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‘Add women and stir politics?’ No, thank you

The Toronto Star by Dr. Kara Santokie 14 May 2014

What do butts, language learning, thighs, problem-solving, squats, map-reading and sexual harassment all have in common?

In addition to an Ontario retirement pension plan, low corporate income taxes and more investment in healthcare, it appears we can expect all of the above in the Liberal party’s election manifesto.

All in the space of 96 hours, the Ontario public has endured a barrage of sexist posts and tweets from three Liberal candidates in the upcoming provincial election. Between Jack Uppal’s breakdown of the differences between men and women, David Mossey’s pronouncement that women who don’t do squats don’t make the cut, and Nick Steinburg’s casual reference to sexual harassment as a leisure activity, my female brain (already weak at doing analysis, apparently) is left spinning.

Sadly, we didn’t get a reprieve when Mayor Rob Ford went into rehab. These three stepped in to make sure that sexism remains alive and kicking in the public realm.

Is this the new criteria for holding or running for public office? And what does it say about politics in Ontario?

At the micro level, statements made on personal social media accounts are fair game in an election. Voters should be aware of candidates’ values and commitments. These don’t magically change with the deletion of personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. Neither do they change with simplistic apologies for “inappropriate posts.” The posts may have changed, but have their attitudes towards women?

At a macro level, these comments are symptomatic of a broader social acceptance of sexism. This is hardly new — women’s bodies are co-opted for everything from selling soda to justifying wars. We have our uses, but we’re never quite as good as men.

But should we accept this in our politics? The Liberal candidates’ comments reveal two things.

First, it highlights the fact that none of the major parties has made any concrete effort to demonstrate how they plan to change public policy for women’s benefit. Public pronouncements about women’s rights ring hollow otherwise.

This trend isn’t unique to provincial politics. After months and months of damage done by a sexist and homophobic mayor at the municipal level, no major mayoralty candidate has directly laid out a plan for reducing inequity in Toronto.

And at the federal level, the Harper administration has stealthily cut funding to a multitude of programs and offices that benefit women, such as the Status of Women’s Office, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and the Canadian Women’s Health Network. Collectively, women in Canada are being gradually silenced.

The second thing that these comments reveal is an “add and stir” attitude to women in politics and public life. There is no better illustration of this than David Mossey’s insulting apology: “I am proud to be a candidate for a party with a strong record of standing up for the rights of all women.” The Liberal party may stand for women’s rights on paper, but can it put its money where its mouth is? David Mossey certainly can’t.

A lack of concerted action to change the underlying structures and attitudes that enable this kind of sexism in the ranks of the Liberal party reflects the acceptance of sexism in all political parties and public institutions. We “add women and stir” when we give lip service to respecting women’s rights but fail to address how we would build an equitable Ontario. That’s why after one set of sexist comments on Saturday, it kept coming and coming. The underlying causes had not been addressed. Therefore, nothing changed.

The leaders of all political parties should use this opportunity to initiate meaningful change for women and men. Equity doesn’t mean just adding words about women. It may come as a surprise to some Liberal candidates, but women in this province understand when they’re being insulted and they understand when they’re not being taken seriously. That surely counts in deciding how to cast our votes.

Dr. Kara Santokie is the Project Director at Toronto Women’s City Alliance.