Misfits: Gender, COVID-19 and the Body Politic.

AuthorPaddon, Kelli

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about significant changes in many workplaces across the world, and Canada's legislative assemblies were no exception. Bound by Westminster tradition and usually cautious when implementing new protocols, Canada's parliaments were required to make substantial and far-reaching operational alterations in a short period of time in order for parliamentarians and parliamentary staff to continue to fulfill their democratic responsibilities. In this article, the author examines how such changes affected this unique workspace for women. She employs and adapts the concept of "misfits" from critical disability studies to demonstrate how a work environment not initially established to accommodate women's bodies suddenly made all bodies "misfits" as social distancing and capacity limits changed longstanding practices. The author concludes that the response to the pandemic demonstrates that parliament's gendered traditions could be changed and such a dramatic and blunt method to implement change was arguably more successful at altering the gendered culture of this system than the long term increase in the presence and participation of women in parliament.


The first woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (LABC) was Mary Ellen Smith. Elected in 1918, she went on to be the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed to Cabinet--although with no portfolio of her own. (1) Since then, the LABC has seen women serve as speakers, premiers, and leaders of three parties in both government and opposition. At the time of writing, almost half of LABC MLAs are women. Moreover, the Assembly has its second gender-balanced cabinet and, for the first time ever in North America, the government caucus has more women (29) than men (28). These developments came not as coincidence, but after years of research and concerted effort to increase the number of women candidates in winnable seats, and a policy commitment to equity by the New Democratic Party of British Columbia (BC NDP). (2) When elected Members were called to session after the 2020 election, it was under Standing Orders (3) allowing the hybrid model of legislature; most Members were attending via Zoom (videoconferencing) with only minimal in-person attendance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Adjustments were made and technology was utilized so that all Members were able to vote, debate, make statements, and participate with their images showing up on a screen in the legislative chamber.

This article will examine how the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in dramatic changes in how the Westminster system operated and to the LABC as a workplace. Specifically, it takes an interdisciplinary approach to ask what lessons can be learned about gender-sensitivity in the LABC as a workplace from the changes related to COVID-19 by integrating feminist and critical disability theory.

To explore this question, it is critical to consider the work that has been done in political science, women's studies, history, law, philosophy, policy, and political psychology, with the lenses of feminist and critical disability theory. The article explores the concept of gender-sensitivity and its application to the LABC, and use specific examples of gendered behaviour, such as heckling and caregiving, to illustrate gendered norms and traditions of this workplace. It will also describe and integrate Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's feminist materialist disability concept (4) of 'misfits' and 'misfitting' as a useful way to examine the disabling elements of a workplace lacking in gender-sensitivity or inclusion.

This article illustrates that the removal of most bodies from the physical workplace as a result of the "misfit" created by COVID-19 for all MLAs, resulted in changes in the gendered culture of the LABC, including the reduction or interruption of some gendered traditions--suggesting that gendered behaviour is a choice and not an inextricable element of the system. The application and integration of theories can offer important considerations for the LABC and other parliaments regarding the possibility of having successful legislatures that are more gender-sensitive, understanding the impact of traditions on workplace gender culture, and making choices about how these systems could move forward to be more inclusive and gender-sensitive workplaces.

This article was written approximately 22 months after COVID-19 became a real concern in British Columbia. Since that time, there have been multiple waves, phases, steps, and restrictions, as well as the introduction of vaccines. Almost every workplace in the province has changed in some way, for better or worse, temporarily or permanently. The LABC is no exception.

This work is also being presented from a very specific perspective, and the inextricable influence of lived experiences on the integration, interpretation, and consideration of the material needs to be framed. The author's frame of reference is as a white, cis-gendered woman with no visible disabilities, who currently serves as a Member of Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (BC MLA). The LABC is the author's workplace.

Women at work in politics

The LABC is part of the Commonwealth and operates using the Westminster system of governance. The literature outlines that "institutional norms and rules of these systems perpetuate and reinforce sexism and sexual harassment in politics." (5) These rules and traditions, whether written or habituated, protect specific norms of "the myth of neutrality and male logic of appropriateness, adversarial politics, daily debates in the lower houses, and the longstanding protection and rights under the practice of parliamentary privilege." (6) These rules and traditions make up the "institutional context within which female politicians work." (7)

Lovenduski describes legislatures and Westminster systems as:

"gendered institutions" in which power, process and behaviour operate to favour the men who created them and were their sole occupants for so long. When women enter legislature, they enter masculine territory. They may or may not face hostile men, but they do face institutions that are constructed to exclude women. (8) Although the nuance and culture may sometimes be difficult to describe or even pinpoint within the research, it is clear that as more women enter this traditionally male workplace, their "presence disrupts parliamentary norms of engagement and shines a light on the extent of male control alongside the hidden expectations inside parliamentary spaces", it is noted throughout the research that "the mere presence of women, however, is not enough to change those norms. (9)

"Discussions of gender and politics in the present day must include a consideration of the charged atmosphere of our political culture." (10) The media, American politics, online vitriol, and academia have influenced the way we see politics as debates; research interrogating gender, race, sexuality, and ability has further expanded our frames of reference. Baick describes culture wars and that our political culture is a vague concept that encompasses "ideas, attitudes, and language" (11) that is highly gendered and judgmental of the female, and although it is now open to women, the political climate is less than welcoming to them. Trumpian attitudes and discourse have saturated the popular culture, potentially creating further hesitancy on the part of women to participate. "Assumptions that politics is cut-throat and tough, and that politicians must have a "thick skin" in order to survive can be interpreted as code for women and racialized minorities to remain silent when they are treated unfairly or discriminated against." (12)

One of the loudest examples of gendered culture and behaviour in legislature may be heckling. Heckling can be defined as "To call out in the chamber of the House of Commons [or Legislature] without being recognized by the Speaker." (13) This definition includes both positive and negative interruptions that interfere with the speaking of the Member who has the floor.


To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT