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By the mid 20th century, women's role in Alberta politics seemed to have diminished. Increasingly, they were relegated to roles of limited responsibility and the ideal political woman did not run on her own platforms, but rather stood behind political men. Women still organized and campaigned for women's issues, but seemed to lack the enthusiasm and stringency of the earlier fights for suffrage, property rights or improvements in health and education.  Why did women's role change during this period? 

Certainly Alberta was a place of rapid change in the mid-20th century. The discovery of oil in 1947 meant that the oil and gas industry, rather than farming, came to dominate the economy. Farmers' co-operatives and organizations still existed but they lacked the power of earlier years when the United Farmers of Alberta actually formed the government. Women were an important part of these farming organizations and many, like Irene Parlby, had risen to positions of power within them. Many of the arguments for women's rights during the early movement were based on woman's work on the farm; many believed that since women contributed an equal amount to the arduous task of breaking and developing the land, they should receive an equal amount of the benefits and rights as men. With the decreasing power of the farmers' movement, the power of women's activism also seemed to decrease. Organizations composed of mostly of farmwomen, like the United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA) and the Alberta Women's Institute (AWI), that had wielded great influence on the Alberta political scene, now slipped behind the curtain and eventually disappeared.

The political nature of Alberta was also changing during this period. Voters seemed to favour stable, enduring, and right-wing governments; the Social Credit party were in power from 1935 to 1971 and the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) have been in power ever since. Both governments were mainly interested in maintaining and promoting Alberta's wealth through the oil and gas industry, not in helping the disadvantaged in society, such as women. In the 1980s, Alberta along with the rest of Canada, faced a major recession and acquired a large deficit; however, the PCs maintained power and the current Premier, Ralph Klein has worked to expunge the government's debt.

Featured Article

A Sense of Vocation by Helen Hunley


 

Helen HunleyWomen's issues since the mid-century have seemed to take the backburner on the political scene. Historian Linda Trimble in her essay, "A Few Good Women: Female Legislators in Alberta, 1972-1991," examines why this occurred.  Between 1972 and 1989, although the number of women elected to the Alberta legislature increased by approximately 13 per cent, they did not initiate discussion of women's issues and equalities, like equal pay, maternity leave and abortion, in a significant manner. It was rather men in the backbenches and/or opposition were the most likely to bring up women's issues and rights. Trimble argues that this is because female legislators during this period distanced themselves from women's issues, especially those that might identify them as sympathizing with the feminist movement - a movement whose radical nature does fit in well with Tory policy.  For instance, Helen Hunley, the only woman in cabinet from 1971 to 1979, stated in a 1972 speech to legislature:

  

I'm not exactly a Women's Lib type myself. I haven't burned anything but the garbage in years, but I am concerned about the role of women in today's society... Most of us do not expect special consideration. We only wish to get full marks for talents, ideas and capabilities that we have. And we insist we have the right to contribute according to those capabilities. It is my firm intention to aid, abet and encourage other women to take their rightful place in society. 1
  

As evident in the quote, Hunley is careful about distancing herself from the feminist movement, while still expressing her concerns about women's interests.  However, her concerns did not come to fruition when in a debate over the establishment of a provincial advisory council on the status, Hunley, as the government spokesperson on the issue, delivered a negative response.

The situation changed, Trimble argues, after 1986 and 1989 elections. In both, the representation of women (10 were elected in 1986 and 13 in 1989 out of 83 seats) and opposition parties significantly increased in the legislature. She provides statistics that show that entries made by women MLAs on women and gender equality issues increased significantly from 1986 to 1991. She argues that the new opposition New Democrat Party (NDP) and Liberal MLAs did much to contribute to this discussion. For instance, both Marie Laing and Pam Barrett (NDP members) identified themselves as feminists and were very vocal about women's issues, such as  employment equity, battered women's shelters, schoolchild care and women's health. In response to the 1986 speech to the throne, which stressed the importance of the traditional family unit to the stability of society, Laing challenged gender norms by responding: 

  

When I hear about the value placed on the family, I reflect upon the fact that the most dangerous place in this society for women and children is the family. One in 10 wives is battered. Where else can woman be that odds for assault so high? 2

  

Even Tory women cabinet ministers, like Nancy Betkowski and Elaine McCoy, while still being careful to distance themselves from feminism, advocated women's issues more strongly than their predecessors. They disagreed, sometimes even publicly, with their male colleges on abortion, daycare subsidies, homemakers' pensions and pay equity.

Early 20th-century Alberta seemed to be a breeding ground for women's social and political activism. However, with the rise of the oil and gas industry and the decrease in the power of farming organizations and movements, women's activism also decreased. Although women still gained seats in the legislature, they did not seem as interested in promoting issues of gender equality.  Government was now more focused promoting industry, than in defending the rights of or providing assistance to the underdogs of society, and female legislators generally agreed with this stance. By the 1986 and 1989 elections, the situation began to change, largely due to the election of female opposition MLAs who were willing to challenge the government on women's issues.  They argued that women's issues, like pay equality, childcare and health should not always come second to economic issues. They also challenged the government's use of the traditional family as a symbol of ideal Albertan society. These legislators continue to work on bringing women's issue to forefront of political discussion in Alberta.

Of course, women's social activism in the last few decades has not been limited to the Alberta legislature. As we will examine in our profiles of Central Albertan women, many conducted activism in other arenas, such as municipal politics or the judiciary. For instance, we will examine Mayor Elizabeth Nelson of Bowden, who worked to attract tourism to her small town; Judge Marjorie Bowker, who set up a project to help people conciliate differences arising from divorce proceedings; and health-care activist Muriel Eskrick, who led a protest to have a hospital in her community. These are just a few examples of the many women who work to improve the lives of men and women in their community. 

Sources:

  • Trimble, Linda.  "A Few Good Women: Female Legislators in Alberta, 1972-1991."  Standing on New Ground.  Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne.  Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1993: 87-114.

 

  
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