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?
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.
A Sense of Vocation
by Helen Hunley
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:
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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
Nelson of Bowden, who worked to attract tourism to her small town;
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
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.