Monique Bégin was heading into the House of Commons to take her seat for the first time when a guard tried to stop her. It was 1973, and Bégin was part of a pioneering group of women from Quebec who had just been elected to federal office. She was surging toward the House in a crush of other MPs when a security commissioner yelled at her to head up to the public galleries – the assumption being that, as a woman, she could be an observer, not a participant in Parliament. “Ladies, upstairs!” he shouted. Bégin uses the guard’s words as the title of her recently published memoirs (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 540 pages). They serve as a reminder of the kinds of obstacles and casual sexism that faced the trailblazing women of Canadian politics.
Bégin, of course, wasn’t relegated to the spectator seats of power. She eventually took her place in the front benches of government, first as Minister of National Revenue and then Health and Welfare under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She oversaw boosts to the seniors’ supplement, the child tax credit and passage of the Canada Health Act. Along the way, she endured the kinds of remarks – one Conservative MP called her “that disgusting woman” – that came with wielding power in a male-dominated world. “Political life can be brutal, destructive, betraying, and alienating,” she writes. “I find myself blessed to have left it unscathed and personally enriched.”
Ladies, Upstairs! My Life in Politics and After catalogues the many ways that politics can be an alienating place for women, starting with the kind of militaristic political rhetoric that emphasizes battles and victories. Napoleon came up frequently during her time in cabinet. At times, hers seemed like an impossible balancing act. “The newcomer to the House or to cabinet must assert herself, but within the limits of what is allowable by her new chauvinistic and patriarchal universe, while remaining true to herself,” she says about her transition to power. Her male colleagues of the day never truly saw the value in having more women in cabinet, she writes, seemingly content with only a “spare presence.” “Obviously they did not realize that these were always overqualified women who were generally twice as competent as their male colleagues,” she writes.
The memoirs serve as an X-ray into the world of politics and power from an outsider who became an insider, without ever losing her sense of being somewhat apart. She concludes that women remain “deeply and instinctively put off by the world of politics,” yet, like herself, they have succeeded in bringing about significant change.
Inevitably, the book serves to take the measure of how far women have come in Canadian public life. Bégin was a woman in politics four decades before #MeToo, before gender-balanced cabinets, before the day a male prime minister would call himself a feminist. Have women made it? Not by a long shot, according to Bégin. She spoke to The Globe and Mail from her home in Ottawa.
On your first day in Parliament, not only were you ordered upstairs to the public galleries, you discovered there were no women’s bathrooms near the House of Commons.
They were where there were offices with secretaries, in more administrative areas. Women were confined to old, traditional roles. Yet there were men-only bathrooms very close to the House.
What did you make of it?
It’s just ridiculous and funny and outrageous.
When you describe your entry into politics, you say that of all your new experiences, “the most stupefying was the enormity of the male ego.”
It was everywhere, but in the cabinet especially. In my generation, women didn’t develop their egos. I really hope that has changed. I hope that women feel better in their skin and have an ego. It shouldn’t be too big, mind you, that can always be unpleasant, whether it’s men or women.
You write that you’re not interested in being equal to men, you want to address “the roots of patriarchy” instead.
The way feminism defines itself now, we talk about equity and equality of opportunity. We talk of equality of outcomes. We talk of breaking through the glass ceiling, though we talk about that less. But behind all these goals of equality, it’s man who remains the norm that we aim to imitate. That doesn’t interest me. It’s the roots of patriarchy that [have] to be analyzed. Because equality is fundamentally a principle of assimilation to men. It’s not a concept of social transformation.
You say there needs to be a critical mass of women in Parliament before things change. When you were elected, women made up 1.8 per cent of MPs in the House of Commons. Now it’s 27 per cent.
Sociologists and feminists in Scandinavia did several studies on their various parliaments. As soon as the number of women parliamentarians reaches the critical mass of 30 to 33 per cent of elected officials, the tone changes and rudeness goes down. The areas of study suddenly reflect questions about women, children and families. We have not reached that point at all. We are at 27 per cent – after 50 years. It’s nothing to boast about.
You are unsparing at times in your views of the roughness of political life, at one point describing it “brutal, destructive, betraying and alienating.” Do you think that is still the case?
You are talking about the current news and I have no intention of commenting on it. [The SNC-Lavalin controversy led to the recent resignations of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal cabinet.]
As Health Minister, your fight to pass the Canada Health Act dragged on for five years. You were the only woman negotiating with all-male provincial health ministers, as well as powerful doctors. The head of the Canadian Medical Association famously referred to the Act as a “rape of the spirit.” You describe some of your adversaries as nasty and vulgar. How did you deal with it?
I have a British side when necessary. I never got mad. I never insulted anyone. I think I kept superb sang-froid. But I found it very, very hard. I got through it thanks to some personal friends, who heard me get angry. But I was very careful never to fan the flames.
You write that one of your biggest sources of pride was the federal child tax credit, and you draw a connection to the fact you had known poverty yourself when your family left Europe and settled in Montreal after the Second World War. [Bégin was born in Rome and spent her childhood in France and Portugal.]
I experienced poverty in different ways. We had been very comfortable in Europe. Then the war came. We came to Canada as refugees, I was 5½ years old. We lost everything. People left packages of old clothes at our door, even if we were very proud. One day my friend Ed Broadbent [the former NDP leader] asked me, ‘Did you feel poor?' I said, ‘No, I never felt poor in the sense of personal humiliation.’ I always felt different. And I was fine with it. I didn’t feel poor, we just didn’t have money.
You served as executive secretary of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women beginning in 1967 [before entering politics]. You have personally discovered that some issues of the day, such as pay equity, remain an unfulfilled dream. After you became dean of the University of Ottawa’s faculty of health sciences in 1990, you found out by reading in this newspaper that all your dean colleagues were paid more than $100,000, except for you. They were all men.
Even now, for women in a teaching position in Canadian universities, the global salary of women is 30 per cent lower than men. This is today, not 25 years ago. We have to conclude that progress is extremely slow. I often heard much younger women than me very proudly say we have overcome all the obstacles. They are either blind or lucky. It’s not the case at all. There’s an enormous amount to do.
Why did you decide to make the jump into politics?
It was fundamentally because of the Just Society and Pierre Trudeau as a person and in terms of values. I left politics when he left politics.
I had learned that power really is Manichaeistic: Good and evil, black and white. [Manichaeism, a religious movement that began in the third century, focused on the war between darkness and light, Satan and God.] Those on the other side of the aisle of Parliament are villains and imbeciles. I really don’t like this profound Manichaeism, which is practically the nature of politics.
How has politics today changed?
When I think now that each minister has to have someone who does Twitter every day, the nature of politics has reached the level of the infinitesimal – it’s action/reaction, action/reaction, with no room for reflection. I would never run for politics today because politics have become a show.
Would you still advise a woman to go into politics today?
I would definitely invite her to do it, while having her observe the fact that politics today is more a show than a reflective undertaking. I would ask her if she understood the very nature of politics and power. And from the feminist viewpoint, I would ask how she feels about the exercise of power and all it involves.
Do you see yourself as a feminist role model?
No. I received a ton of [honorary] doctorates and I always thought there was a case of mistaken identity. I’m part of women from the old days who lacked confidence in themselves. I was smart enough to hide it as best I could. But you know, being a trailblazer is a label you’re given. You don’t choose it. Life gave me the enormous choice of being the right person at the right place at the right time.
Has writing the book changed you?
Even after it was published, I had doubts. I found it astonishing to have dared to write a book like this. Then I slowly calmed down. People who read it told me they learned things. At the advanced age of 83, I’m gaining confidence in myself. So I don’t know what I’ll do next.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
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