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.
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
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
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.
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?