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Alison Redford and the misogyny defence: Does it really hold any water?

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Alison Redford

The suggestion former Alberta Premier Alison Redford was treated differently, and was presumably fired by her party more peremptorily, because she is a woman is generating considerable heat if not a great deal of light in political circles in Alberta.

This claim first surfaced a few days before Redford's political ship sank, at a time when her Progressive Conservative Party was in a state of open rebellion against her leadership. It has been advocated and denied with equal passion and bitterness ever since.

An article in the Calgary Herald not only blamed misogyny for the former premier's troubles but, predictably given the source, found fault with "left-leaning types" for not defending Redford with sufficient vigour.

Moreover, the farther you get from Alberta, the more credence this idea seems to get.

So, just as a starting point, non-Albertans reading accounts of this debate may want to remember that here in Alberta, opinion on the question seems mostly to divide along partisan political, not gender, lines.

Nevertheless, the idea deserves serious and thoughtful consideration because sexism and misogyny are real phenomena in our society.

So, was Alison Redford the victim of misogyny at the hands of the Tory Old Boys' Club, and a lot of other similarly minded Albertans, or did her troubles stem from her own unique personality and attitudes?

Well, it is undeniable that Redford was the only woman who ran for the Progressive Conservative leadership in 2011 and her gender certainly did not stop her from winning.

Moreover, during that race, her superior strategy saw her come from behind and pass several candidates who, whatever their other strengths and weaknesses may have been, had more years of experience and more support in caucus than Redford.

These particular facts, mind you, have been interpreted by some to suggest the Old Boys' Club in caucus never accepted Redford as premier because of the essential fact of her gender, and it must be said here there is enough truth to this opinion to make it dangerous.

Still, the Tory Old Boys -- for whom readers will recognize there is no love lost in these columns -- were neither complete fools nor suicidal. Having seen Redford elected, it is said here it was hardly in their interests to upset her apple cart, even if she wasn't the person they would have preferred to see riding atop it.

In 2012, the contest to see who would lead the government of Alberta was between two women -- Redford, and Danielle Smith, the leader of the Wildrose Party, which became the official Opposition after the votes were counted.

The two male party leaders, Brian Mason of the Alberta New Democrats and Raj Sherman of the Alberta Liberals, were also-rans, and at times almost afterthoughts -- and more's the pity!

Again, though, this is also more likely the result of partisan politics and the prevailing ideology in the province than the gender of the leaders who were taken seriously by most everyone, both women, and those who were not, both men.

So it is said here that Redford didn't win because of her gender, and Smith -- notwithstanding her remarkable achievement in making a fringe party a credible contender in one election cycle -- didn't lose because of hers.

But did the PC Party tire of Redford more quickly because she is a woman? Again, the preponderance of the evidence suggests this was not the case. At least, when the same PCs suffered the same crisis of faith with Ed Stelmach, they pushed him out pretty decisively too.

This was done quietly by comparison, but it is said here this was more a reflection of Stelmach's and Redford's personalities than of their sex.

Stelmach had had enough. Redford wanted to soldier on. Stelmach was more of a consensus leader than Redford. In the end, Stelmach's inclination was to go without too much encouragement; Redford required a harder shove from her panicked fellow PCs.

Indeed, you can make a case that when gender played its most significant role, it was back in 2011 during the leadership campaign when we Albertans were just getting to know Redford, and then it worked mostly in her favour.

That was when many of us jumped to the conclusion that she must possess such positive characteristics as compassion, consensus building and even frugality because she was a woman -- even though there was precious little actual evidence she'd ever demonstrated such qualities.

Many members of the public, moreover, continued to hold that positive impression of Redford long after the evidence was pointing the other way.

Whether or not "nice lady" was appropriate terminology for MLA Len Webber to use to describe the premier when he quit the PC caucus to protest her style of leadership and where it was taking his party, he was trying to get at real aspects of the former premier's character.

Not unlike Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Redford ruled autocratically, showing contempt both for the concerns of her caucus and the views of the groups who supported her election to the leadership in 2011 and in the general election of 2012.

Says one astute political observer of my acquaintance, male: "She betrayed the progressives who elected her. That's what did her in."

He added: "When you only have 18-per-cent approval, I'm sorry, but it's not just men who are against you."

Says another, female: "Redford's political failure had nothing to do with her lady parts. It came down to the fact that she promised to be different from the old boys, but she turned out to be exactly the same."

Some observers have argued that no woman, least of all Redford, would have been forgiven the sins of Ralph Klein -- who was famously publicly drunk and disorderly at times during his tenure as premier.

But if one thing can be said of Klein, it was that he had a terrific sense of timing -- having sinned, he certainly knew when to fess up and apologize.

Redford's timing was terrible -- time after time she stuck to her guns when a quick climb-down would have worked, and then climbed down when it was too late to repair the damage. Her $45,000 South African travel repayment was just one recent striking example.

I can't shake the feeling the misogyny defence was devised as a tactical Hail Mary pass by Redford's now-fired communications brain-trust in the final hours of her ministry, before she accepted the inevitable and announced she would step aside on Sunday.

It does a huge disservice to Albertans and to women that so many people in so many places are giving this idea so much credence.

True, some Albertans unworthily and rather foolishly criticized Redford's dress or her hairstyle instead of her policies -- as some have similarly knocked Smith but will nevertheless vote for her party.

But it was Redford’s public sense of entitlement, her lousy policies, and her betrayal of her political allies, on both the right and left it should be noted, that really did her in.

For this, I'm afraid, she has no one to blame but herself.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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