, there seems little hope for the rest of us.
So how do we get women to chuck the hubby and kids for life in a fishbowl? If we wait until men are willing to take up the domestic slack before women take a bigger role in public life, well, we’ll be waiting a long time.
But perhaps Baby Boomers, women of Penny Collenette’s vintage, will start answering the call in greater numbers. In their 50s and 60s, they’ve had their careers, raised their families, done fine charity work, had enriching life experience, and sure understand what’s facing everyday families.
Come to think of it, just what we want in our politicians.
Penny is a frequent public policy commentator on national television. During the 2011 federal election, Penny was a commentator for Global TV. Penny tweets @penottawa.
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