When Alberta women first won the right to vote 100 years ago, the province’s pioneering spirit was reflected in the participation of women in politics. Although women’s suffrage was not yet universal—Indigenous women weren’t entitled to vote provincially until 1965—the Equal Suffrage Statutory Law Amendment Act, which became law April 19, 1916, opened the door to women’s political participation in the province two years before that right would be granted federally.
“It’s really quite extraordinary how far we’ve come,” says political science professor Linda Trimble. “Alberta was a pioneering province when it came to women’s representation, in many respects.”
After an early spike in women’s participation that included the election of Alberta’s first women MLAs, Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams, in 1917, women’s electoral participation in Alberta became relatively constant. Although Alberta was an early leader—McKinney was the first woman elected to a legislature in the British Empire—the province saw a levelling-off of women’s engagement through the 20th century.
“What we’ve seen in Alberta is early progress and some real progress in the early ’90s. So Alberta was kind of a leader and then stalled, and then this burst in the early ’90s, which happened across Canada in most provinces,” Trimble says. “There was a really high percentage of women in the Alberta legislature in 1997. It went up to 27 per cent, which was extraordinary at the time, really high. And then down. It took a long time to rebound from that.” The province wouldn’t see numbers like that again for nearly 20 years.
“What is it with you women?”
That increase in women’s representation was in part thanks to a resurgence in women in politics in Canada in the 1990s, with the country’s first and only woman prime minister, Kim Campbell, taking office in 1993. One of the factors, Trimble believes, was an Alberta Liberal party leader who worked to recruit more women to office.
“A lot of women were drawn into the Liberal party, and they had a sizable caucus, so that really made a difference in what was discussed in the legislature and substantive representation of women. That was a real high-water mark. But then the numbers kept declining as the opposition decreased and the Conservative government consolidated its number of seats.”
Former Edmonton Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, who served as a Liberal MLA from 1997 to 2015, told Trimble that then-leader Grant Mitchell played a big role in her decision to run. Blakeman had met with Mitchell and agreed that more women needed to run, but she didn’t think she was suited to the job. Mitchell challenged her, saying “What is it with you women? You’re all awesome, and you’d be fantastic. You’re exactly the sort of people we want to be legislators, but you’re all saying no. How are we going to make improvements for women if you all keep saying no?”
Blakeman went home feeling angry, but that conversation changed her mind, leading her to become one of the best-known women to serve in the legislature during her years in office.
Recruitment makes a huge difference to women’s decision to run, something Trimble says is particularly powerful coming from women leaders.
“I looked at what happened in those provinces that had a woman party leader or premier. In all but one case, when the woman premier contested an election, the percentage of women increased.”
“Alberta is the only province to have elected two women premiers, to have two women win the premier’s post or consolidate it by winning an election, which is an extraordinary achievement.” -Linda Trimble, political science professor
This has held true across the country and across party lines. “There seems to be something going on with women leaders of those parties recruiting women. Christy Clark, Alison Redford, Pauline Marois, Kathleen Wynne—quite dramatic, actually. And Rachel Notley is an obvious one.” Study after study has shown that women need to be asked to run, usually more than once, and those asks are especially powerful when they come from women leaders.
Women are now filling those roles regularly, and they’re winning governments. Until recently, when women became first ministers, it was by becoming the leader of the party in power. Trimble says this is one of the ways in which Alberta has become a pioneer once again. “Alberta is the only province to have elected two women premiers, to have two women win the premier’s post or consolidate it by winning an election, which is an extraordinary achievement.”
The change in government has been significant for women’s participation. Following the high point in the late 1990s, women’s participation dropped, in part because of the consolidation of power on the government side of the Legislature.
“Incumbency matters. Most legislators are men. Most incumbents are re-elected,” Trimble explains. “With a high rate of incumbency and a lot of safe seats in a one-party dominant system, there’s not a lot of room for women.” Though Redford made a serious effort to recruit women, and more women were elected under her leadership, it took the realigning election of May 2015 to see women reach 33 per cent representation, and, even more significantly, gender parity in the government caucus and in cabinet.
“Gender parity in cabinet is rare in Canada. I think Pat Duncan’s government in the Yukon had gender parity in the cabinet at the provincial level. I can’t think of many other examples.”
Trimble says this change has put women’s issues back on the agenda. “With a gender-equal government caucus and cabinet, they’re obviously talking about women again, and I think the biggest sign of that is the re-establishment of the Status of Women ministry as a stand-alone ministry.”
Alberta’s Status of Women ministry was re-established in 2015 after a 19-year gap, but even before that, it was not necessarily focused on women’s equality. Progressive Conservative MLA Elaine McCoy, the first woman to fill the role in 1986 after a series of men held the office, said that at that time, they were not even permitted to use the word “equality.”
“It was there, but it wasn’t allowed to be meaningful,” explains Trimble. “With our present minister, it is allowed to be meaningful. So that’s important.”
