Seeking Balance: Conversations with BC Women in Politics
November 4, 2013
Review By Tina Block
BC women have made important gains in electoral politics over the past century. In the national context, British Columbia has led the way, being the first province to elect a female premier, the first to vote 10 percent of its legislative seats to women (in 1941), and the home of Canada’s first female prime minister. Nevertheless, as Anne Edwards points out in her engaging new study, women have yet to achieve even 30 percent of the seats in either the BC legislature or the federal Parliament. Despite their relative success, female politicians in and from British Columbia have struggled to make inroads into Canada’s male-dominated political realm. According to Edwards, such struggles have much to do with the fact that women “approach the political world much differently than men” (14).
Seeking Balance is based on information gathered from a total of eighty-one interviews with BC women who served as MLAs or MPs between 1918 and 2008. Edwards asked each of her informants a range of questions relating to such issues as their decision to become involved in politics, the impact of gender on their experiences, and the reaction of family members to their political work. Although it opens with a brief historical overview and outline of the struggle for women’s suffrage in British Columbia, the book is organized more thematically than chronologically. Edwards weaves together women’s reflections on the nature of political leadership, the media, family relationships, feminism, and a range of other issues. Throughout the book, Edwards foregrounds the narratives and perspectives of her informants themselves. The women tell compelling stories of their efforts to juggle family and career, to cope with the isolating effects of political life, and to carry on in the face of sexism and frequent criticism. Despite the diversity of their experience, these women shared in confronting a political culture made by, and for, men. Canadian politics, Edwards contends, has been organized along military lines, with a focus on “winning battles” (66). With their greater socialization in the skills of collaboration and consensus-building, women have had difficulty making gains in a political world defined by rivalry and competition. For many women, such as former MLA April Sanders, the male-dominated legislature seemed like “a foreign country” (42). While Edwards highlights the achievements of British Columbia’s female politicians, she clearly shows that gender balance in the political realm remains elusive.
Seeking Balance makes an important contribution to the history of women and politics in British Columbia and Canada. The gendered nature of Canada’s political culture has drawn little attention from historians. Edwards offers new insights into the subtle, and not-so-subtle, ways in which gender operated to exclude women from, and constrain them within, this culture. From rancorous question periods to hastily converted washrooms, the masculine character of Canada’s political domain was, and remains, quite evident. Drawing on fascinating and often poignant personal narratives, Edwards provides a unique lens on Canadian and BC politics from the perspective of women who entered, and frequently excelled within, this masculine world. She bases her work on interviews with a diverse group of women whose lives varied according to party affiliation, age, ethnicity, and other categories. Edwards suggests that, despite their diversity, these women shared a common experience based on their gender. Female politicians shared in navigating a sometimes hostile masculine terrain, but they also forged strong alliances with men and differed from each other in significant ways. While Edwards’ book emphasizes the inf luence of gender, it would be enriched by further attention to the ways in which party allegiance, historical context, and other factors shaped, and at times differentiated, women’s approach to and experience of electoral politics.
Seeking Balance is a highly readable, popular history filled with stories of obstacles encountered and overcome, or at least weathered. In it, Edwards sheds light not only on the masculine environment of Canadian politics but also on the many BC women who have survived, and indeed thrived, within this environment. It is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the history of Canadian politics, women, and British Columbia.