If you give a Mom a popsicle…

When Daisy was a toddler, we had a fluffy calico cat named Scarlett O’Hairy. Daisy adored her and wanted to be just like her. She’d sleep like a cat, all curled up with Scarlett in a patch of sun on the floor. She tried eating like a cat (but even her love for Scarlett couldn’t convince her to take more than one bite of the foul-smelling food). Once, in the wee hours of the morning, Daisy saw Scarlett jump off my bed and decided to do the same thing. While Scarlett landed gracefully in the laundry basket, Daisy fell into the dresser and split her forehead on a sharp corner. This resulted in a trip to the pediatric emergency room, and four stitches. Another time, Daisy took up Scarlett’s favourite pastime – digging in the houseplants. She ripped leaves off the plants for Scarlett to eat and crammed mouthfuls of potting soil into her own mouth. This resulted in a call to poison control, and a decision that maybe a baby brother or sister would be a safer companion than a cat.

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Scarlett O’Hairy: on Wednesdays she wore pink.

 

We’ve spent a lot of time in the emergency room over the years, for cat-induced and other ailments: ear infections, kidney infections, strep throat, croup, broken bones.  Eventually, toddlers pass out of the Walking Germ Bag phase. Trips to the emergency room become so infrequent that the kids actually look back on them fondly: misty watercolored memories of being safe and warm, wearing brightly coloured johnny-shirts and wrapped in warm flannel blankets, and being treated by kind people who gave them popsicles and stickers and cool-looking bandages. 

My memories of those visits are equally nostalgic. Maybe that sounds strange – I mean, what parent looks fondly back at illnesses and middle-of-the-night trips to the ER? But like my kids, I don’t remember the illnesses much. I’ve thankfully forgotten the vomiting, the search for clean sheets in the middle of the night, trips to the hospital through dark streets with time standing still. What I do remember is how we were all treated. My kids were treated with compassion and kindness. I was also treated so well. Everything was well-explained, follow-up instructions and appointments were clear, and the health professionals seemed as concerned with how I was coping as with how my kids were managing. Once or twice, I even got a popsicle of my own.

I’m nostalgic for that, because these days my visits to the ER are for Puck’s mental health crises — something that can’t be treated with stitches or antibiotics, and is a genuinely terrifying kind of pain. And when we get past this, my experience with the mental health emergency room is not a memory on which I’ll look back fondly.Read More »

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Current state of gender enlightenment in Halifax: “Nice hat.”

Two weeks after my blog post on sexual harassment in Nova Scotia politics,  I’ve been getting a follow up question from media, activists, and even those working within Nova Scotia politics:

“So now what?”

How do we take the discussion beyond storytelling? How do we make change? And whose job is it to do that?

So many people have phoned, emailed and texted me about my blog post. I had messages from women I’ve worked with, who recalled the same situations and the un-named throwers of footballs and grabbers of butts. I had messages from female politicians who are concerned that the stories being shared might dissuade young women from entering politics.

I had messages from male politicians who said they weren’t sure they’d done anything wrong, but offered apologies just in case.

I’ve also heard from political parties, sincerely wanting to know how to move forward with a cultural shift.

Women have been silenced in one form or another for years. We’ve been told what to wear, and where to work. We’ve been gaslighted, and told that our stories are the hysterical ramblings of  cold women who can’t take a joke. We’ve been warned we should be quiet, because what if our families hear us telling this story? What if a future employer does? Uh oh. Don’t want to be labelled a troublemaker.

God forbid we tell the truth. OUR truth.

I am a believer in the power of telling and reclaiming stories. The very act of telling your story to someone else, in person or in writing, is liberating. It gives you clarity. It helps you see patterns. It connects you to others with similar stories. There is power in those connections.

It helps you, and others, to think about what the next chapter needs to be.

I don’t have all the answers to, “So now what?”. I do have a few suggestions for how I hope the next chapter can unfold:

Keep telling the stories.

The media is already moving on. This is an old story to them — yawn, another woman complaining. Listen: yes, this is old news. It’s old news because it’s been happening to women for millennia. We’ve been talking about it now for a couple of months. That might not be sexy from a news cycle perspective, but let’s look at the bigger picture. This is a movement. This is a cultural shift. This does not end with a 24-hour news cycle. These stories will keep coming, because there are millions of them. Do they make you uncomfortable? Are we annoying you? Good. That means it’s working. Social change isn’t comfortable.

