Last week was a rough week for women in politics.
On the international level, the United States’ first female presidential nominee of a major political party lost the presidency to a neo-fascist dumpster-fire who brags about grabbing women without their consent.
Closer to home, the only two female Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidates — Donna Kennedy-Glans and Sandra Jansen — dropped out of the race, leaving a field of four men. Jansen specifically withdrew due to harassment faced online and at a party convention in Red Deer from Nov. 4–6. She said slurs were written on her candidate forms and that groups of people cornered her in a hallway to intimidate her about her stance on abortion.
A few days later, front-runner PC candidate Jason Kenney said in a statement that he was also bullied at the same Red Deer convention that drove Jansen out of the race. He claims there were “people jabbing [him] in the chest and shouting expletives.”
But Kenney facing finger jabs is not the same as the harassment Jansen and countless other women in politics have to face. Equating the two is painfully misguided.
What Jansen described was not “bullying.” It was targeted sexual harassment and physical intimidation. To call it anything else trivializes the inherent sexism of the political sphere.
This is not an isolated incident in Alberta. This summer, Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean had to backtrack comments he made complaining that it was “against the law to beat [Alberta premier] Rachel Notley.” Since taking office in May 2014, Notley and her cabinet have also faced an endless barrage of death threats and pornographic images on social media networks. And this past week, city councillors from across the province came forward about the harassment they face.
University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas specializes in gender in politics. She says Jansen’s claims are proof that harassment of women in politics isn’t specific to one party or ideology.
“For everybody who thinks this is news, they need to start paying attention,” Thomas said. “I’m sorry that it’s finally happening to your own team, but this is pretty pervasive in Alberta politics.”
Following the two candidates’ withdrawals, Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt tweeted “hyper-sensitive, politically correct, victim-as-virtue culture is creating a leadership class of wimps,” criticizing women who speak up about harassment and those that support them.
People like Kenney and Fildebrandt — and Donald Trump, for that matter — normalize blaming women for the harassment they face. Declarations of “it’s not that bad,” “I face it too,” and “don’t be a wimp” perpetuate the male-dominated sphere of politics and further exclude women from the political conversation.
Women deserve to run for office without the threat of sexual harassment. And yet these situations persist because sexist rhetoric is legitimized and given space.
We need to stop accepting sexism in politics as a normal part of the process. People like Jansen speaking out and rallies of support like the one held by female politicians last week in Olympic Plaza are a step forward.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton offered up advice and hope to little girls everywhere: “Never doubt that you are valuable, powerful and deserving of every opportunity.”
But the onus isn’t only on female politicians themselves to believe they can do it. We need everyone in politics, the public and the media to also stop doubting that women are valuable, powerful and deserving of every opportunity.
Or at least stop sending death threats and writing the C-word on campaign material. That might be a good start.
Melanie Woods, Gauntlet Editorial Board