It wasn’t that long ago when female members in Nova Scotia’s House of Assembly didn’t have their own washroom.
The first woman ever elected was Gladys Porter in 1960 — the first to enter a space occupied only by men for roughly 150 years. Since then, there have only been 50 female MLAs.
The achievements and stories of these women will now be showcased in a book.
“I think there’s a historical gap in telling these stories that nobody’s really filled,” said Sarah Dobson, one of the women behind the project.
“We hope that young women can read the book and realize the potential and possibilities that they have.”
Dobson and her friend Grace Evans spearheaded the book, called On Their Shoulders: The Women who Paved the Way in Nova Scotia Politics, last year — the 200th anniversary of Province House.
Dobson studied political science and economics during her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University and is now in her third year at the Schulich School of Law. Evans is currently in her third year of a political science degree. Both were involved in student government in high school and have worked on political campaigns.
While they said they’ve been lucky to have female mentors, both at school and in politics, many of the women they interviewed for the book didn’t.
“They blazed their own trail,” said Dobson.
Many of the women they interviewed were surprised to learn there have only been 50 female MLAs, according to Dobson.
Nova Scotia is one of four provinces that has never had a female premier. Only 16 of 51 MLAs currently elected are women.
“Sometimes I think we’re kind of numb to those things,” said Dobson. “We think we’ve made so much progress, and we have, but we don’t realize all the places where inequality still exists.”
Funding for the project came from the Advisory Council on the Status of Women and Equal Voice.
Still work to do
There had only been about a dozen women elected when Maureen MacDonald started serving as the provincial representative for Halifax Needham in 1998. She remained an MLA for over 18 years.
MacDonald said she was inspired by Alexa McDonough’s push for female washrooms in the legislature in the 1980s. McDonough was Nova Scotia’s first female party leader and an NDP MLA until 1994 before moving on to federal politics.
“When I was elected, things were so much better for me because of those 10 or 12 women that were in front of me,” said MacDonald in an interview.
“I don’t want to leave the impression that everything is hunky dory, and there’s nothing left to do,” she added. “But boy, we’ve come a long way.”
MacDonald said women and their work are still often overlooked and invisible in many spheres, and feels the book will help change that culture.
Joanne Bernard, who represented Dartmouth North from 2013 to 2017, was the first openly gay cabinet minister and MLA in Nova Scotia.
Bernard said she knew from a young age that she wanted to run for office, and hopes Dobson and Evans’ book inspires others.
“It’s really important that girls, young women, understand that this is an option, in spite of the challenges and barriers,” she said.
Bernard supports the idea of having copies of the book sent to public schools.
“To see that in the curriculum would be fantastic,” she said.
Carolyn Bolivar-Getson is currently the mayor of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg and was the only female Progressive Conservative caucus member from 2003-09.
She isn’t happy that only 33 per cent of current MLAs in Nova Scotia are women.
“It’s still not what it should be,” said Bolivar-Getson. “There’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be 50-51 per cent. We should be reflective of the population that we’re serving.”
Bolivar-Getson added she couldn’t believe she was only the eighth female cabinet minister in 2003.
For the book, Dobson and Evans interviewed all female MLAs still alive at the time of writing, except one who didn’t want to be included. Six have passed away and excerpts were written by their family members.
The pair acknowledged many voices still aren’t represented: there’s only been one female African Nova Scotian MLA, and no Indigenous women.
“I hope the next 50 happens, for one, a lot faster, and two, is a more diverse group of women,” said Evans.
Dobson said as work on the book has gotten underway, there’s been great response from current sitting members, both men and women.
While the pair aren’t certain about where their own political careers will lead, they want to help other young women pursue politics. The proceeds from their book will go toward a scholarship endowment for Nova Scotian women studying political science at Dalhousie.
Although it won’t be for sale until sometime later this spring, there will be a launch at Dalhousie on March 8, which is also International Women’s Day.
The plan is to print between 500 and 1,000 books and sell them for $30 each. They will be sold online and possibly the Dalhousie University Bookstore.
About the author
Alex has worked in the radio industry for over 10 years at stations throughout BC and central Alberta. She has a Bachelor's Degree in political...