Municipal Elections Matter, Part 3: Women and Municipal Politics

It is commonly thought that women are more successful in municipal politics than federal or provincial politics. This conclusion is reached since municipal elections are typically less competitive and their campaigns presumed to be less costly. [1] At the same time, women may be at a disadvantage because of how the media frames female candidates or if voters perceive politics as ‘male sphere’.[2] Erin Tolley and Mireille Paquette explored to effect of gender in the 2017 race for mayor of Montreal between Denis Coderre and Valérie Plante.[3]With a rising number of women stepping up to run for office in Canada and the United States, it is interesting to understand what barriers exist or are being challenged.

Tolley’s 2011 study on female representation at different levels of government provides initial insight on the success of women in municipal politics. She finds that female representation stayed steadily below 25% at all three levels of government. Furthermore, this level of representation was steady from the late 1990s through the 2000s. Furthermore, there is no significant difference in the number of women at any level. Finally, women are less likely to be a mayor than a city councilor. This points to another hypothesis about female representation: the higher the position, the fewer the women.[4]

For this reason, it is interesting to consider the success of Valerie Plante in Montreal’s 2017 election. In 2016, Plante became the leader of Projet Montreal, a municipal party that has been around since 2001. In 2014, the party lost its founding leader and in the following years developed a wider platform which did not depend on its known leader. Notably, Projet Montreal has become much more involved with local organizations and stays active outside campaign seasons unlike many other municipal parties which focus on leader-centered campaigns. Both parties promised to have a gender balanced council.

Plante also branded herself the ‘man of the situation’ due to her strong experience; this helped her manage her media image throughout the campaign by avoiding gendered comments about her qualifications. Apart from this, the campaign did not highlight the possibility of Plante becoming Montreal’s first female mayor.

When looking at the breakdown of votes, women or men did not tend to vote for one candidate over the other. Plante was supported more by younger voters and urban residents. Overall, few indicators showed any significant differences between Plante and Coderre voters. Nonetheless, while it does not seem that people voted for Valerie because she was a woman, her being elected does show that a woman can be elected; fewer barriers may exist to female politicians in 2017.

Some might ask why it is important for women to sit in office. Broadly speaking, the feminist movement seeks to ensure gender equality, thus it is important for men and women to serve in office just as it is important for men and women to become doctors or enter any profession. Policy wise, it is expected that women pay more attention to ‘women’s issues’ which tends to include services related to health, welfare, education, and children.[5] From this line of reasoning, if more women are in power, government should spend more on social issues than on defense or foreign affairs. It is important to note, however, that women should also be able to fill positions which are typically viewed as belonging to the men’s sphere, like defense, finance, or foreign affairs.

Note: This is the last piece in a three-part series about the Canadian Municipal Election Survey’s conference on the Montreal and Quebec City elections in 2017. Read the first piece here and the second here.

[1] Erin Tolley, “Do Women do Better in Municipal Politics? Electoral Representation Across Three Levels of Government,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 44, no. 3 (2011): 573-594.

[2] Heather MacIvor, Women and Politics in Canada (Broadview Press: 1996, Peterborough Ontario), 209-211.

[3] To read the articles from the conference:

[4] This hypothesis was first put forward by Bashevkin in the 1985 book “Toeing the Lines: Women and Party Politics in English Canada” (University of Toronto Press).

[5] Heather MacIvor, Women and Politics in Canada, 360-383.

Karen Bird, “Who Are the Women? Where Are the Women? And What Difference Can They Make? Effects of Gender Parity in French Municipal Elections,” French Politics 1, no. 1 (2001), 5-38.

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