Liberal Woman's caucus.

Author:Steele, Jackie F.P.
 
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Caucus meetings by nature are exclusive to elected Members of Parliament. In certain circumstances, staff are allowed access to provide a supportive role, but the private nature of Caucus is critical. It provides Members an opportunity to exchange views and offer frank assessments of events, policies and party dynamics behind closed doors. Little public documentation is available and records of proceedings are maintained for internal purposes alone, if they are kept at all. This article examines the Liberal Women's Caucus and the interaction of its members within the larger parliamentary community. The author concludes that the Liberal Women's Caucus has exerted significant influence in ensuring that policies and practices friendly to women are increasingly adopted on Parliament Hill.

Since its founding in 1993, the Liberal Women's Caucus has been open to all female Liberal Parliamentarians from both the House and Senate side.(1) At National Caucus, Carolyn Bennett, Caucus Chair during the time this study was initiated, has repeatedly extended an invitation to all of her Liberal colleagues to join their meetings, however, only one male MP took the initiative to participate regularly in the Liberal Women's Caucus and become a member.

The active members of the caucus have ebbed and flowed according to the issues being tackled at any given time, and the other competing responsibilities of the women Parliamentarians. The caucus is recognized as an official organ of the Party structure, reporting to National Caucus weekly, holding a seat on the National Executive, and working in collaboration with other organizations such as the Liberal Women's Commission and the Judy LaMarsh Fund. It meets in a private room of the Parliamentary Restaurant on Wednesdays between 12:00-1:30pm, which is the timeslot immediately following National Caucus which all Liberals are expected to attend. As with other Caucuses, a nominal Caucus fee is contributed by active members, however, all of the Liberal women and one man considered a part of the Women's Caucus receive the information about Caucus meetings and activities. The range of Caucus meetings within the Liberal Party are coordinated through the office of the National Caucus Chair who ensures that each of the respective schedules of caucus meetings is respected by Liberal members; concurrent meetings are rarely allowed. In this way, all Caucuses are able to draw from a broader membership and function more successfully.

Of the 62 female and 1 male (Irwin Cotler) MPs and Senators who are members of Liberal Women's Caucus, most established the average attendance at weekly meetings as ranging between 15 and 25 individuals. A core group of women attend every week, but there is also a fluid exchange of members who attend somewhat less regularly. The focus of my research was upon the women who do attend the LWC, and the value they place upon the group, and that of its role within the larger parliamentary process as evidenced in their responses to my interview questions. Not all Caucus members were interviewed, nor did I attempt to interview the 30+ women who were unable or chose not to attend Caucus regularly. There are a myriad reasons why all 62 women do not attend the LWC each week. Aside from the more obvious time restrictions upon participation such as meetings with representatives of important constituencies, hosting a school group or member from one's riding who are in Ottawa, and generally fulfilling the other competing obligations of the average Parliamentarian, some Caucus members interviewed noted that not all Liberal women identify with the feminist policy goals of the Caucus, and that some who have never in fact attended have a misconstrued vision of the work that goes on. Moreover, it has been noted that some of the women on the Hill fail to see the systemic barriers to women that exist; they do not see the need for the Caucus, and simply prefer to ally themselves with their male colleagues and have therefore refrained from playing an active part in the Caucus.

A Personal Support Network for Women

Parliament is still regarded as one of the last remaining bastions of male culture in Canadian institutions. The atmosphere in the Gothic Centre Block remains that of an old-fashioned men's club in which women are interlopers.(2) As one female MP remarked following the election, "the Brashest of the class of '93 are busy learning how to play in the big leagues; feminism is not a big agenda item for me. I want visible power".

A survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union noted that many women in politics had commented on the slow pace of change in attitudes and practices despite the presence of women in their respective institutions. They noted the dominance of what was perceived as masculine behaviour, and talked of becoming like their male counterparts, fearing the adornment of the "male mask", abuse of power by male and female colleagues and the failure of other women to provide support.(3) While one would think that this is more problematic in newer democracies or in parliaments with only a few token women, Sue Barnes noted that approximately half of the Liberal women in the House and Senate do not attend Women's Caucus. She explained, "some women think that they will get ahead faster if they act like mini-men and so choose to not align themselves with other women, and the Caucus itself. Caucus is not about personal gain." Despite the numerous responsibilities that may make it difficult for women to attend Caucus, given the competitive context, the presence of a group that can provide collegiality and emotional support for women who are forced to work within the constraints of this political culture is critical. Veteran parliamentarian Sheila Finestone asserted that the most important aspect of the LWC is the sense of belonging and network in a cold and unfriendly environment, and the sense of trust and collaboration towards common goals. Marlene Catterall echoes this, saying that the Caucus is a place "where I can be totally and brutally honest ... I feel I can say what I feel and think". International human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, also noted that he enjoyed the fellowship and friendship among members, and found it to be a great opportunity to discuss the gendered dimensions of public policy and politics in an informal yet organized setting.

The current Parliament has the most women ever with 62 Members of Parliament, or 20.6% of the legislators. The past three Parliaments have brought important increases in the number of women on the Hill, but personal accounts suggest that more women are still needed to bring systemic change to the political culture of the institution. In a 1999 speech on women's participation in the 21st century, Shabbir Cheema of the United Nations Development Programme sets 30% as the breaking point for critical mass to effectuate significant changes to the political climate.(4) It seems that the perspectives change depending on one's personal experiences with the institution in question. As Mary Clancy stated following the 1993 election, "there are now...

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