News / Edmonton

Because it's 2016: Are Albertans more cruel to women in politics?

Former MLA Laurie Blakeman was first elected in 1997, the same year the legislature's main wing got its first women's washroom.

Former Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman was first elected to the Alberta legislature in 1997. That was the same year the building's main wing got its first women's washroom.

For Metro

Former Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman was first elected to the Alberta legislature in 1997. That was the same year the building's main wing got its first women's washroom.

Laurie Blakeman won her first election to the Alberta Legislature in 1997, as a member of the Liberal opposition to the eighth consecutive term for the PC party, and Premier Ralph Klein’s second.

But Blakeman remembers that year for a different reason: It was the year the main wing of the legislature got its first women’s washroom.

“They had just changed ‘backstage,’ as I call it, a [men’s] washroom to a women’s only washroom, which really peeved the men,” Blakeman said. “Men in the opposition had to then go outside, cross over through the lobby and go back in through the federation room to get to a washroom.”

More from our Women In Alberta Politics series

Blakeman smiles at the memory. “I said, ‘Aww, that’s really too bad.’”

As this series has examined, a record number of women MLAs are now serving in Alberta, and shaking up more than the plumbing. But they are also increasingly facing abuse, including death threats and what Calgary MLA Sandra Jansen has described as “filth” on their social media feeds.

Few women have more war stories from this battle than Blakeman. And her perspective in 2016 is one of steps taken forward, as well as steps taken back.

In June, a group of women re-created a 1914 rally that saw suffragists pack the legislature to demand a meeting with then-premier Arthur Sifton. Sifton's government passed a bill allowing women to vote in 1916.

Kevin Tuong/Metro

In June, a group of women re-created a 1914 rally that saw suffragists pack the legislature to demand a meeting with then-premier Arthur Sifton. Sifton's government passed a bill allowing women to vote in 1916.

Reflecting on the past decades, Blakeman says it’s important to remember her situation, both as a woman and a member of the opposition, meant she learned to be tough early on.

“Also being in opposition you’re automatically going to be dismissed, so I had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously,” she said.

Blakeman lost her Edmonton-Centre seat last year, in the same surge of NDP support that ushered a wave of women into the legislature. It was an ironic loss, as Blakeman had spent almost two decades in office, often as one of only a handful of women in the legislature, all the while pushing for progress on childcare, domestic abuse and LGBTQ rights.

“I think that’s what we were all fighting for, was to get women in there,” she said, speaking recently outside the legislature.

Still, she says, our society still hasn’t figured out how to reconcile humans who give birth to and mother children with those who wield power.

“Women being successful and achieving powerful positions really rattles some people, and they can’t take them on as an equal, so they try through anonymous means to knock women off their stride,” Blakeman said.

“Threatening them, calling them names, degrading them, dismissing what they’re saying, dismissing their intelligence.”

But why are those spewing hate toward women politicians — both men and women — sending more of it in 2016, not less? Blakeman points to trends at the legislature itself, a place she says has shifted from collegial to confrontational.

“I blame politicians generally for part of the state that we’re in right now because politicians started to skew that rule and call each other names and the whole tone of the assembly started to lower,” she said.

Not surprisingly, she cites social media, which hands a virtual bullhorn to every dissatisfied voter.

Jansen, who two weeks ago became the most public example of a woman politician facing abuse in Alberta when she flagged it as the reason she was stepping down from her bid to lead the PC party, says other factors are also at play.

She is a former TV anchor who worked for Alison Redford’s communications department before winning a seat under the PC banner in 2012. For her, the growing noise from right wing media is behind the worsening situation.

“This is often spurred along by groups, and I don’t say ‘media outlets,’ I say ‘groups’ like Rebel Media, who foment this rage,” Jansen said.

Jansen says that Notley, as a left-wing leader, is targeted more than Alison Redford was. During her time as Redford’s communication’s director, Jansen said many of the messages Redford received had “misogynistic overtones,” and took aim at her marriage or her parenting skills.

But, “With Rachel it’s a little more bloodthirsty,” she said. “They’ve just let loose, they’re saying anything and everything.”

Alberta’s political leaders haven’t called out the abuse enough, she adds. After seeing how few spoke up for Notley after the golf tournament incident, despite being from a different party, Jansen did.  

“I think there’s a general level of acceptance of that kind of behavior, until the public ramps up their opposition and then they come out and say something, its something that we’ve just tolerated for far too long.”

But despite the amplification of abuse, Blakeman also says things have come a long way.

She remembers many years ago talking in the legislature about childcare and the need to fund it. “I just looked across this sea of 50-year-old white guys, mostly from a rural background, and I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get to them,” she said.

“And I went home and thought about it and went ‘Duh’ these guys had never had anything to do with childcare.”

Blakeman says we’ve come a long way. “We haven’t solved everything, but we’re at the point but we can discuss the subject from all sides.”

TOMORROW: How women in politics are changing the discourse in Alberta.

More on Metronews.ca