NDP Leadership Race from a Gendered Lense

One womyn is too young, the other is too old: Is age really the factor in the NDP leadership race?

In the past NDP leadership race there were only two womyn out of the original nine leadership candidates: Niki Ashton, 29-year-old MP of Churchill, Manitoba, and Peggy Nash, 60-year-old MP of Parkdale-High Park, Toronto.

Those numbers alone are disappointing. But what is even more disappointing, are the discourses that surrounded both womyn during the leadership race. Both seemed to be on either ends of the age spectrum that contributed to the general memberships’ hesitation vote for them, with Ashton being too young and Nash being too old. However, I don’t think that age is the whole story.

Through my many conversations with NDP members, particularly young members, Ashton was quite often people’s second or third choice on the ballot. But even though Ashton ran an innovative, professional and polished campaign, performed very well in all of the televised debates, and being fluently bilingual in both English and French, the majority of members were still reluctant to throw their full support behind her. That was evident by the 5.7% of the vote that she picked up on the first ballot.

In the media, there was mixed reaction to Ashton’s legitimacy as a candidate, with some journalists acknowledging the strength of her debate performances and policy positions, where other journalist didn’t even bother knowing anything more about Ashton other than her age, writing her off immediately as a non-contender in the race. The underlying tone to the reaction to Ashton was that a twenty-nice year old womyn could not have much substance to her campaign and therefore was not worth the time to review. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Although my goal is not to criticize any leadership candidates, as I think that each leadership candidate has their strengths and their weaknesses, however if one leadership candidate were accused of lacking substance, either explicitly or implicitly, it would be Martin Singh.

The only policy commitments that Singh really emphasized were the establishment of a national pharmacare program and supporting small businesses. As much as I don’t think that either of those are bad ideas, his campaign left much to be desired on many important fronts like the environment, the growing income gap, the inequality that Canadians continue to face based on gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc, the creation of diverse employment opportunities, foreign policy and the role of Canada’s military.

Despite this, Singh took 5.9% of the vote on the first ballot. When comparing Ashton and Singh’s experience, the substance and presentation of each campaign, and the fact that Singh was not an elected member of parliament, that vote breakdown makes little logical sense.

I don’t think that NDP members have a hard time picturing a young person as the next leader of the official opposition, as Nathan Cullen is only 39. However members seem to be deeply hesitant about a young womyn being the leader of the opposition, and potentially the next Prime Minister.

That was really what the NDP leadership race was about. Which candidate could members see defeating Stephen Harper in 2015 and becoming the next Prime Minister of Canada? Well this time around it definitely wasn’t a young womyn.

And apparently it wasn’t an older, more experienced womyn either. Despite the quality of Peggy Nash’s campaign; from the branding, to the communications and social media, to her endorsements, to her debate performances and to her policy proposals. Nash only picked up 12.8% on the first ballot and 16.8% on the second ballot, removing her from the running.

Even though many candidates talked about how to get young people involved in the political system and in the NDP, Nash actually walked the walk, being publically supported by a strong contingent of young people, womyn and members of the LGBTQ community. In fact, Nash had young people soengaged in her campaign, the majority of her campaign staff were young people themselves.

As a labour negotiator, Nash has proven her ability to be tough in the necessary circumstances as well as be balanced. She has also held prominent critic positions such as Industry, Finance, and Public Works and Government Services and gone toe-to-toe with some of Harper’s toughest Ministers.

Despite all that proven experience, there were still underlying concerns among the membership that that she wouldn’t be strong enough to take on Stephen Harper in the House. I even had one male friend describe her as a sweet grandmother rather than a leader of the official opposition.

Despite Mulair’s similar age, there were never any questions of his ability based on his age or a comparison to him being a grandfather figure, rather than the potential leader of the NDP.

Even though NDP members have elected a womyn leader before, it was never under such crucial circumstances in the party’s history and members have never been thinking about their leader in terms of the next Prime Minister of Canada.

In Canada, the only womyn who have been elected leaders of provincial parties that have formed government are in right-wing parties. The take-home message is that womyn can be in position of tremendous power, as long as they won’t try to change the very structure of power that privileges men and leaves womyn (as well as racialized people, queer people, etc) with an inherent disadvantage.

In analyzing the quality of all the leadership candidates’ campaigns and the experience of each candidate, I don’t know what Niki Ashton or Peggy Nash could have done differently to do better in the leadership race, besides having a penis of course.

It is much more acceptable to question someone’s age, because it can be written off as a concern about someone’s experience or energy to do the job, however indicating a lack of support for a candidate based on gender could never be said out loud.

That is why the discourse surrounding both womyn leadership candidates was about their age and not their gender. However, characteristics of oppression often intersect and complicate the way that we look at and understand discrimination.

This article is not intended to criticize leadership candidates, or claim that the most left party in Canada is not progressive enough. Its intent is to highlight the large amount of work that we need to do as country to break down the subconscious stereotypes that keep womyn in a lower social and economic position than men.

Just because womyn make the same minimum wage as men, can leave the house without their father or husband’s permission, or get an education (if they can afford the tuition fees), does not mean that sexism is not alive and well in Canada. Actually, the lack of womyn elected in to the House of Commons, a clear position of power, (especially before the NDP’s orange wave) as well as how the NDP leadership race played out, is a clear indication that sexism most certainly is.

Greer Woolsey is a white, lower-middle class, queer questioning womyn feminist who is a member of the NDP

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