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Is Christy Clark a tipping point for Canadian women in politics?

The Globe and Mail by Nancy Peckford 7 March 2011

Does Christy Clark’s election as B.C. Liberal Party leader make female politicians the new Hush Puppies?

Author Malcolm Gladwell famously used the brand’s astonishing transformation from uncool but comfy to sexy and sought-after to illustrate the power of the tipping point, the moment when a trend reaches sufficient critical mass to finally stick.

Indeed, Ms. Clark’s success now means that three women leaders serve at the helm in their provinces. She joins Newfoundland and Labrador’s Kathy Dunderdale, who replaced Danny Williams in December, and Eva Aariak, the Premier of Nunavut since November of 2008. Eight other women currently lead provincial/territorial parties.

The shift is long overdue. Most provinces had granted women the vote by 1925 and, although it took until 1940 for Quebec women to gain the franchise and another 20 years for aboriginal women (and men), the first woman was elected to Parliament in 1921. But 90 years later, female representation in the House of Commons sits at a paltry 22 per cent.

Despite the collective high of inducting Kim Campbell as Canada’s first female prime minister way back in 1993, the subsequent hard knocks – beginning with her party’s disastrous defeat mere months later – saw few female leaders surviving beyond a single term.

Although three women served as premiers during the 1990s, B.C.’s Rita Johnson held the post for only seven months. Nellie Cournoyea of the Northwest Territories and Catherine Callbeck of Prince Edward Island served longer terms, but few women rushed in behind them.

In the first decade of this century, no female facesgraced the annual premiers’ photo shoot between 2002 and 2008. Ms. Aariak came on the scene in late 2008, but stood alone until Ms. Dunderdale’s breakthrough at the end of 2010. And now we have Ms. Clark.

Federally, the story is even shorter. Only the NDP has featured female leaders: Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough, who, between them, led from 1989 to 2003. The election in 2006 of Elizabeth May as leader of the Green Party ended the drought but, without a seat in the House of Commons, her capacity to make her mark has been limited.

Can Ms. Dunderdale and Ms. Clark maintain their new-found power? Of the four female premiers who’ve come before, only Ms. Callbeck and Pat Duncan retained their posts in general elections.

So the question is, will the new leaders’ electorates embrace them for their innovative leadership styles, issues-first approach and, in the case of Ms. Clark, capacity to simultaneously lead the province and mother a young child? Will this newer brand of women politicians finally stick? Only time will tell.

Meantime, we’re working hard to increase the likelihood. This week, as women around the world celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, Equal Voice will mark an anniversary of its own. Building on 10 years of advocacy in support of increasing the number of elected female politicians and achieving more democratic representation in Canada, we will be playing host to a national summit in Ottawa – Leveraging Women’s Leadership for the 21st Century: Changing the Game.

We’ve reserved more than a hundred spaces for young women and will be featuring more than 40 speakers from Norway, the U.S., South Africa and, of course, Canada. Their inspirational examples and on-the-ground experiences will inform our discussions of how to win nominations, manage the media, tackle political culture and do things differently.

We are daring to hope that, after so many decades of incremental and often sideways progress, Christy Clark’s success is the tipping point we’ve been working for – no Hush Puppies necessary.

Nancy Peckford is executive director of Equal Voice.