International Women’s Day (March 8, 2020)

[Written by Elizabeth May. To receive current blog posts by email, as soon as they are published, you can subscribe here.]

Good Sunday Morning!

And Happy International Women’s Day!

March 8, 1980 was a huge day for me in finding my path.  I had always wanted to be an environmental lawyer, but my parents’ decision to move us to Cape Breton Island had resulted in big financial reversals.  From 1973, when we moved, until 1980, I was waitressing and cooking in our family restaurant on the Cabot Trail, unable to afford university. The business was seasonal so in the off-season, through the winters of 1975-1979, I worked to stop aerial insecticide spraying of the forests.  Our campaigns were largely funded with my waitressing tips.

It was at an International Women’s Day event in Sydney (the other one – in Cape Breton!) that I learned that law school was a possibility.  A local woman lawyer told me I didn’t need an undergraduate degree and that, with my reputation as an environmental activist, I could apply to law school as a mature student.  The option to go to law school after years out of school was created by the women’s movement, to increase opportunities for women who had been unable to go to university. The next day I telephoned Dalhousie law school in Halifax.  I was just under the wire to get in my application, write my LSAT, and yes! start law school in the fall of 1980.

I have been part of the women’s movement for all my life and the first wave feminists changed my life.  In a sad note for celebrating progress toward women’s equality was Elizabeth Warren’s announcement this week. All US presidential candidates who are women, and originally there were six, have dropped out of the race. The full list included two long shots, author Marianne Williamson and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, but four had the heft and credentials to be taken seriously – Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and, the last being the woman who was once the front runner, Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Elizabeth Warren has a terrific track record, is widely admired, and knows her policy and detail down to the decimal point.  She was likeable and credible. Could it be maybe just this once that a breakthrough was possible?

And then, just as it seemed most possible, her lead evaporated. She came third in her own home state. And she withdrew on Thursday. That is a hard blow.

I certainly can identify.  I know that as a woman leader, I faced very different hurdles than a man.  Sexism came in all directions, from other parties and from our news media, though nothing is as vile as the anonymous social media content with its threats of violence and general bullying and abuse.

It is not new. As Canada’s first woman mayor of a major city, first elected in 1951, Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton famously said, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Fortunately this is not difficult.”

Still, seventy years later, it is maddening that the male world of politics with all its assumptions still dominates in our culture.  For the last thirteen years, often excluded but fighting to get on the stage in leaders’ debates, it was always clear that when I got there, I would be the only woman.  Barring Marilyn Gladu (MP for Sarnia) winning the Conservative leadership race (and she is also facing highly biased coverage) unless the Greens choose another woman leader, Canadians will be staring at a stage of men in the next elections campaign.  Now, I have no intention of endorsing candidates in the Green leadership context, and many very fine and well-qualified men are running, so let me add, speaking generically, “may the best woman win!”

Can we find a way to do politics so differently that a woman will always be on the stage- without excluding qualified men?

There is an active debate within the party about whether Canadian Greens should go to a dual-leader system.  It would require a constitutional amendment, but the UK Greens recently took the plunge. While not suggesting we are limited to two genders, the Green tradition in many countries has been to have a male leader and a female leader.  Such is the case in Sweden, New Zealand, Germany, the UK as mentioned, and a few others, although the majority still have single leaders with Australia, the US, Brazil, France, Netherlands, Denmark and Canada among others. Leadership candidate David Merner is raising the issue as he campaigns.

So on this International Women’s Day, I want to salute the Green women leaders who led the way.  Women who were my friends – the brilliant Petra Kelly, German Green likely murdered by neo-Nazis (I do not buy the “official story,”) Kenya’s Wangari Mathai, the first person to win the Nobel Peace Prize for environmental work who died of cancer, the first Green elected in a first-past-the-post voting system, my dear friend Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion since 2010 (still the only Green in Westminster), Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Loeven, and the Brazilian former presidential candidate – who got 25 million votes – Marina Silva.

And to our own Greens – our federal caucus is the first one in the history of Canada with more women than men – with Jenica Atwin from Fredericton joining me and Paul Manly. The majority of PEI Green MLA’s, forming the Official Opposition, are also women. As a party we have strong women Green leaders from Adriane Carr in Vancouver City Council to MLA Megan Mitton in Sackville, New Brunswick.  And, of course, I am so grateful to interim leader Jo Ann Roberts who is doing a fabulous job as we move through a year of transitions.

So, women, go forth and celebrate…. and a small wee word of humility.  We are not always the right choice — Sarah Palin, Theresa May (not related), Margaret Thatcher…!

Happy International Women’s Day!


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