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Electoral Insight - Participation In The Electoral Process

Electoral Insight – January  2001

This image of a suffragist is believed to have been used for a postcard, c. 1910.

This image of a suffragist is believed to have been used for a postcard, c. 1910.
Photo: NA, DAP, 1971-271 (National Film Board Collection) item 87,384, negative no. PA-143958

WOMEN and Political Participation in Canada

Manon Tremblay
Associate Professor and Director, Research Centre on Women and Politics, University of Ottawa

A study of women's participation in Canadian politics might be said to be the study of its absence. Historically, women have been excluded from political institutions, and according to the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, they remain the group with the most pronounced disparity between demographic weight and representation on decision-making bodies (Lortie Commission, 1991: 97). While it is true that women have been and continue to be excluded from political institutions, it is less true to say that they have refrained from political activity. But their political participation has been as it continues to be in areas traditionally considered non-political, such as social movements.

This article reviews the involvement of women in formal political institutions, such as political parties and the House of Commons. Any study of this subject is quickly confronted with the following question: is a woman in this context just "one of the boys," or different from them? This is what Carole Pateman (1989) calls "the Mary Wollstonecraft dilemma:" should women demand full participation in political life based on the common humanity they share with men, or based on their differences from men? In the former case, women's participation in politics stems from universal democratic rights. In the latter, this involvement is to be assessed in terms of their differences: it is because they are different from men that women must participate in politics with the probable consequence of changing the very nature of politics and public decisions.

The Mary Wollstonecraft dilemma Universality versus Difference will guide our examination of the participation of women in Canadian politics. We shall deal with the following themes in succession: women as electors, as members of political parties, as candidates, and finally as parliamentarians, i.e. MPs or senators.

Women as electors

The first suffragette organizations emerged in Canada in the late 1870s. However, it was not until 1917 that women employed by the army and those with a close male relative in the Canadian Forces obtained the right to vote in federal elections. The following year, this right was extended to most Canadian women, in recognition of their contribution to the war effort. However, a closer examination of the arguments developed during the 1918 debates reveals the Universality vs. Difference dilemma, particularly among those advocating women's suffrage. For example, one line of reasoning associated with the Universality option was that Canada was entering an age of modernization, and that the enfranchisement of women was part and parcel of this forward-thinking approach. Others, arguing for the Difference option, maintained that women ought to be able to vote because Canadian society needed their particular skills to meet the new challenges ahead, notably in the area of social reform.

The Universality-Difference dilemma also generated many questions about the electoral behaviour of these new citizens. Would women be as interested in politics as men? Would they be as assiduous as men in exercising their right to vote? Would they vote like men, or vote as women? Studies today show that women demonstrate somewhat less interest in politics. But the indicators used are still relatively blind to the fact that socialization and social roles differ along gender lines. There are, in fact, very few models, even now, that allow girls to see politics as a sphere that is accessible to them. And Statistics Canada data show that women continue to be the ones primarily responsible for housework and child care, and they are also poorer than men. Consequently, they have less time than their partners to stay abreast of current events and invest effort in political parties, as well as less money to devote to political ends. However, research shows that women are as assiduous in fulfilling their electoral obligations as men. Finally, with regard to voting habits, the results of Canadian studies suggest certain gender-based differences. For instance, in the 1993 federal election, women were more attracted than men to the two parties then led by women (O'Neill 1998); in 1997, women were less inclined than men to vote for the Reform Party and more inclined to vote for the New Democratic Party (Nevitte, Blais, Gidengil and Nadeau 2000: 110-115). Research also shows that women and men react differently to various issues. For example, women are more resistant than men to the idea of curbing the welfare state; something no doubt related to the fact that, all other things being equal, their quality of life is often more closely linked to government's redistribution policies than is men's. In short, while the concept of Universality helps us to define certain aspects of the electoral behaviour of women, that of Difference is more often useful.

