Celebrating women in local government

In the April 2009 issue of Municipal World magazine, contributor Leo Longo reminds our readers that it is only 90 years since women in Ontario first became eligible to serve on a municipal council and be appointed to any municipal office. Indeed it was in 1917 that Hannah (“Annie”) Gale was elected as alderman on Calgary’s city council – and became the first woman ever to be elected to a municipal government in Canada. (Actually, she was the first woman ever to to be elected to any political office in our nation!)

Annie Gale with her sons William and Henry (publicdomainphoto – www.heroines.ca)

Annie Gale with her sons William and Henry (publicdomainphoto – http://www.heroines.ca)

So, with International Women’s Day just behind us (March 8), and the 90th anniversary of The Women’s Municipal Qualification Act, 1919 on the doorstep, it seems appropriate to celebrate the contributions of women in local government – and to acknowledge still the barriers to their contributions.

City of Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion (featured on the cover of our magazine this month) is perhaps the most iconic of Canada’s women in local government today. McCallion was first elected mayor of Mississauga in November 1978, and has continued to hold that office ever since – the longest serving mayor in that city’s history, now serving in her 11th term.

Well known for her no-nonsense approach to governance, and a tough stance on municipal taxes, McCallion is among the first mayors of major municipalities to be openly committed to a pay-as-you-go philosophy. As a result, her municipality is debt-free, and has not had to borrow money since 1978.

Among her numerous accolades, McCallion was chosen one of the “American Women of the Year” in Who’s Who of American Women (an award that refers to North American women). She was the first woman to hold such significant positions as president of the Streetsville and District Chamber of Commerce; president of the Anglican Young Peoples’ Association of Canada; mayor of Streetsville and, of course, mayor of Mississauga. Her remarkable municipal career dates to 1967, when she decided to leave the corporate world and devote herself to politics, where she has continued to serve ever since.

Elected office is seldom easy for anyone; however, the barriers for women can be significant. That’s why, in 2005, the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities prepared the report Untapped Resources. The report pointed to numerous reasons why women don’t pursue elected office, including “need to earn a viable income, difficulty accessing resources such as childcare and transportation, a lack of institutional supports, age discrimination, sexist assumptions about women’s role in society, social expectations and socialization patterns, concerns for impact on family members, media scrutiny and treatment of women politicians, lack of experience in political parties and political campaigns, and a distaste for and negative perceptions about the culture of politics.”

UNSM has done more than talk about the barriers, though. They have worked to remove them, by holding campaign schools (as discussed in the article on page 5 of the April issue), and by creating a mentoring program for newly elected women councillors.

Mentors through programs like that of UNSM – and icons like Annie Gale and Hazel McCallion – have made, and continue to make, significant contributions. They have helped to pave the path for the women who will follow in their footsteps – working for a better tomorrow in all our communities.  MW

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