The National Post with Melanee Thomas 17 April 2019
In Canadian political history, there have only been 11 female premiers and just one has gone on to win a second mandate — which didn’t last long.
(And four provinces — New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan — have never had a female leader.)
Rachel Notley is the most recent provincial leader to fail to secure a second mandate from the electorate, with her loss Tuesday to Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party in Alberta.
Given that female premiers are so rare, and their re-election record so poor, the question arises whether a politicians’ gender plays a role in their success or failure.
Melanee Thomas, a professor at the University of Calgary, has studied whether female premiers tend to fare poorly in subsequent elections because they are more likely to be chosen as “sacrificial lambs” to lead parties in crisis.
She found that less than half of female premiers could be said to have led parties in crisis. Only Pauline Marois’ PQ minority and Rita Johnston’s short-lived Social Credit government in B.C. truly fit the bill, though she notes Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal party was in decline. That means the “sacrificial lamb” theory couldn’t fully explain the poor electoral results of female premiers across the board.
“I really wanted to push back against this narrative that women weren’t doing well because they gained power in parties that weren’t doing well,” Thomas said.
For example, Rachel Notley’s rise to power was fairly traditional, Thomas found, so Tuesday’s election result in Alberta is leading her to think more about what other factors impact how women are viewed in politics.
Any NDP leader would have struggled in an Albertan election focused on the economy, Thomas said, but the economy is also generally stereotyped as a masculine subject. So women might have a disadvantage in elections that revolve around jobs, Thomas argued, as they tend to be seen as more credible on subjects thought of as more feminine, like health care or education.
These “quick stereotypes” may not always be the decisive factor, Thomas said, but they are an important lens through which people interpret politicians. At the same time, she cautioned, with so few data points — only 11 premiers to compare to one another — it’s hard to disentangle what factors were most decisively at play in any one election.
“In this particular context, anybody who had been governing Alberta between 2015 and now was not dealt a great hand,” Thomas said.
Another factor that might help explain the general lack of women in positions of power is the trend in recent years of personal threats or harassment. Notley, Kathleen Wynne and Alison Redford were all the subjects of serious threats during their time in power.
“Being a woman in public, particularly in politics, invites a lot of misogyny,” she said, which can discourage others from climbing the ranks.
There is also some research, according to Sylvia Bashevkin, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, that shows people become less comfortable with women as they reach more senior roles.
“People might be okay with women as school trustees or city councillors, or even MPs or MPPs,” she said, but could be more wary of women who are in higher, executive roles.
Whether or not the issue of gender was decisive for the latest female premier to lose her job, “Notley’s defeat certainly trains a spotlight on what are the opportunities for women in politics and the difficulties they face,” Bashevkin said.
“The fact that we have no woman premiers and we have not had a woman prime minister since 1993, opens up the question of the general diversity of the general population and the relative lack of diversity in the political leadership,” she continued. From a period earlier this decade when most Canadians lived under female premierships, now none do. This will have a significant impact on the policy conversation, Bashevkin argued.
At the same time, she said, Notley’s defeat could have a galvanizing effect.
“One can argue that the absence of any women as first ministers can spur a huge amount of activism,” she said.
Those Canadians worried about having a diverse set of leaders, Bashekvin predicted, might emphasize that issue in the coming federal election.
Here’s a brief run-down of the political careers of the 10 female premiers that came before Notley:
Rita Johnson: April 1991-November 1991
Social Credit, British Columbia
Johnson came to power in 1991 following the resignation of Bill Vander Zalm, who was forced out over a conflict of interest scandal related to his sale of a theme park. Johnson served in numerous cabinet positions in Vander Zalm’s government and had been named deputy premier in 1990. When the former premier resigned, Johnson was appointed deputy leader of Social Credit and assumed the premiership. She went on to an upset win at Social Credit’s leadership convention, but was defeated in the scheduled general election later that year. Social Credit lost 40 seats, dropping to third-party status following an NDP majority win.
Nellie Cournoyea: 1991-1995
Consensus Government, Northwest Territories
Cournoyea was elected by her fellow MLAs and served four years as premier in the Northwest Territories, but chose not to run for re-election to the legislature.