Women as members of political parties

Although most political parties claim a balance between men and women in their ranks, women's relationships to political parties are different from men's. Even when they had not yet secured the right to vote and stand for office, women were a significant presence in the parties in an organizational support or "pink-collar" capacity: making coffee, taking minutes, licking stamps, answering the telephone, etc. Today's reality is, of course, less stereotypical, but the same model of participation applies: the higher one looks in the party hierarchy, the fewer women one finds. Sylvia Bashevkin (1993) has shown that, in the early 1990s, about 30 percent of the riding association presidents in the Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties (the only two that have formed a federal government since 1867) were women. However, women were a distinct majority in secretarial positions a primarily operational role.

Women as candidates in federal elections

Canadian women acquired the right to stand as candidates in federal elections in 1919. However, this was not enough to make them citizens on the same footing as men, for only four women actually campaigned at the time, and only one entered the House of Commons. There have always been fewer women than men seeking seats in the Commons. As recently as the 1997 federal election, 1 672 persons stood as candidates, 1 264 men and 408 women but only 286 female candidates were members of the five parties represented in the 35th Parliament. What is more, it used to be that women candidates would find themselves in ridings that were lost in advance, although it seems that this is no longer the case (Pelletier and Tremblay 1992, Studlar and Matland 1994, 1996).

Various factors explain why there continue to be fewer female than male candidates: socialization, social gender roles and so-called systemic barriers. In the latter category is the nomination process, which clearly appears to be problematical for women. Despite repeated appeals from certain national elites to increase the number of female candidates, some local elites remain reluctant to entrust women with the party colours on election day, a resistance that was identified even in the early 1970s by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. The argument is that the electorate would not be ready to elect a woman. And yet an analysis of the votes obtained by male and female candidates in a Quebec riding in federal elections from 1945 to 1993 clearly shows that, with the same qualifications, women receive more votes than men (Tremblay 1995). Furthermore, the nomination campaign represents a major financial obstacle for women (Brodie 1991), especially since this stage of access to political institutions is still not controlled by the Canada Elections Act. Another factor that limits the number of female candidates is the nature of our electoral system: under our electoral rules, each party endorses just one person per riding. Although proportional representation does not guarantee an increase in the number of women candidates, there is no doubt that if a party can expect to elect more than one person in the same riding, it becomes more embarrassing if they are all men.

Women as MPs and senators

Internet voting by the Navajo Nation at Window Rock
This 1973 photo taken in the Centre Block of Canada's Parliament buildings shows five women members of Parliament (left to right): Flora MacDonald, Progressive Conservative (Kingston and the Islands); Grace MacInnis, New Democratic Party (Vancouver Kingsway); Jeanne Sauvé, Liberal (Ahuntsic); Albanie Morin, Liberal (Louis-Hébert); and Monique Bégin, Liberal (Saint-Michel). They were the only women elected in the 1972 general election to the House of Commons, which at that time comprised 264 seats. Four were elected to the Commons for the first time in 1972, the exception being MacInnis, who had been an MP since 1965. Sauvé, who would later become Speaker of the Commons and then Governor General, was the only female member of the federal Cabinet at the time the photo was taken. The photo is part of the Grace MacInnis archives at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Are the women in Parliament like the men, or different from them? In 2001, they still account for less than a quarter of MPs; this puts Canada far behind Sweden, where parity is on the verge of being achieved. Paradoxically, it appears that the national elites are fairly comfortable with this situation: unlike numerous countries which have developed various strategies to encourage women candidates, the Canadian government has yet to adopt any significant measure to this end (the most recent electoral reform recognized child care costs as campaign expenses, which is certainly a positive step, but plainly insufficient to increase the number of female MPs in the Commons). In this connection, an important issue for future electoral reform would be to place limits on spending during nomination campaigns. However, such an initiative is opposed by some, who see it as an impediment to the free play of democracy a democracy that has so far functioned more on the model of exclusion than inclusion.

The presence of women in the House of Commons can be understood in terms of a double division, one that is vertical as well as horizontal. The former would suggest that the real positions of power are beyond the access of women, who remain at the bottom of the ladder of political influence. This is probably less true today, since certain women have held positions of great influence in recent Canadian governments. The horizontal division implies a separation of portfolios by gender, men being assigned those associated with production (such as finance, industry or commerce) and women assigned those associated with reproduction (such as justice, immigration or children). This too is tending to change, although this model continues to be a fairly good guide to the composition of parliamentary committees.

