Women in politics: Canada and the U.S. appear ready to elect a female head of state

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was voted most outstanding parliamentarian last year.

Two realities have recently focused attention on the absence of female heads of government across the world. One was the removal of Julia Gillard as Australia’s first female prime minister by her Labor party caucus in favour of restoring Kevin Rudd to the position.

Another is that in the approximately 194 independent countries in the world, only 16 or 17 (depending on which are excluded for being micro-nations or not fully independent) are currently headed by women, the most recent addition being Park Geun-hye, the first female president of South Korea.

It is some consolation for the world’s democrats that all of the nations with women leaders are democracies. Aung San Suu Kyi would have become Burma’s prime minister in 1990, when her National League for Democracy won 392 of 485 seats, but the military annulled the election and put her under house arrest for many years. She is expected to be elected president if the 2015 election is fair and free.

With the election of Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960, Sri Lanka became the first country in the modern world to elect a female head of government. Indira Gandhi was elected India’s prime minister first in 1966 and re-elected twice before her assassination. Golda Meir was selected by Israelis as prime minister in 1969. The first female head of government in Western Europe, Margaret Thatcher, was not elected until 1979.

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Kim Campbell served briefly as prime minister, but was never elected PM by Canadians.Numerous explanations for this phenomenon exist. Probably the lamest is that women are not viewed as competent as men in matters of governance. If so, how do we explain Switzerland’s five female presidents, more than any other country, and that some of the most-respected leaders internationally are women, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, Ireland’s back-to-back presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, Liberia’s and the continent of Africa’s first elected head of state Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite, and Trinidad and Tobago’s Kamla Persad-Bissessar?

Another sophistry is that not enough of us are ready for females as national leaders. Most people today are aware that women often deal with a broader range of management issues than men, including family budgets. One reason Christy Clark won the recent provincial election in British Columbia so decisively was that she was able to identify spending and debt issues with family economics.

Today, the premiers of five provinces (B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland) and one territory (Nunavut), which hold collectively at least eighty per cent of Canadians, are women.

Equal Voice, the civil society organization seeking to increase female representation across Canada, notes: “Rwanda counts as the country with the most women elected at 56.3 per cent. Regionally, Nordic countries have been best at electing women and continue to hold that record. While Canada ties with Australia in its current 45th place ranking, it ranks lower than countries such as … Mexico, Tanzania … Guyana … Iraq and Laos.” Increasing the number of female MPs might improve the prospects for one day choosing a woman prime minister.

To level the playing field, a number of parliaments are implementing programs to recruit and train women candidates, providing day care and family-friendly work environments, introducing proportional representation, electoral financing reforms, setting best practices, achieving constitutional reforms and public awareness campaigns.

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In the U.S., one occasionally still hears, "We're ready for a female president — but not yet." Canada was probably ready years ago. Kim Campbell, our only female prime minister — albeit briefly and never elected by Canadians generally — was able to win the leadership of her party, but could not overcome in the ensuing 1993 election the general voter hostility towards her party that her predecessor (Brian Mulroney) had accumulated as prime minister since 1984.

Elizabeth May, the female leader of the national Green party, was voted the most outstanding parliamentarian last year by MPs from all parties.

It seems clear from the unceasing attacks on Hillary Clinton by the Republican Party that she is seen as the strongest Democratic front-runner for president in 2016.

Two months ago, the Anzalone Liszt polling survey concluded: “Five years after Hillary Clinton conceded that she wasn’t able to ‘shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling’, Americans are more ready than ever before for a female president. Ninety per cent of voters from nine battleground states said they would vote for a qualified woman candidate from their political party for president.”

There is no current national survey across Canada on the issue, but it seems clear that Canadians and Americans alike appear ready now to vote for a female prime minister or president.

(Photos courtesy CBC and The Canadian Press)

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.