I have a theory about how rural towns are actually leading the way when it comes to equity in politics.
This past week, I spent some time at the FONOM (Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities) annual conference and I had the opportunity to speak to a variety of mayors, councillors and municipal staff from all over Northeastern Ontario. The conversations were eye-opening.
Yes, there were a lot of men there. But there was also a lot of women. I looked carefully at their nametags and saw many of them were councillors and mayors. I’ve looked for data online for the names of councillors in northern rural towns but I haven’t gotten very far, so this fascinated me. I sought them out specifically to speak to them about their experiences.
The first pair of women that I met told me that they had gender parity on their council. I thought it might be a one-off until I met another woman who told me the same about her town council. I cruised through the conference, seeking out women in positions of power, and many of those women agreed—they were often not the only woman on their council and if their council didn’t have gender parity, it was usually pretty close to achieving it.
Many of the stories that they shared with me of how they entered politics were very similar, too. The woman in question had been a dedicated volunteer for her community for years, and then, a closure of some sort threatened to affect the town (usually a church, a school or a vital organization). As a result, she had to spring into action to save the local landmark.
After it was all said and done, someone suggested that she run for elected office. She didn’t feel like she faced sexism on her council. There, she felt safe and respected. The minute that she stepped out of her town, though, she noticed her male counterparts were often asked questions first or were regarded as the expert on their municipality.
What gives? How is it that rural towns in Ontario are leading the way for equity in politics?
Here is my working theory.
The one thing that these women had in common were that they were community leaders prior to being elected. They had all been dedicated volunteers—members of parent/teacher councils, coaches on sports teams, organizers of community events, members of community organizations, founders of community initiatives. They had been dedicated to the betterment of their communities for years before getting involved in municipal politics. Those roles are more noticeable in small towns, where everybody is connected. When these women are running for election, people are eager to vote for them because they have been proven community leaders for years.
I think that might be what is missing in cities, and why equity in politics is harder to reach there. While these roles exist in cities, they are not as noticeable or even considered remarkable. As a result, these roles join the long list of silent work that women do to ensure that our communities, no matter how big or small, are functional. We need everyone to start realizing that these women are leaders and that their training on our community organizations are as valuable as the traditional experience and background we would normally look for in our politicians.
If these women can be the backbone of our communities, they can easily be the leaders of our wards, cities and ridings. We need to start seeking out women who already have positions of leadership in our community, and encouraging them to put those skills to use for our government.