Think about whose stories we aren’t hearing.

I’m a white, educated, cis woman. I have a lot of privilege. I felt fairly safe in telling my story, even though I knew there’d likely be some fallout from people I know, and maybe I’d lose out on some contracts for being ‘too vocal’. Most of the stories we’ve been hearing are from women like me. There are lots of other stories out there we need to hear: stories of people of colour, LGBTIQ people, people from all backgrounds and walks of life. We need to support everyone to tell their stories. This isn’t just a problem for white women. There are many layers to this.

This is not the fault of a few bad apples. The whole damn barrel containing the apples is dodgy. 

Some politicians have suggested this is a witch-hunt (of course, in the actual witch hunts, it was women who were burned or drowned…usually for being too outspoken or independent, which apparently made them supernatural). The #metoo and #timesup movements aren’t about attempting to ruin the careers of individual men. It’s about exposing parts of our society that have been complicit in oppressing, harassing and abusing women and other historically marginalized groups. It’s about making systemic change, taking on misogyny, and stop asking women to “fit into” structures that were designed and perpetuated by men to keep them out. We need to throw out the rotten apples, sure, but let’s not keep putting our apples in the same barrel that makes it easy for them go bad.

This isn’t about men not being allowed to talk to women.

No. Just stop. This is not about whether you can tell me I have a nice hat. You really like my hat? That’s nice. Tell me. The problem is, you are probably not talking about my hat. The problem is, we are probably sitting in a policy meeting, and you have interrupted what I’m saying to say “Nice sweater” while staring at the general area below my neck. And even if you really, really have a sweater fetish or like my hat, what the hell does what I’m wearing have to do with the policy issue we are discussion? Do you often interrupt your male co-workers to compliment them on their hats?

Halifax councillor Matt Whitman  also told The Coast he’s saddened that you also can’t “…be quite as free with your hugs.” Hugs are for your family and your close friends. Hugs are not (or rarely) okay in work environments. Especially when one person clearly is not into that hug.

You are still allowed to talk to women. If all you can say to a woman you work with is “nice hat”, maybe you shouldn’t talk to women much, though. And if your gregarious nature has you hugging or grabbing the bottom of most women who come into your orbit, you need to learn some basic social skills, or at least not try to live your life by being a Halifax imitation of Don Draper.

Think about policy decisions through a feminist lens.

(Did you just stop reading because I used the word ‘feminist?”)

Policy decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They reflect a government’s ideology regarding people in society and power structures. Think about what’s happening with the school board decision in Nova Scotia — 54% of elected school board members are women. We don’t see that kind of number in any other elected body in this province. And yet, those elected women are being dismissed. Their voices are no longer welcome.

It isn’t up to women to fix this.

The women who’ve come forward with their stories aren’t doing it to be vindictive. They’re doing it to heal from something that has deeply affected their lives, their careers, and their feelings of self-worth. This comes with a steep emotional cost. It might also come with a cost to their careers and friendships. It can even come with threats and hate from strangers.

Given that cost, is it fair to expect women to do all the heavy lifting to fix society? Is it fair to ask us to singlehandedly come up with ways to fix institutions and systems we’ve never been fully welcomed into?  2018 marks 100 years since women got the vote in Nova Scotia. We’re still fighting to fit in and to be heard. We have ideas, and we have momentum, but the burden shouldn’t be ours, alone.

We need allies. We need men and women inside the political system who acknowledge what’s happened/happening to step up and commit to change. We need to media not to just tell our stories, but to shine a light on where change is and is not happening. We need media to check it own behaviour in how they treat women staffers and politicians.

This change needs to be more than not just saying, “Nice hat”. This is fundamental change in our political cultures. This is a cultural change away from the ‘boys club’ mentality. This is a change to a more inclusive and respectful working environment.

Our political parties claim to be working toward visions of a society Nova Scotians want. Can we trust them to create a progressive, inclusive province if they can’t do the work to get own houses in order?

