Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Women's Ministerial Careers in Cabinet, 1921-2010: A Look at Socio-Demographic Traits and Career Experiences

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Women's Ministerial Careers in Cabinet, 1921-2010: A Look at Socio-Demographic Traits and Career Experiences

Article excerpt


The subject of women's participation in political life in Canada has generated a considerable amount of research, particularly since the mid-1990s. In particular, female legislators have been the focus of much of this research, to the neglect of women elected in municipal politics, or those appointed as ministers and senators. In regard to the study of women cabinet ministers, two articles written by Donley T. Studlar and Gary F. Moncrief (1997, 1999) remain authoritative. Of course, other works pertaining to female ministers in Canada have been published since, but their scope is limited in time and space. No studies cover the entire span of womens' ministerial careers in Canadian cabinets at all levels of government (that is, federal, provincial, and territorial) from the initial appointment of women ministers in 1921 to the present. This article addresses this gap in the literature on legislative politics in Canada.

The purpose of this study is to analyze selected aspects of women's ministerial careers in Canadian cabinets from 1921 to December 2010. We do recognize that the ideal scenario would have been to compare women's and men's ministerial careers in the federal government, provinces and territories from 1921 to 2010. We simply do not have resources, however, to build a database of all women and men cabinet ministers and legislators at the federal, provincial and territorial levels since the 1920s. For this reason, we follow Studlar and Moncrief (1997, 1999) and limit our research to women's ministerial careers only. This shortage of data certainly limits the scope of the analysis because it prevents the evaluation of women's ministerial careers in light of men's cabinet experiences. That being said, this research provides a wealth of new information on the entire population of women cabinet ministers in Canada between 1921 and December 2010 which, in itself, is worthwhile. Most importantly, we compare and contrast the socio-demographic traits of women ministers to those female members of the governing party who have not held a ministerial portfolio. Second, we examine women's ministerial careers over time. More specifically, we evaluate whether the presence of women across portfolios has been more evenly distributed in recent times than in early years. In addition, we examine whether today women hold different types of portfolios during their career than they did in past decades.

This article proceeds as follows. The next section offers some background information on the development of female ministerial careers in Canada over nearly the past 100 years. Second, we review the relevant literature on women in Canadian politics and present our two working hypotheses. Parts three and four describe the data and methodology employed for our quantitative analysis. The fifth section provides the results of our analyses. We conclude with general considerations for future research on women's ministerial careers in Canada.

The evolution of women's ministerial careers from 1917 to 2010

Within the scope of ongoing work by the Canadian Democratic Audit, an assessment by White in his book, Cabinets and First Ministers, reads as follows: "Canadian cabinets are in the least democratic" (2005: 3). Among the reasons for this sober statement is the high concentration of power in the prime minister or premier's (hereafter first minister) hands, the opacity of cabinet decision-making processes and the weak mechanisms of accountability, as well as the demographic unrepresentativeness of cabinet appointments. This last point is perfectly highlighted in the historical underrepresentation of women in ministerial portfolios. While women were first nominated provincial ministers in 1921 (in Alberta and British Columbia), it was not until 1957 before the first woman entered the federal cabinet. Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed Ellen Fairclough at the junior position of secretary of State of Canada. …

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