Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


But will they be the sensitive motherly types, or the nagging shrews?

File under: Character Writ Large, Righteous Indignation, XX Marks the Spot, Home And Native Land. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:30 pm.

Last night, the three Men Who Would Be Prime Minister (and the One Who Would Abolish The Position Entirely) were asked during the first English debate: what to do about all the heckling in Parliament? How to restore civility to the House of Commons?

To which Jack Layton, feminist, replied:

Well I’ve told my caucus that we won’t shout out and disrupt Parliament. And I think there’s one other thing we should do and that’s have a lot more women in Parliament. I’m very happy that our party has the highest percentage of women candidates ever that any political party has ever presented in an election, 37%. And mark my words - the tone of that house would change if we had a lot more women there, and voting NDP will help make that happen.

Women, see, are more polite than men. Really! Says so right there on TV! And politeness is good, and we want the House of Commons to be more polite, but we can’t very well expect the menfolk to behave by themselves, so let’s bring in more women to set the tone of Parliament. It’s a great deal: Layton gets to send the wimminfolk to do the dirty work, while collecting affirmative action points, all at no cost to himself!

Where have I seen this before? That’s right, grad school. I am leery of most manifestations of affirmative action to begin with, but at least I find a good many of them to be undertaken in good faith; this particular strain, however, is just odious.

Carolyn Ryan, one of four CBC journalists who live-blogged the debate, speaks for me:

Did Layton really just say his party would increase civility in the House of Commons by electing more women? That’s placing a big burden on the gender that produced Sheila Copps, Hedy Fry, and Deborah Grey. Are the female MPs supposed to shush their male counterparts when they get raucous? Should they hold tea parties in the foyer? Will they bring in a “bad-word jar,” with MPs having to pay a twonie every time they heckle? Puh-lease. Why not just promise to elect more polite people as MPs, or discipline the ones you’ve got now?

Why not? I know why not: because Layton knows better than to make promises he can’t keep. Better to set standards that his green women MPs won’t be able to live up to, and let them take the fall when they inevitably fail.


  1. I remember back when I used to have cable watching the house of commons on cspan and wishing that american government was more like that. Maybe if W were heckled, we wouldn’t have the war and the spying and the torture and all that crap that’s turning america into an increasingly more frightening place.

    - vito prosciutto — 12/17/2005 @ 7:15 pm

  2. I agree with Vito, not because I think heckling would stop W from being a jerk, but because it looks like more fun.

    - Chris Phan — 12/17/2005 @ 9:49 pm

  3. Women in grad school are doing what dirty work? Marrying all the guys?

    - Mike — 12/18/2005 @ 8:49 am

  4. No, making sure that women as a sex are represented, and that they highlight what an enlightened institution they’re at.

    - meep — 12/18/2005 @ 9:55 am

  5. What meep said.

    Also, I’d like to nip the discussion of the Bush administration in the bud right now; this post isn’t about the American government. I don’t mind segues and tangents, but [above] is treading rather close to the category of “changing the subject completely”. Thanks.

    - Moebius Stripper — 12/18/2005 @ 11:52 am

  6. Yeah, I thought that whole remark came out of left field (no pun intended), and probably wasn’t helpful to the cause, since it only emphasized the fact that we were looking at three suits.

    And could Layton (and Martin, who also liked that idea) really count on the fact that the general Canadian public really believe that women MPs would be more civil than men? I don’t see why they would think so.

    - saforrest — 12/18/2005 @ 11:04 pm

  7. Just so you know, Vito, you can watch the House of Commons live on the internet at CPAC’s website. They also have podcasts of Question Period, so you can take it with you (and then you can always read the transcripts, even if they’re not as good, at Hansard (I’m too lazy to link now, but go to http://www.parl.gc.ca/ and follow the links)).

    - Nicholas — 12/18/2005 @ 11:09 pm

  8. I agree that the idea that women are inherently more polite than men is silly.

    But I think that your story about the women’s restroom being closed indicates a good reason to want more women represented in government. In this case, women had interests (and I mean that in the second sense listed here) which differed from that of men.

    (As a side-note, I think sex-segration of restrooms is silly. I am just as uncomfortable peeing in front of another man as I am in front of a women. My first residence hall in college had co-ed bathrooms, designed to afford everyone privacy, which was an arragment I liked better. I think sex-segragated one-person-at-a-time restrooms are especially silly, especially when the line in front of one is much longer than the line in front of the other.)

    People sometimes don’t realize when others’ needs aren’t being met, or fully understand the severity when a problem that affects others. Women sometimes do have other needs, or face other problems, than men: women can get pregnant, women face a higher risk of sexual assualt, women’s health needs are different, women face discrimination in the workplace, and so forth. I can’t help but think that increasing the represenation of women in government would ensure that those needs and problems were better-addressed.