#MeToo: Politics & Misogyny in Three Acts

This week’s resignations of provincial and federal politicians over allegations of sexual harassment kept me awake last night. Long-buried memories surfaced. Puzzle pieces about why my career took certain detours (or outright exit ramps)  suddenly fit together. Somewhere in the wee hours of the night, I came to an understanding that my own experiences in Nova Scotia’s political sphere were not isolated, or based on my personal shortcomings, lack of fortitude,  or “taking things the wrong way”. Others have experienced the same thing.

#MeToo.

I have been involved on the inside of Nova Scotia politics since I was 20. Three times, I dove into the political pool with relish. I loved the action, the issues, and, naively — quaintly, perhaps — I believed I could be part of work to make things better. Three times,  I left feeling a bit less as a person. I left with an uneasy feeling that I should stay and fight, that I needed to protest — but knowing there was no one to listen.

ACT I:  The Page

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It is 1990. I am so young that my face looks like a blank slate in my official legislature ID photo. I am so excited about this part-time job. I am a student of history and journalism, and being on the floor of the legislature as a Page will let me feel like like I’m part of history being made — part of our province’s story being written.

Being a Page is not glamourous. It’s a lot of fetching coffee for MLAs, and (in this era before the internet) looking up information and making photocopies.

It is also, I learn, an uncomfortable dance between being noticed, but not being groped.

Most of us Pages are here for the connections we can make and the possibility of furthering our careers. All of us have a genuine interest in politics. Over half of us are young women. Furthering our careers seems to have a lot in common with what we hear about young actresses furthering their careers in Hollywood. Our MLA ‘mentors’ are helpful, friendly – but there are strings attached. We jockey to be the favourite of certain MLAs. We struggle to avoid others who are a bit too friendly. There is a whisper-network about who to avoid, why we should never be alone in a room with certain MLAs. I put up with hands resting on my bum in the legislative chambers, my shoulders being massaged in the kitchen outside the chambers, men pressing themselves close against me, asking me for drinks, asking if I have a boyfriend and what we like to do together. This is normal. This is just the way things are.

But it is exhausting. It is disgusting. Going to work at the legislature feels no different from being in a bar downtown, except that I am paid to be here, and as a student, I need the money. It is also creepier: the men who hit on me downtown are my age. The men who hit on us at the legislature are much older than we are. They have families. They are in positions of power.

Years later, another former Page tells me she remembers that working in the legislature felt like being a Bunny in a Playboy club: serving men, enduring their leers and gropes, and understanding it was just part of the job.

I leave after a year. For a time, I tell myself I hate politics. What I really hated, though, was feeling like an amusement, an object for middle-aged white men from out of town to chase.

I don’t talk about it. I don’t complain to anyone. Why would I? As a 20-year old woman, this is the world.

ACT II:  The Researcher

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It is 1998. After working as a journalist for a couple of years, I recently graduated with a social work degree. One of my social work mentors, a woman I love and admire greatly, has recently been elected as an MLA for the official opposition. At her urging, I apply for and get a job as the party’s health researcher.

I have never enjoyed a job as much as I enjoy this — not before, and not in the years since. I love the work. I love reaching out to people in the community to hear their concerns and bring issues to light. I love writing somewhat snarky questions for Question Period. I love the insanely fast pace, the long hours, the thrill of knowing things before others. I love the budget lock-ups, the need to do on-the-spot analysis of what it all means for Nova Scotians. I love that I am good at it. I love knowing that my work made a critical contribution to not getting that budget passed, and a snap election being called.

I do not love many other things. The caucus office often feels like a frat house. Footballs are thrown. Often, they are thrown at me. Inappropriate jokes are told. ‘The Boys’ (any staff who are not female) are invited out for drinks after work. They are buddies with the MLAs. My female co-workers and I are not. We are not even informed these drink-meetings are happening, and only hear about them after the fact. In politics, being left out means you are ‘out’. Those on the inside have the connections, the information. My female colleagues and I are marginalized, and fight for scraps of information. Frustrated, we watch our male colleagues get plum assignments and more senior positions not because of their ability, but because they had access to the decision-makers and information that we didn’t have.

I see our Communications Director, a capable and intelligent women, forced out of her job by men who do not respect her, who belittle her behind her back, who comment on her appearance and who leave her out of important discussions because she’s not one of “The Boys”.

