Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Canada's double-standard whacks Stronach

Canada's double-standard whacks Stronach
By SHEILA COPPS TheTorontoSun April 17

Forget Rutgers and American shock jocks. You only have to read Belinda Stronach's political epitaph to know that sexism is alive and well right here in Canada.

While American radio is abuzz with punches and counterpunches, Canadian garden-variety sexism is much more subtle. At least the Rutgers women fought back.

Just look at what happens to Canadian women in public life. Belinda, Flora, Kim, Sheila. Different women, different parties, same story.

Flora MacDonald, the first woman to seek party leadership, had a syndrome named after her when she lost. Since 1867, dozens of men have been defeated. But Flora's fate was seen as a sign that women and leadership did not mix.

When Kim Campbell was elected Conservative leader, she inherited a party on life support. After her party was reduced to two seats, she bore the brunt of the blame. Just another example of why Canada is not ready for a woman prime minister, blah, blah, blah.

In response, Campbell wrote an autobiography of her time in office. Critics dismissed her account as a self-serving whine. A similar tome by failed NDP premier Bob Rae was lauded as insightful and revealing.

Enter Belinda. With the rare combination of business pedigree and money, she turned a deadly dull Tory leadership into a fight.


Much was said about her stolid speaking style. So what! How many inarticulate men have migrated to politics, deified by their business background. Did you ever hear Paul Martin at the podium?

When we refer to women in public life, we usually call them by their first names. Stronach refers to her ubersuccessful business father. Why not Frank?

In her political twilight, Stronach's love life is better known than her ideas. As the sideshow in an ugly divorce dispute, her personal life warranted weeklong front-page coverage.

Men in politics, straight, gay, philanderers or all of the above, get to keep their private lives private. Why do women warrant national headlines?

Could it be that Canada's double standard is so entrenched that we don't even see it? At least an American broadcasters' racist sexism resulted in a suspension followed by his firing.

I started in politics young. At 28, much more was written about my looks than my ideas. Having been first elected more than a quarter of a century ago, I assumed things would change for the next generation.

But what do we know about Belinda? Her hair (it changes colour and somehow we should be nationally informed). Her shoes (a Liberal colleague, on learning that Belinda was switching sides opined that this was great news because she had great shoes). Her paramours (she attends a world gathering on malaria and her dinner dates are deemed the only matter of public interest).

Belinda entered politics with a splash that was quickly reduced to salacious stories about her private life. After opting out of the Liberal leadership race because the membership rules were rigged, Stronach wrote a seminal document on party reform.


Political parties still suffer from rigged backroomitis. But Stronach's proposed reforms, instead of being viewed as positive for democracy, were generally maligned. Instead, the main issue became her motive. Because party membership lacks transparency, somehow Stronach is a whiner. (Do you see a pattern here?) In opposition, Stronach worked tirelessly on the rubber chicken circuit fundraising for women members and candidates. She put her considerable money where her mouth was. But her public persona was still all about sex.

Unfortunately, the Stronach experience is not unique. At various times, I was accused of sleeping my way into office. I was called a lesbian because I favoured equal rights. A picture of my vagina was placed in a national magazine. I was accused of abusing my child, my dog and a disabled person on a plane. Fed up, I successfully fought the final charges in court even though cabinet colleagues urged me to grin and bear it. I was constantly referred to as a single parent although the marital status of male colleagues was generally unreferenced.

Stereotypes run deep. I have been happily married to the same man for 14 years, but I often get nasty e-mails from annoyed readers calling me a lesbian. I am sure this column will prompt a couple.

Belinda's decision to leave politics may be personal. But her exit should remind all of us that Rutgers is not as far away as we think.


janfromthebruce said...

And women who are looked upon fondly are ones who often act or behaviour like men.
I must say that I thought better of Belinda when I heard, after she said that she would not seek re-election, that she donated MP pay to charity. Not that I believe that everybody should do that, particularly as most MPs need the money to live on, but it changed my perception of her.

audacious said...

and to think that we as taxpayers pay for harper's family passports !

SUZANNE said...

There are lots of men who've had their private lives scrutinized in front of the media: Pierre Trudeau, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, to name a few. Belinda Stronach would have gotten a lot more credibility if she had actually proven that she paid her dues.

I never heard a word about Margaret Thatcher's private life. There are many women politicians who don't have their private lives scrutinized by the media: mostly because they act honourably.