Women’s voices are becoming meaningful in other ways as well. Trimble cites one strong example: the passage of a private member’s bill allowing victims of domestic violence to break residential leases and move out of their accommodations early.
“The private member’s bill by Deborah Drever is an indication that there is a lot of thinking about how legislation affects women and how women’s different social and economic circumstances in Alberta need to be considered when making public policy.”
Trimble adds that this foregrounding of women’s issues is particularly vital in a province with Canada’s largest pay gap and a high rate of family violence.
The large number of women in the Legislature—especially young women—is changing how government is run as well. Many MLAs are parents, regardless of gender, but much of the work of parenting has traditionally fallen to women. In the past, women delayed entry into political life until their children were older, a trend Trimble says is reversing. This may be most evident in the presence of Stephanie MacLean, minister of both Service Alberta and Status of Women, and her infant Patrick on the front benches, a first for Alberta and something that’s changed the conversation about politics and parenthood.
“It’s a discourse about family and work-life balance that needs to happen in politics,” says Trimble. “Younger Canadians with families are not going to be drawn to that life unless there are some fundamental changes.” Everything from the schedule for legislative sittings to the lack of parental leave for MLAs has been in the news, something Albertans haven’t seen before.
However, another new phenomenon has emerged on the political scene—the backlash against women leaders and elected officials seen on social media sites and even in some mainstream news. Trimble notes that threats may affect politicians regardless of gender, but says the current trend has a distinctly gendered tone.
Many of these comments have been collected on the website Madam Premier, which collected sexist remarks directed at women premiers across Canada of all political stripes. Even on the international stage, Trimble’s current research has shown that women prime ministers experience this type of sexism, with Julia Gillard in Australia having experienced some of the more extreme comments.
“It seems to reflect a discomfort with women in political leadership roles,” she says. While the comments seem to reflect a marginal view, they illustrate a possible backlash grounded in that discomfort. “Sylvia Bashevkin presents what she calls the ‘women plus power equals discomfort’ equation, and I think those sorts of reactions that we see on social media reflect that level of discomfort. They may be the last vestiges of sexism and misogyny.”
Gendered images and language haven’t been limited to social media, either. “I gave a presentation where I got Malcolm Mayes’ cartoons that showed Notley. One of them was about Bill 6, the farm bill, and it showed a farmer putting his pitchfork in Notley.” Though Trimble doesn’t think Mayes intended to threaten, she found the image alarming. “That’s a mainstream media representation of expressions of violence towards our premier. It was meant as a joke—and it reflected something real that was happening in the society—but I was stunned by it.”
These kinds of comments may represent a deterrent to women who want to run for office, despite not representing the views of the average voter. “Most people say that they want more women in political life, and they see women as trustworthy and competent,” says Trimble.
Adding to the problem is the difficulty for women themselves to stand up against these comments without being portrayed as weak or unsuited to politics.
“Women in that position often find themselves being silenced and not being able to speak about the kind of sexism they’re facing. It often becomes up to the men in their party or their government to say, ‘This is really wrong.’”
Blazing a new trail: next steps
However, despite those challenges, women are taking the lead and running for office in numbers greater than ever. At this turning point in Alberta’s political history, once again, Alberta women are pioneers. And this, Trimble says, presents a new opportunity to encourage women’s political participation and continue to be leaders on gender parity in politics. She offers a few next steps to make it easier for women to run.
First, women need to be asked. “Studies have shown, and anecdotal evidence has shown, that women need to be asked, they need to be asked more than once, and they need to be convinced that they have the experience and the qualifications to do the job, whereas men say, ‘Oh yeah, I’d be great at that!’”
Second, the push for campaign finance reform needs to continue. “Controlling the role of money in winning elections and in nomination campaigns is really, really important, and Alberta has been really lax about election finance regulation, so that has to change.” Women have been less able to raise money than men, in part because their personal networks tend to include fewer people who can donate to their campaigns and in part because they are more reluctant to ask.
Third is to change how legislatures sit so that politicians have a more family-friendly work-life balance. “Changing the legislative schedule, which this government seeks to do, would be hugely important not just for women, but also for people with families or lives beyond politics, which we should all have.”
Fourth, she says, is the need to consider new models for how we elect governments. “That’s not a panacea, but something that should be done.” Alberta’s move toward a more vibrant party system has helped. “Competition is a good thing in politics.”
And most of all, seeing that women can make an impact on policy and legislation is critical to getting more young women to engage. “I think we’re seeing that with this government. People need to see that electing women has a substantive impact on policy.”
With all those changes on the horizon, Trimble sees this as a moment to celebrate.
“I was beginning to despair about Alberta and whether or not we’d ever return to that trailblazing, pioneer frontier approach to representation. It’s great to have this anniversary at a moment when we can really celebrate Alberta being a pioneer again.”
This article was first published on the U of A website.