Annie Gale was elected to Calgary city council 100 years ago, so is progress still being made?

Annie Gale was elected to Calgary city council 100 years ago, so is progress still being made?

Annie Gale was the first female elected official in Canada, joining Calgary city council in 1917, but a current female councillor, one of only two, says civic discourse has become so toxic, fewer and fewer women are putting their names forward because it's just not worth the abuse.

"I think we need to change the nature of political discourse," Coun. Druh Farrell told The Homestretch this week.

"It needs to get back to a more civil discourse. It is not helpful the bullying that is going around and we need to call it out when we see it."

It's been 100 years since Gale was elected to council, where she served three terms — including serving as acting mayor for a period — after moving from England with her husband and two sons five years earlier, in 1912.

Farrell says she was a woman way ahead of her time.

"She got involved in community activism right at the outset. She was interested in issues of poverty," Farrell said.

Gale started a program where people planted vegetables in vacant lots for families who couldn't afford fresh produce. She also fought for equal pay within the civic workforce.

"She was quite a woman, but most people don't know about her, she is a bit of an unsung hero," Farrell said.

Farrell says in talking with members of Gale's family, she learned it was a very difficult time to be a woman in politics but in recent years — in Farrell's view — we are going backward as far as female representation at the municipal level.

"If you would have asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I would have said we have come a long way but I think we are going back in time," she said.

"The whole idea of representation in government, we are seeing major progress federally and provincially. For some reason, women are just not putting their names forward in the civic elections."

And the reason, says Farrell, is online bullying, harassment and threats made disproportionately toward female politicians.

"I think it is the nature of civic discourse, it is social media and it has gotten really ugly. So a lot of women are just saying, 'I am not willing to put myself through that,'" she said.

"The bullying against women politicians in social media is particularly aggressive, violent, threatening, often sexual and so a lot of women just don't want to put themselves at risk."

Edmonton has one female councillor, Calgary has two.

"That is a new thing," Farrell said.

"When I first got elected, 40 per cent of the council were women. Calgary has had a very rich history of women in civic leadership. In fact we were leading the country for a couple of generations."

She said while there are groups working to improve the ratio of women to men in municipal politics, it's going to take a bigger-picture approach.

"We have this amazing group called Ask Her, there is another group called Equal Voice," she said.

"Just by talking about it, we are starting to get more interested women putting their names forward and at least exploring the idea of politics."

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With files from The Homestretch