OTTAWA - Twenty-five years ago, after an unprecedented number of women were elected as MPs, a small group of them got together to improve working conditions for the sisterhood on Parliament Hill.
“It was an attempt for women from all parties to work together to see if we could improve the broader environment so that it would be more women friendly,” says Mary Collins, who served as a minister for the status of women in the Progressive Conservative governments of Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell.
“I don’t know whether we did or not,” she laughs.
“Or, it didn’t last, maybe.”
The number of female MPs (39 out of 295) elected in 1988 falls well short of the 33-per-cent “critical mass” that groups like Equal Voice would like to see represented in the House of Commons, but in the five years it existed, the Women’s Parliamentary Association did get some things done.
“It was a particularly good time to be a feminist,” says Mary Clancy, a former Liberal MP from Halifax who helped spearhead the association.
“I’m not saying we cured many problems, but we were there and we put the word out that we were there and if you had problems, to come to us,” Clancy says.
There was better lighting installed on the Hill and in parking lots after one of the MPs was mugged on the Hill one night.
The group worked with the Speaker to develop sanctions for racist and sexist language in the Commons.
“I was called a ‘fishwife’ among other sexist outbursts,” former NDP MP Dawn Black, a member of the association, recalls.
The Parliamentary Spouses Association came to them for help with pension issues.
They also dealt with the more mundane problems that confront women in the workplace.
“There should be a tuck shop. If you tear the arse out of your pantyhose, as we say here, you shouldn’t have to go off the Hill to get it,” says Clancy.
“It was sufficient,” Clancy says of the items that were added to the gift shop as a result, “but it sure as hell wasn’t luxurious.”
They also got the Speaker to hire someone to deal with sexual harassment complaints from female staffers against their bosses, although Clancy notes with regret that despite reassuring the women they would protect their confidentiality, none of the complainants ever came forward.
The news from Parliament Hill these past couple of weeks shows that is one issue that has never really gone away.
“That there still should be any kind of harassment or perceived harassment is very sad in this day and age, where women have moved so far and advanced so far and yet may still be perceived as sexual objects,” says Collins.
“It’s a bit unbelievable,” she says.
The women’s parliamentary association disbanded shortly after the 1993 election, as the newly elected Reform Party MPs did not wish to participate and the members felt it needed to include all parties to work.
“We stayed away from partisan issues,” says Black.
The recent events on Parliament Hill — where two MPs were suspended from the Liberal caucus Nov. 5 over unspecified allegations of “personal misconduct,” which sources say were sexual in nature, toward two unidentified female NDP MPs — raises the question of whether it is time to revive the association.
Barbara McDougall, who preceded Collins as the minister responsible for the status of women in the Mulroney government and who was also a member of the association, says if current women MPs feel they need it, they will create it.
“They’re smart, they’re elected, they’re up there. If they need something, they can initiate it and if they feel they need or want it, then they should do it. If they don’t, if they’re feeling that everything is going fine with them as individuals, then I don’t think they need an association,” says McDougall.
“There’s no men’s association,” she notes.
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett says an all-party women’s caucus has actually met sporadically over the past few years.
While there was talk of converting a lounge near the parliamentary restaurant into a family room, complete with toys, for MPs with young children, and efforts to implement a sexual harassment policy, Bennett says the meetings had poor attendance.
“I’m embarrassed to say we sort of dropped the ball on this,” Bennett says.
“We need to restart the engines, I think.”