BC VOICES: “Men Want to Hog Everything”

“Men Want to Hog Everything”[1]

by Veronica Strong-Boag

In 1949 Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female MP (as of 1921), thus summed up decades of women’s political experience after the first suffrage victories.  To be sure, she added the qualification that

there are even some men who think a woman should get a fair break. Not many, but enough to make the struggle seem worth while

but the overall assessment was bleak.  Hilary Clinton’s fate on 8 November 2016, and many before her in many nations, invites the same conclusion. Many men (and male-identified women), like (to invoke yet another farm-yard metaphor) Nellie McClung’s anthropomorphic Mike the Ox in her suffragist manifesto In Times Like These (1915), resist sharing political power. Indeed men in authority (in the west, this commonly means those who are white, middle-aged, and middle-class or higher) have fiercely championed their own privileges, determined to exclude women and indeed most men who differ from themselves.

No party has had a monopoly on misogyny, just as none has been without fair-dealers.  This blog is not, however, an account of the deserving latter but of the undeserving former. While admitting the familiar argument that women let themselves down (not hard to do in deeply patriarchal cultures) has some substance, it focuses on many men’s persisting antipathy and opposition to making room in Canadian legislatures following the first partial provincial enfranchisements of women.

This resistance to political equality for all women (though non-European origin and non-middle class candidates were always especially unwelcome) is not hard to discover. It is one part of patriarchy’s larger pattern. Its ubiquitous din has echoed from one side of Canada to another, handicapped every level of government, and diminished all women’s chances on boards, councils, and legislatures. As my article “Independent Women, Problematic Men: First and Second Wave Anti-Feminism in Canada from Goldwin Smith to Betty Steele”[2] demonstrated, Canada’s anti-woman politics has a substantial history. The magnitude of hostility remains, however, generally under-appreciated and under-reported in scholarly texts.  In fact, newspapers, magazines, sermons, political texts, and legislative reports are full of it. Such misogyny helps explain women’s limited political gains after enfranchisements.

Researching the biography of Laura Emma Marshall Jamieson, BC suffragist and an early CCF MLA, has provided ample exposure to the dogged and exhausting hostility faced by female politicians of all parties. In 1930, one of Canada’s many supposedly ‘grand old men’ of political life, Conservative journalist and senator, Grattan O’Leary, matter-of-factly identified the phenomenon:

Men, too, especially the old-line, hard-boiled partisans, are suspicious of the woman politician, disdainful of her efforts, and often openly contemptuous of her achievements. This may be unjust, is perhaps undeserved, but it is a reality nonetheless, perfectly and palpably obvious to all familiar with the political game.[3]

Very typically, O’Leary went on to blame women for prejudice. No doubt some Alberta Conservatives prefer the same explanation when forced to confront the withdrawal of the only two female candidates in the November 2016 provincial leadership contest. I leave those stories, however, to scholars of the centre-right. Although it provided some of the earliest support for women suffrage and regularly in theory endorsed equality, the left is the offender I know best.

A good example is the former Welsh coalminer, Tom Uphill (1874-1962) and long time labour/socialist politician from Fernie, British Columbia. First a town alderman (1913), then mayor (1915; 1946; 1949-56), and eleven term MLA, initially for the Federated Labor Party (1920; of which Laura would also be a member) and then as a Labor Independent until 1960, Uphill was an irrepressible misogynist. Between 1939-1945 and 1952-1953 Laura and he would both be seated in the Victoria legislature. Right from the beginning, he flaunted a notorious reputation as “one of the boys,” with “hundreds of ‘nieces’” and an office with “pictures of pin-up girls on the walls.” These proclivities encouraged him to parade publicly as a man who “thus knew and spoke ‘the language of Fernie.’”[4] In a closely related series of prejudices, Uphill disapproved of wage-earning wives and opposed female judges since, as he believed, the latter “could not get the knowledge of life that men had,’ and further [and much more to the point], they had ‘a tendency to pry closer to things than they should.’”[5] In other words, independent-minded and economically independent women were not to his taste. Such blatant bigotry, like wandering hands, undermined all claims to democracy. 

Uphill was not an aberration in Canada’s political life. Just as deadly to political equality was the pervasive culture of male entitlement.  As a CCF observer concluded in 1940:

We believe that men do not consciously discriminate against women but we know that unconsciously they do so all the time….The same age-old customs are responsible for women discriminating against women. Women who stand for office are a challenge to the Ideal Woman of the past, and some women, without analizing [sic] why, are afraid that this new woman who reads, and thinks, and speaks with assurance, may displace the “home” woman, and make her in turn have to brush up her thinking too.[6]

Even as Canada fought fascism during World War Two, a CCF man in his forties eagerly revealed his allegiance to male privilege, freely admitting that he

thought that one thing wrong with the [CCF] movement is the place of women in executive positions. He thought women should be in the movement, but not in any executive capacity, and certainly not as members of the Legislature or in the Dominion House.[7]

The party press is littered with such cases. More than a decade later, another CCFer asked members “to look-out for breaches of the equality concept” and to use “facts and figures” to back up their interventions. She traced the CCF’s failure straight back to the personal life of many members. Prejudice often began with seemingly minor acts. In particular, she challenged

the tendency of men in the labor movement to impose on their wives in the matter of baby-sitting. They are out night after night at meetings, while wifey sits home with the bairns. No wonder some of them turn violently anti-labor! (I mean the wives—but sometimes the bairns do too.) …I heard of one couple who were both active politically. The girl told her husband that when babies arrived, she expected him to share the responsibility, and give her as many nights out as he had. Fair enough, he agreed. What happened? Came the stork, and at first everything went according to plan. But gradually hubby was out four nights a week, then five, or six. Always very important meetings, of course. One night he arrived home to find this note in a quite house: “The kids are at mother’s and I’ have taken a job. You did not keep your bargain.

Not many of us have that much gumption, or a mother to park the children with. As a remedy it’s a bit drastic, anyway. But I feel that the CCF, trade unions and other working-class organizations, should adopt the policy of urging the men to take a different attitude.[8]

This observation would have been equally true of all parties.

From the ground up, prejudice has directed women to find rewards outside of politics.  Female candidates might well be superior elected representatives, devoted to democracy and to the welfare of voters, and fully the match of male rivals—as it can fairly be argued were Jamieson and Macphail in the past and Hilary Clinton today—but centuries of male entitlement minimized their opportunities.  As a result the world is a far poorer place.

 

[1] Maclean’s Magazine (15 Sept. 1949).

[2] Histoire social/Social History (May 1996).

[3] Grattan O’Leary, “Is Women’s Suffrage a Success?” Maclean’s Magazine (Sept 1930):

[4] Robert McDonald, “’Simply a Working Man’: Tom Uphill of Fernie,” in Wayne Norton and Tom Langford, eds., A World Apart: The Crowsnest Communities of Alberta and British Columbia (Kamloops: Plateau Press, 2002), 105.

[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] Constance Errol (Mrs. Elizabeth Kerr), “Women’s Views,” The Federationist (25 Jan. 1940).

[7] Constance Errol (Mrs. Elizabeth Kerr), “Women’s Views,” The Federationist (18 April 1940).

[8] Mildred MacLeod, “A Word to the Wives. Do Our men Need Reforming,”  CCF News (1 Aug. 1951).

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