    On the other hand, I’m sure some people will raise the following objection: this line of thinking absolves men of having to address those problems. I agree that this is a danger. Really, we should try to elect people who make an honest effort to understand and solve the problems facing all of society. For example, we hope that a wealthy politician would still emphathize with the plight of the poor. (And the men in your department should have paid more attention to the restroom problem after you sent them an email about it!)

    Nevertheless, people being as they are, I think the people in the best position to understand the unique problems that face a subset of the population are members of that subset–because they experience them firsthand. The closest I’ve ever come to feeling margainalized due to my sex was reading some sexist language in The Joy of Cooking. I will never understand sexism in the same way as someone who faces it on a regular basis. And this is one reason why government should be as diverse as possible.

    - Chris Phan — 12/19/2005 @ 3:19 am

  9. I think the reason that there won’t be widespread co-ed restrooms is that guys like urinals.

    And women don’t really want guys to see them putting on makeup and doing their hair.

    - meep — 12/19/2005 @ 4:00 am

  10. Oh, and I don’t wear makeup (or use urinals), but I understand the desires for gender-specific privacy for particular activities.

    You see, most people are able to think about concerns from other people’s points of view.

    That said, I also don’t assume I know best for an entire group of people. I just =love= it when a properly sensitive male tells me that a particular course of action that I find offensive is sensitive to women’s needs, and therefore he has no obligation to actually address this particular woman’s objections.

    Hmmm, what was that about a patriarchy?

    - meep — 12/19/2005 @ 4:09 am

  11. I am very anti the sex-segregated individual washrooms — I just assume that both are good for both. But I often walk right past women who refuse to go into the individual “men’s” room.

    - wolfangel — 12/19/2005 @ 10:33 am

  12. Yeah, now that cracks me up, because usually the only difference between the “men’s” room and “women’s” room is if there’s a tampon machine inside.

    - meep — 12/19/2005 @ 10:42 am

  13. Chris - yes, women have different interests (in the sense you meant) than men, and there’s some truth to “you understand things that you experience better than ones you don’t.” What ticks me off is the “we need more [underrepresented group] in [field]” being considered to be THE canonical method of expressing concern and sensitivity toward [underrepresented group]. Like meep, I have had more experiences than I can count of people who were sensitive to women’s issues just not listening to what I had to say about them. Heck, the fact that they want more women in math is enough, right? (The fact that having more women in math addresses both the issues of “being sensitive toward women’s concerns” and “horny straight male math students wanting to get laid” is not lost on me, by the way. Funny, the number of folks who fall into both camps.)

    saforrest - and the irony is, I wouldn’t be surprised if women MPs are, on balance, less civil than men in Parliament, simply because they have to have a thicker skin in order to last in Parliament.

    wolfangel - Oh, yeah, the single-toilet, sex-segregated washrooms. I use the closest empty one, myself.

    - Moebius Stripper — 12/19/2005 @ 12:34 pm

  14. The fact that having more women in math addresses both the issues of “being sensitive toward women’s concerns” and “horny straight male math students wanting to get laid”.

    That goes for other technical disciplines as well. Speaking as a former member of that club, they’d especially like it if you could relax the admissions standards for the females so that they will be a little more likely to need some er.. “extracurricular help” from the real geeks.

    - John — 12/19/2005 @ 1:01 pm

  15. MS: For what its worth, I view the underepresentation of certain groups in mathematics not as a problem in-and-of-itself, but as a symptom of a larger problem, which is that barriers persist that both limit people’s choice of carrer and prevent the mathematics discipline from attracting the best and brightest it can. I agree that this bigger problem can’t merely be solved by treating the symptom.

    Government, on the other hand, is a different story. While the goal of mathematics isn’t to be diverse (but rather lack of diversity is a symptom of a larger problem), I think being representative (that is, having enough people from all different groups of society) could reasobably be considered an end goal of a representative body.

    - Chris Phan — 12/19/2005 @ 2:15 pm

  16. Actually, Chris, the fact that there are more men than women in academic math does not necessarily mean math is missing out on the best & brightest of anybody. I leave it as an exercise to the reader as to why this may be the case.

    - meep — 12/19/2005 @ 3:31 pm

  17. K, we’re getting a bit afield again…

    But Chris, your point about diversity in math vs diversity in government is (somewhat - I don’t entirely agree) well-taken. In my women-in-math post I tried to distill some motivations for affirmative action; among them are: 1) the diversity argument: more women=more sugar, spice, and everything nice; 2) the critical mass argument: once there are more [underrepresented group] in [field], then [field] will be more welcoming to [underrepresented group]; and 3) we need AA to counteract systemic *ism. This post (and half of the women in math screed) addressed 1), the diversity argument. But the part in which I don’t completely buy your argument, Chris, is that yes, it’s good to have broad representation…but the MPs are elected to represent everyone in their ridings, and parties should keep that in mind when choosing them.

