I watched the televised Kitchissippi debate a few weeks ago (or whenever it was on…this campaign is starting to blur). I have a number of thoughts on the debate, and the race in general, but I wanted to highlight one aspect of it, specifically the performance of Michelle Reimer.
The race is considered a two-horse race between incumbent Katherine Hobbs and challenger Jeff Leiper. There’s a reason for this analysis. Hobbs and Leiper have a greater presence in the ward. They have been incredibly involved in a number of issues, and they have the strongest grasp on the issues facing Kitchissippi, as well as the city as a whole. Reimer, for all her attributes, seems a bit green.
This impression carried on through the debate. I was quite interested to see how Reimer was to fair. At first, I wasn’t too impressed. She didn’t jump into the back-and-forth as much. She wasn’t getting her message across, and she seemed tentative, almost as if she just didn’t have enough of a grasp of the issues or solutions to hold her own against Hobbs and Leiper.
Then I caught myself.
It was Reimer’s tone and style that undermined her candidacy, not her actual arguments or policies. I realized that Reimer was speaking in a manner that society often conditions women to speak. If a woman is too assertive, she can be labelled as bossy. Strong women, who wear their strength on their sleeve, will either be undermined or demeaned, or they’ll be ignored or mocked for not knowing their place. Politics is still very much a man’s world–that’s obvious in this municipal race, and obviously a problem, too–and a female candidate has a fine line to walk. You have to play the game and stand up to men. If you don’t, you’re not strong enough to do the job. However, if you play the game too well, you’ll be cast a bitch.
So part way through the debate, I started listening to Reimer with this firmly at the front of mind. I noticed that she was polite and deferential. She demonstrated humility and acknowledged, implicitly, that others had valid perspectives to offer. I had to ignore these aspects of her performance to properly judge the candidate and the platform.
Her arguments were just as strong as the other candidates, more or less, and she displayed the intelligence and wisdom that we should all want in a civic leader. Her primary failing was that she too perfectly played the role that society tends to impose upon women. That’s absolutely no mark against her; it’s a mark against us.
This isn’t the only aspect of sexism that has reared its head in the Kitchissippi race, but for its subtlety, it might be the most insidious. Anonymous letters calling on voters to choose “the right man” can be called out for the clear misogyny they exhibit. But this barely visible oppression bleeds through all aspects of society, colouring our daily interactions and impeding the happiness and success of all women.
Hobbs has an advantage because she’s the incumbent. Leiper has an advantage stemming from male privilege. We need to be conscious of this sort of privilege, lest we dismiss the talents of qualified women, discouraging others from even entering politics.