In 2014, Ontario elected its first female premier, Kathleen Wynne. A year later, Alberta elected another female premier, Rachel Notley. A few months after that, Canada elected an avowed feminist prime minister, Justin Trudeau. Each came to office promising more “gender balance” in their governments, including lots more women in their cabinets. It felt like another wave of feminist political power was cresting, leaving a bunch of redundant male politicos sputtering in its wake.
But oh how the tide has turned. First it was Donald Trump, boastful groper of women, beating Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency. Then the members of the Conservative Party of Canada overwhelmingly snubbed the two female candidates who ran for leader. Then the Ontario PC party, evidently learning nothing yet again from electoral defeat, elected Patrick Brown as leader over Christine Elliott. When he didn’t work out, they chose an even manlier leader, Doug Ford, over three women. Then last month, of course, Ford and his PCs crushed Wynne and her Liberal party.
Since the great distaff surge of 2014-15, males have mostly ruled the roost among federal and provincial party leaders and big city mayors across the country. With less than a year to go until the next Alberta election Notley’s NDP is polling lower than a snake’s belly against the new United Conservative Party under Jason Kenney, and Trudeau’s carefully burnished feminist credentials are looking increasingly like a liability instead of an asset for his gender-obsessed government.
None of this amounts to any kind of major rollback of the political gains made by women over the last few decades. But it does suggest that for the moment, at least, the power of gender identity politics to move votes is at a low ebb. Even the #MeToo phenomenon, which for a while last winter and spring looked like an epic rout of the entire patriarchy, seems to be running on fumes. But it’s the Ontario election, in particular, that offers a cautionary example for any female politico who imagines she can beat male competitors just by pointing at their gonads.
Wynne had surprised many by securing a majority government for the Liberals in 2014 after polling had long suggested the PCs were poised to win. She did not emphasize her gender during the campaign – until her victory speech: “I am so proud to be standing in front of you as the first woman ever to have been elected the premier of Ontario,” she said. “This is a beautiful, inclusive place that we live in, Ontario.”
As premier, Wynne mostly avoided exploiting identity politics that could have scored her points with the left. For example, when an Ontario teachers’ union called for the name of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to be stripped from schools due to his role in the creation of Indian residential schools, Wynne demurred. “Sir John A. Macdonald was far from perfect,” she said. But, she added, “we need to teach our children the full history of this country.”
Things changed, however, as this year’s election campaign went south for the Liberals. At first, the party tried to head off defeat with a massive spending spree that offered, among other things, free drug coverage to people over 65, free daycare for children over two-and-a-half, and huge increases in health care funding. When none of that moved the polling needle, the Liberals plunged deep into the gender politics gutter and began a concerted effort to paint Wynne’s last-minute replacement rival Ford as a “mansplaining” sexist.
It started with the Liberals’ claim that Ford was sexist because he refused to answer a female CBC reporter’s question about how he’d find billions of dollars in “efficiencies” in the budget. “Very simple. You haven’t done it. I’ve done it. That’s the difference. Next question,” Ford said. The Liberals quickly responded on social media and in a YouTube ad that accused Ford of “mansplaining business to a female reporter.”
A few weeks later the Liberals again tried to stoke a sexism scandal during the City TV debate, when Ford awkwardly told Wynne that she has a “nice smile.” Journalist-turned-Wynne speechwriter Ashley Csanady live-tweeted that she was “shaking with rage” after the comment.
When Ford told Wynne “you obviously don’t know the numbers,” there was another outburst from Csanady: “Kathleen Wynne is hands down one of the smartest people I have ever had the pleasure of being in a room with. She is better with numbers than anyone I know. How DARE Ford suggest ‘math is hard’ to her…The fact that [Wynne] maintained her composure in the face of such outright misogyny is astounding.”
Veteran Liberal spinner Scott Reid joined in: “So far, I’d say @fordnation is patronizing the premier and telling her ‘you obviously don’t know the numbers’ is the moment of this debate #mathishard,” he wrote. The Liberal war room agreed and instantly produced a video of the debate clips for YouTube and Facebook, accompanied by captions charging Ford with “mansplaining again.”
But Ford didn’t actually tell Wynne “math is hard” or even that “math is difficult.” Those condescending words belonged to the late Alberta PC leader and premier Jim Prentice, who uttered them in a 2015 election debate with NDP Leader Notley. The “#mathishard” hashtag blew up on Twitter that night, and a Mainstreet poll found that Notley had won the debate. It may not have sealed the election for her, but it certainly helped. So it’s easy to see why the Ontario Liberals tried to give the hashtag another spin.
A few days later they tried to add fuel to the fire. Liberal staffers started sharing a video claiming to be from a grassroots group called “Women for Wynne.” It highlighted some of the truly hateful comments that random trolls had directed at the premier online, and then tried to tie them to the election. “Say no to hate,” the video said. “With your actions … your involvement … your vote.”
A couple of columnists took the bait. John Barber, an unabashed Liberal apologist, wrote a column in the Hamilton Spectator claiming that Wynne “failed because she was too ambitious … because she never resorted to easy deception … because she’s a woman, and because she’s gay.” Barber implied that Wynne’s low approval ratings were undeserved because of her stellar economic and political leadership, and therefore could only be explained by sexism or homophobia.
It seems likely that at least some sexists and homophobes voted against the Liberals because of Wynne’s gender and homosexuality, but when the Spectator posted Barber’s column to Facebook on May 19, online commenters suggested that Barber was missing the bigger picture.
“Mr. Barber needs to step outside of the liberal echo chamber in which he currently resides,” wrote one. “He desperately needs a dose of reality and truth. The last decade and a half of liberal rule in Ontario has left our Province on the brink of economic ruin. The ‘jobs’ that have been attracted to the province were purchased with massive government subsidies. Profitable companies have been given hundreds of millions of taxpayer money. The moment the money is gone, so too will the jobs.”
Any pollster could have told Barber that the election had far more to do with the economy than anything else. In Ontario, low unemployment and impressive growth in big cities like Toronto has masked the hollowing out of much of the rest of the province, and voters blamed Wynne and the Liberals. The government’s green energy fiasco and the criminal conviction of a former top bureaucrat this spring for covering up the costly cancellation of two gas power plants at the behest of his Liberal political masters only added to the desire to oust the Grits.
Ontarians mostly tuned out the Liberal attempt to play the gender card. Barber’s column got very little traction on Facebook. The “say no to hate” video got fewer than 4,000 views on Twitter. The video the Liberal campaign posted of the alleged “mansplaining” by Doug Ford during the debate got just over 1,200 views on YouTube.
The Liberals finally got people to pay attention in the last week of the campaign with an ad that featured Wynne staring directly at the camera and saying, “I’m sorry more people don’t like me…But I’m not sorry for keeping business taxes low and attracting Google and Toyota here, or for covering tuition for hundreds of thousands of students so they can get good jobs. Not sorry we brought in rent control or that unemployment is at record lows.”
That ad was viewed more than 400,000 times on YouTube – an incredible amount of earned media. But it didn’t change the narrative. The Liberals tanked so badly that Wynne conceded defeat five days before election day. The PCs got a healthy 76-seat majority with 40 percent of the popular vote, the NDP became the official opposition with 40 seats and 33 per cent of the vote, and the Liberals slumped to 19 per cent, with seven seats that left them just short of official party status. Wynne resigned as leader on election night in a half-empty Toronto art gallery.
Whatever the cause of the Ontario Liberal debacle, one lesson for other progressive governments is that gender politics are not currently a reliable campaign weapon.
We’re starting to see evidence of this at the federal level, too. Prime Minister Trudeau’s federal Liberals had been riding high in the polls for more than two years, in part due to policies like a gender-balanced cabinet that had given the party a huge lead among women. Then, in February, Trudeau told a student at a town hall in Edmonton that she should use the word “peoplekind” instead of “mankind” because it’s “more inclusive.” He tried to pass it off as a joke but he became the butt of it, either as a feminist poseur or a condescending twit.
Then the Liberals delivered their feminist-branded 2018 budget, one allegedly written through a “gender lens” that included over 600 references to women in its 300 pages. An Ipsos poll subsequently found that just nine percent of respondents approved of the budget, and that the Liberals had, for the first time since the 2015 election, fallen behind the federal Tories. Trudeau’s personal approval rating likewise dropped to its lowest point since well before the 2015 election.
Although it may be too deep in the political weeds for most people to notice, it has been reported that the Liberals’ attempt to get a free trade agreement with China has been hampered by their insistence that it address progressive priorities, including gender equity considerations. They brought the same objectives to the table in NAFTA negotiations with the Trump administration, which are now at a chilly standstill.
Going mano-to-mano with President Trump in a trade war has, for the time being, bolstered Liberal poll numbers. But so far, at least, the government is not suggesting that gender ranks with steel and aluminum tariffs, dairy supply management, or auto production as a major issue in the trade talks. In fact, the prime minister and his government have been relatively quiet on gender issues of late, which may have something to do with the recent emergence of an 18-year-old sexual misconduct allegation against Trudeau.
The NDP in Alberta, meanwhile, tried this spring to trap Kenney and the UCP with a law prohibiting protests around abortion clinics. It was probably a preview of an NDP strategy to separate their opponents from female voters in next year’s election. It could work, but it seems unlikely as current polling indicates Albertans are mainly focused on the province’s economic underperformance and ominous future prospects, just as many Ontarians were when they voted. In that context, it seems, many Canadians now see gender politics as a trivial sideshow.