I sit with a close friend and fellow staff member as she cries with anger and disgust after an MLA grabbed her and rubbed his crotch against her. More than once. And there is no one for her to officially complain to.

I stand outside a media scrum at the legislature, and ignore MLAs from another party who loudly discuss the length of my skirt, how I’m small enough to “put under an arm and carry to a back room”. They call me Policy Barbie, to my face.

At election campaign time, I listened to my female coworkers talking in low voices in the staff kitchen, negotiating who would travel with whom, so that no one would have to be alone with certain MLAs.

After the election, staff reductions were necessary. Many women lost their jobs. I was the only women left in research. My responsibilities increased, but my influence diminished. The frat house atmosphere worsened. There wasn’t even a pretence of including me in discussions (most of which took place in bars, at meetings I didn’t even know were happening). Within months, I left. On my last day, my manager (who went on to have his own career as an MLA) told me he’d seen what was going on, and apologized for not stopping it. I don’t recall how I answered. I probably said, “That’s okay”. But it wasn’t okay. It was not okay to see misogyny, and to do nothing. It was not okay to watch someone who was passionate about her work and good at it just walk away in disgust and defeat because of the atmosphere of toxic masculinity.

It was not okay.

Should I have stayed and fought?

Who would have listened?

 

ACT III: The Senior Advisor

Ten years have passed. The party I used to work for is now in power. One day, I receive an email, asking if I’m interested in once again working with the woman I so admire, who is now a cabinet minister. I would be Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister.

I jump at the chance. It is truly my dream job. It is, I feel, a chance to reclaim the career I have regretted abandoning. I hope to recapture that thrill I used to get from the work, when I first became a researcher. I put the other stuff out of my mind.

This time, I am 40. I am no longer fresh-faced. Now, I see a different side of things. I am a crone, it seems, and somewhat invisible. It is the younger women  — the caucus staff, the Premier’s Office staff – who I see struggling with the outright sexism. It has been almost 20 years since I was a Page, and there are some differences. The advances, the groping, don’t seem as obvious. But the flirting is still there. The inappropriate jokes and frat house environment is still there. The ‘boy’s club’ mentality is still very much there. I see listings of people’s salaries. There are gaps.

The men who excluded me at the caucus office are now senior staffers. They are running the show. They do not welcome me, and immediately try to put me in my place. My opinions and ideas are pushed aside. At 40, I am invisible. I’m reminded that I left once, and my loyalty is questioned. Still, I persist. In this job, I truly believe I can make a difference. I can help shape policy. I can make things better.

I see different things, this time. There are many female MLAs now, which certainly wasn’t the case when I was a Page (I think there were two, then – including the amazing Alexa McDonough). I see how the female MLAs are often disrespected. I see the eye rolls. I hear the mansplaining. I see their frustration as they are talked over. I witness their anger as deals are made behind their backs — deals that directly affect their portfolios.

This time, I stay two years. I have had the privilege of helping usher in the province’s first Mental Health & Addictions Strategy. I have helped shape and bring in key pieces of legislation. But my Minister is moving to another portfolio, and I don’t want to continue here without her. I am frustrated by being left out of conversations, by the back-room dealings among the small group of men that have not changed since my last dive into the political pool. I feel beaten down by having my ideas dismissed, my insights laughed at and overruled. Plus, this fight is more than I have energy for, with Puck’s emerging issues.

I retreat.

Should I have stayed? Should I have fought to make my voice heard?

Probably. But at this point, it feels like a never-ending fight. And I am tired.

 

I miss politics. I do. I miss that thrill, the pace, the issues, the satisfaction of being able to (very occasionally) make real progress. I miss the joy of doing work that I loved and was good at. I’ve had many wonderful opportunities since, but have never again had that sense that I was doing my best work.

Am I done with politics? Maybe, with party politics. I will always be a political person. I have found other ways to make my voice heard now and to try to make change – through advocacy, community-based work, and writing — that are more satisfying.

But maybe I’m not truly done. Maybe there is an Act IV, where I return as part of the growing resistance to fight the toxic masculinity that is beginning to crumble under the weight of its own noxiousness.

I could dive back in. Who’ll join me?