My plunge into politics — and sexism

Originally published in the Toronto Star, May 11, 2019

In the research for my book Outside In: A Political Memoir, I came across a 1982 election interview on BCTV with Jack Webster — the journalist known as “king of the Vancouver airwaves” at the time — where my right to run for city council was challenged based solely on my gender.

This wasn’t my first election: I had run in civic elections for city council in ’76 and ’78, and had been elected as a Parks Commissioner in 1980. That year my partner, Bruce Eriksen, had been elected to city council. In the 1982 election we both again ran for council seats. In the Webster interview, Councillor George Puil took aim at Bruce, accusing him of “trying to get his wife Libby Davies elected to city council, so we will have a man and wife team on council!” Webster replied, looking at Bruce, “You’re joking! You both aren’t running for council at the same time are you?” The sexist “joking” carried on into his interview with me where Webster challenged who would care for my son if we were both elected?

This was the ’80s. I was 29. At the time I don’t remember dwelling on the incident or other instances of sexism — I was too busy campaigning to be elected. But now, I think, wow, did that really happen? And how youthfully polite I was in the video in response, when I should have been hopping mad. I didn’t even correct him on the fact that Bruce and I were not married. I guess the feeling mad about it all has been on a slow burn — over many decades — to witnessing even today nearly 40 years later, the way women in politics and all walks of life are still experiencing systemic sexism.

My book is about activism and politics and how we can better work together for transformative change, particularly on issues that are not considered mainstream. Issues like ending drug prohibition, sex worker rights and homelessness. This was the substance and strength of my political life and experience but along the way I have had to confront the reality that male-dominated leadership and sexism are prevalent and a barrier to change.

Learning about sexism is an ongoing challenge. I’ve come to understand that it is a deeply layered experience. When I was young I held righteous anger for social and economic injustice — but not for what I experienced as a woman.

It has been a revelation to me to see the anger of young women transformed into power in the #metoo movement. I’m still learning and unpacking my own experience as a woman.

During my 18 years in Parliament women talked across party lines about experiences of sexism — not very often, and not enough. This began to change with the influx of young MPs elected in the Orange Wave of 2011 and in 2015 election. Maybe the number of instances and the directness of sexist behaviour and sexual harassment cases grew with the number of elected women. Or maybe a new generation of women were less willing to be silent about it — to be quiet “for the team.”

How many times did men dominate the convention floor, the mic, the debate, because what they had to say was “so important,” even when they stated the absolute obvious and it wasn’t important at all? Far too much of the time.

How many times have I received that look that makes me know I am invisible to the person who is looking straight through me? Like I don’t exist. And how many times has our voice been drowned out by dominant, ego-driven men who still see women in a support role to their own sense of importance? Again — too many times.

Over the years I have talked about this to hundreds of powerful women in politics, in unions, in the media and in the community. Sexism exists and we have experienced it — in subtle and sometimes not-sosubtle ways. Greater inequities face racialized women, whether from media portrayals and stereotypes or in the workplace and certainly in politics. No one likes to own up to it, but often words about supporting equality don’t match actions. These realities don’t stop us, but they do slow us down.

I observe Ottawa and Parliament Hill from afar these days — and what I am struck by over and over is the sharp contrast between what people say is happening versus what is actually happening. We are told, most particularly by the prime minister, that women are in their rightful place; valued and respected.

“Greater inequities face racialized women, whether from media portrayals and stereotypes or in the workplace and certainly in politics.” LIBBY DAVIES

We hear about gender parity, gender analysis, gender equality, and yet, when women decide they can’t play the game the way it’s always been played, because the inside rules are too skewed and irrational; when women speak out; when they challenge the game, what happens? They are ridiculed. They are gaslighted. They are judged in pejorative and sexist terms that no male colleague would experience.

What do I mean by patriarchal? I mean that politics is male-dominated in the sense that there are a majority of men represented in politics and leadership. But this also refers to the male way of doing things — which too often is still how we measure power and success. It’s not just sexism, but a sexist way of thinking, an institutionalized sexism that pervades every level of decision making. We should recognize that patriarchal politics hurts men too, it is a way of thinking and acting that centres around male dominance.

I am by nature a pragmatic idealist — a possible oxymoron I know. But it’s kept me going — a fervent belief that transformative change can take place when people of good will work together. We can get beyond debilitating partisan politics; beyond sexism and racism, and hatred. I represented the lowest-income urban community in Canada and worked with extraordinary people who battled stereotypes, adversity and the violence of societal norms that caused pain and suffering.

In writing my book I have felt such joy to share the political experiences of what it means to work for transformative change both outside and inside the world of politics. We have the power to make change. I want to see women and every underrepresented group in our society feel our power to make change that beats back the stereotypes, barriers and naysayers.

When I think about it, maybe I am being too hard on my 29-year-old self. Like so many women do, I stayed calm, composed and polite in the face of insult. Who will take care of the child?! Webster bellows in the video. I look away and down and quietly reply, “Oh, he will be looked after. You bet.”

There is strength in that response, and there is anger, but it was suppressed to focus on other important work. Now I understand that in order to do the important work of elected office, women — and men — need to transform Parliament into a place where sexism is called out and patriarchy systematically dismantled.