PREMIER IN RED HEELS
BY ADRIENNE TESSIER
STUDENT AT MCGILL FACULTY OF LAW
When I was 12 years old, my school offered a one-day fencing class. Upon showing up for this class, I was surprised to be the only girl. A gaggle of grade seven boys looked at me, some with a bemused smile, an “of course it’s Adrienne,” or a roll of their eyes. As we parried, thrusted, and poked —“on guard!”— my gender was omnipresent. “Let’s try boys versus girls!” taunted one of my classmates.
Being a woman in masculine spaces is to always be in that fencing class—to always be on guard. It’s when you show up to work in a skirt and your female colleague is wearing leggings, prompting a male superior to compare your sartorial choices. It’s when you’ve done all the background research for a meeting, but a male colleague takes over and tells everyone what you did (incorrectly, but I’m not bitter).
This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy taking up space. I relished that fencing class. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from walking into a meeting, wearing a power suit, red lip, red heels, and beating the boys at a game they claim as theirs.
Debating in high school, obtaining an undergrad in political science, and interning as a political staffer means that I have spent a lot of time and energy justifying my place in certain spaces. However, there is one space where I do not have to be on guard. A space where I do not need to justify my use of space: The Youth Parliament of Manitoba (YPM).
YPM is an independent non-profit organization based in Winnipeg that seeks to empower youth by providing them with opportunities for growth and leadership. Their flagship event is a five-day parliamentary session at the Manitoba Legislature between Boxing Day and New Year’s.
I have been involved with the organization for eight years. This past Session, I was honoured to serve as Premier. Although I proudly wore my red heels while taking my seat in the front row, I did not feel my usual thrill of subversive satisfaction. Unlike Theresa May, I have never had to defend my choice of shoes. I was prepared to do so, even (I confess) a bit excited. I deliberately chose to wear them, a bright, provocative symbol of my femininity, as a dare to those who thought that I did not deserve my spot. But the situation never arose. YPM, quite simply, is the safest space I have encountered for a woman to be in a position of leadership – something that I think all political spaces should aspire to be.
This inclusive atmosphere was not always the case. The YPM first admitted women in 1972, 50 years after its founding (and 50 years after Manitoba’s first female Member of the Legislative Assembly took office). There have been 15 female PM Premiers since. In my eight years with the organization, there has only been one female Premier; however, I am optimistic that there will be a number of female Premiers of YPM in the years to come. In my team of five Executives, four of us were women. This upcoming year, for the first time in the YPM’s history, we have an all-woman Executive. Given that our Executive functions by moving people up the ladder every year, it is fairly likely that there will be female Premiers for the foreseeable future.
By contrast, the province of Manitoba has never had a female Premier. In the committee rooms that we use to discuss and debate hang imposing portraits of past Premiers. Men—some with excellent beards, some with piercing eyes, and others somber—stare down at us. Women, Indigenous youth, newcomer youth, and others, join a process that was never intended to include them. How many men in these portraits saw us in this space? How many of them worked to bar us from the Legislature? Simply occupying this space and engaging with each other on policy debates, therefore, is a powerful push against history’s wrongs.
Despite the YPM being a model Parliament and our tasks bearing little resemblance to our “real” counterparts in the offices we hold, I felt a deep sense of responsibility when I was elected. Regardless of the fact that I didn’t fly to Ottawa, nor meet with my cabinet to discuss political crises, I was a custodian of a small but tight-knit community. I was responsible to my team of Executives, and responsible for being the outside spokesperson for our organization.
I hope that my experience is a peek into the future. I hope that sitting in the front row and being called upon as “Madame Premier” has helped normalize female leadership for at least a few attendees. Growing up, I often didn’t see myself reflected in politicians or public figures, but I did feel that it was possible that I could one day hold office. Working in politics, being involved in the YPM, and now studying law has enriched my toolkit as a possible parliamentarian. I hope that one day I can confidently say that all political spaces are as safe for women as the YPM. However, in this moment, this is simply not the case. Even the thought of campaigning and exposing yourself to critiques from the media and Twitter are enough to dissuade people from seeking office. It goes without saying that women, people of colour, and members of other marginalized groups are all the more vulnerable to attacks when running for office.
I hope that the YPM can not only be a model of Parliament, but a model for Parliament. Making politics safer means making it better. It means more perspective, more input, and more democracy. While I wouldn’t have minded staying in that fencing class, it was exhausting. Even warriors need a break.