    (Aside: a few years ago, when there was a Canadian Alliance party (the awkward teenage phase of the Reform Party growing up into the Conservative Party), there was a lot of talk about how racist and sexist the CA was - not a charge without grounds, in my view, but that’s not to say that I bought the accusation wholesale. People brought up the fact that there were hardly any women running as Alliance MPs, and oh the injustice. Now, it didn’t take much to notice that the Alliance actually had the highest proportion of visible minorities running. Suddenly the representation issue could no longer be used as proof that the Alliance was racist, though really, this had nothing to do with whether or not the Alliance’s policies helped or hurt ethnic miniories in general. [Aside: oh, I think I said this before, more succinctly: “This sums up my frustration with identity politics in general: anyone can play.”
    And we can easily adapt this example to the unprecedented ethnic diversity of the Bush cabinet, which inspires “oh, but that doesn’t count” objections from the pro-diversity liberal crowd. Let’s call this what it is: an interest in having the appropriate ideology represented.])

    Meep - no, it doesn’t, but boys and girls who show talent in the subject are treated differently in childhood. (And it should be mentioned that a nonnegligible amount of this comes from well-meaning feminists who think that teaching watered-down math to girls somehow serves them.) By the time they get to be of university age, sexism plays far less of an overt role, and simply hiring more women to counteract the sexism that prevented there from being many good women candidates at level to begin with, which yes might have had to do with sexism - well, you know how I feel about that.

    - Moebius Stripper — 12/19/2005 @ 4:46 pm

  18. I do think that if you see one [group] massively underrepresented in some field, then probably it is the case that the field is missing many people who would be very good at it (best and brightest is perhaps not the best way to describe it) — biological explanations are the last ones I believe, because, historically, they’ve been just shifting goalpost after shifting goalpost. (”White men have bigger brains! No, more brains on average per weight! Um, no, more frontal lobe! Lather, rinse, repeat.”) Given how inaccurate they have been, and how they have almost invariably been used as a barely concealed front for [x]ism, they have a very large burden of proof ahead.

    Yes, MPs should represent *everyone*. But anyone — male, female, black, white, Aboriginal, etc — can do that as an effective politician, and it’s not the case that non-straight-white-Christian-male concerns are secondary concerns. White men aren’t better able to represent a constituency than any other group (nor are they less able).

    - wolfangel — 12/19/2005 @ 5:44 pm

  19. And I always go to the furthest bathroom, or, if there are 4 or more (some restaurants do this, a series of individual restrooms), the second-to-last one.

    - wolfangel — 12/19/2005 @ 5:45 pm

  20. I guess if you really buy the “diversity” argument, our representatives should be picked at random. That would fix everything, right? :)

    I can hardly think of anything more idiotic than a call for diversity in elected officials… FROM elected officials. It’s like telling people who voted for you that you screwed up.

    - Moses — 12/22/2005 @ 12:35 pm

  21. A reader tries working the exercise. Meep, please let me know how my driving is.

    Meep wrote: Actually, Chris, the fact that there are more men than women in academic math does not necessarily mean math is missing out on the best & brightest of anybody. I leave it as an exercise to the reader as to why this may be the case.

    Let’s consider some possible answers:
    - Math gets the best and brightest, who are few in number, and a bunch of other chaff. The assumption here is that, no matter what, the best and brightest will find their way to math, their calling. There’s no point in even teaching this stuff in school. It will just happen. Like magic. Woo!

    - By “the best and brightest,” Meep means the best and brightest who happen to find their way into math. This year, again, the top 10 math students in the country were all math students. Rock on, math! No problems here.

    - Boys are better at math than girls, that’s why they end up in math. Extending this argument brings us back to the first one. There is no way there could be a problem, because the math gods will find their chosen ones.

    - The distribution of brightness is so flat near the top that it matters little who among the group of people with top math potential becomes a math researcher. There are more than enough people to fill the limited number of slots in math research, and all of them have equal talent. The statistics of this are quite strange and hard to believe. Distributions with short, thick tails are not usually seen in the wild.

    - Math has absolutely no idea what to do with the best and brightest, so isn’t missing out. I like this answer best.

    Did I win? Is there a prize? If I won, may I get some of your points? With MS’s increasing professionalism, I’ve been finding lurking the blog to be increasingly pointless.

    - Jordan — 12/22/2005 @ 3:58 pm

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