Catherine Callbeck: 1993-1996
In 1993, Callbeck was just the third female premier in Canadian history. She won a leadership race in the then-dominant Liberal party following the resignation of former premier Joe Ghiz in 1992 after the failure of the Charlottetown Accords. Callbeck went on to increase the Liberals massive majority in the 1993 election. However, she resigned prior to the 1996 elections as her government lost popularity.
Pat Duncan: 2000-2002
Liberal, Yukon Territory
Currently sitting in the Senate, Duncan served as premier of Yukon for two years from 2000 to 2002, the first woman to gain the top provincial role by defeating an incumbent premier. During her administration, three Liberal MPs left the party. She called an election just two years into her mandate and was defeated by Dennis Fentie’s Yukon Party.
Eva Aariak: 2008-2013
Consensus Government, Nunavut
Aariak was the only woman elected to the legislature in 2008 and was subsequently elevated by her peers to the premiership. She decided not to seek a second term in 2013, and lost her bid to be re-elected as an MLA.
Kathy Dunderdale: 2010-2014
Progressive Conservative, Newfoundland and Labrador
Dunderdale, then deputy premier, took over the party following former premier Danny Williams’ resignation. Dunderdale had served as a cabinet minister in multiple portfolios before becoming the province’s first female premier. She initially declined to run for the leadership, but changed her mind and won the nomination officially unopposed. In the next general election, the PCs lost six seats but retained their strong majority. Dunderdale’s tenure was preoccupied with labour disputes and the development of the Muskrat Falls dams. As her government lost popularity ahead of the 2015 provincial elections, Dunderdale resigned the premiership.
Christy Clark: 2011-2017
Liberal, British Columbia
When Premier Gordon Campbell’s personal popularity dropped precipitously over the introduction of the HST, the premier resigned, sparking a leadership contest. Clark won on the third ballot. Though unpopular and facing several high-profile resignations going into the 2013 election, Clark actually increased her majority, despite losing her own seat. Clark’s premiership was strongly focused on the economy, notably the imposition of a foreign buyers tax and the promotion of the Site C dam. Following the 2017 election, Clark’s Liberals emerged with the most seats and formed a minority government, but eventually fell to a coalition of the NDP and Green parties. Clark announced her resignation ten days after NDP leader John Horgan formed government.
Alison Redford: 2011-2014
Progressive Conservative, Alberta
Ahead of the 2012 election, Premier Ed Stelmach resigned the party leadership, setting up a contest that Redford won on the third ballot. During the subsequent election, Redford surprised observers by warding off a challenge from the Wildrose Party and maintaining the PC’s majority government. Her government was preoccupied with labour challenges throughout her mandate, while the energy sector suffered from the delays of the Keystone XL pipeline. Redford’s popularity declined through the midpoint of her mandate and she resigned in early 2014.
Pauline Marois: 2012-2014
Parti Québécois, Quebec
After two failed leadership bids and a year in the political wilderness, Marois returned and won the PQ leadership in a third, unopposed contest. She faced successive internal party struggles but eventually went on to form a minority government in 2012 provincial elections. That government sought to introduce a charter of values similar to the recently introduced Bill 21, which sparked controversy although it was largely popular. Marois decided to call an election just two years into her mandate and the PQ was soundly defeated by Philippe Couillard’s Liberals.
Kathleen Wynne: 2013-2018
Wynne assumed office in a leadership race, the result of Dalton McGuinty’s resignation. Wynne emerged victorious on the third ballot, but immediately needed to deal with the unfolding gas plant scandal. During her first mandate, Wynne made efforts to improve government accountability and promised increases to the minimum wage. In the 2014 election, she was able to move from a minority government into a majority one, gaining 10 seats at the expense of the PCs. Following the election, Wynne moved forward with privatizing Hydro One, the creation of a cap-and-trade climate plan and other environmental subsidies. After 15 years of Liberal rule, Wynne was unpopular with Ontarians going into the 2018 election and lost the race, with the Liberals falling to third-party status behind the NDP and the ruling PCs under Doug Ford.