Some recent research (Tremblay 1998, 1999; Trimble 1993, 1997) has shown that women could bring about certain changes in political life, notably by placing issues on the political agenda which, in their absence, might be ignored (such as the recent establishment of a parliamentary committee to study women's demands in the context of the World March of Women); by changing political style (e.g. in terms of language); and by taking a different approach to public policy (e.g. by adopting a more humanistic viewpoint). Further research is necessary to lend more force to these observations.

The Senate of Canada offers an interesting laboratory in this regard, since women there have now achieved a critical mass, i.e. 33 percent (34/103, with two seats vacant at the time of writing). There is a good deal of research that tends to demonstrate that, to have a significant impact on the culture of an organization (such as Parliament), women must occupy at least a third of the available space. Even though the Senate has specifically resisted the advent of women in its midst, it might become an important ally for a feminist project for the political representation of women.


Women remain on the margins of federal Canadian politics, at least in terms of their presence in political institutions. Whereas the Mary Wollstonecraft dilemma opposes Universality and Difference, I propose instead that these two aspects be reconciled as one, using the notion of parity. Parity assumes that democratic forums should be composed of roughly half women and half men. Certain opposing voices suggest that citizenship is universal, and has no gender, no skin colour, no age, and so on. But a mere glance at the sociodemographic composition of the House of Commons is sufficient to reveal that, on the contrary, the citizenrepresentative is usually a white male, in the prime of life, etc. In calling for democratic institutions that harmonize rather than exclude differences, notably by including a more or less equal proportion of women and men, parity stands forth as the royal road to Universality.


Bashevkin, Sylvia. Toeing the Lines: Women and Party Politics in English Canada (2nd edition). Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Brodie, Janine. "Les femmes et le processus électoral au Canada." In Women in Canadian Politics: Towards Equity in Representation. Edited by Kathy Megyery. Montréal: Wilson and Lafleur, p. 3-66 (Vol. 6 of the series of background papers of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing), 1991.

Nevitte, Neil, André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil and Richard Nadeau. Unsteady State: The 1997 Canadian Federal Election. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2000.

O'Neill, Brenda. "The Relevance of Leader Gender to Voting in the 1993 Canadian National Election," International Journal of Canadian Studies, 17 (Spring 1998): 105-130.

Pateman, Carole. The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989.

Pelletier, Réjean and Manon Tremblay. "Les femmes sont-elles candidates dans des circonscriptions perdues d'avance? De l'examen d'une croyance." Canadian Journal of Political Science, 25, 2: 249-267, 1992.

Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Lortie Commission), Final Report, Vol. 1. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1991.

Studlar, Donley T. and Richard E. Matland. "The Dynamics of Women's Representation in the Canadian Provinces: 1975-1994." Canadian Journal of Political Science, 29, 2 (1996): 269-293.

Studlar, Donley T. and Richard E. Matland. "The Growth of Women's Representation in the Canadian House of Commons and the Election of 1984: A Reappraisal." Canadian Journal of Political Science, 27, 1 (1994): 53-79.

Tremblay, Manon. Des femmes au Parlement: une stratégie féministe? Montréal: Remue-ménage, 1999.

Tremblay, Manon. "Do Female MPs Substantively Represent Women? A Study of Legislative Behaviour in Canada's 35th Parliament." Canadian Journal of Political Science, 31, 3 (1998): 435-465.

Tremblay, Manon. "Les femmes, des candidates moins performantes que les hommes? Une analyse des votes obtenus par les candidates et candidats du Québec une élection fédérale canadienne, 1945-1993." International Journal of Canadian Studies, 11 (Spring 1995): 59-81.

Trimble, Linda. "Feminist Politics in the Alberta Legislatures, 1972-1994." In In the Presence of Women: Representation in Canadian Governments. Edited by Jane Arscott and Linda Trimble. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997, pp. 128-153.

Trimble, Linda. "A Few Good Women: Female Legislators in Alberta, 1972-1991." In Standing on New Ground: Women in Alberta. Edited by Catherine A. Cavanaugh and Randi R. Warne. Calgary: University of Alberta Press, 1993, pp. 87-118.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.