Contesting an election with two female party leaders

SmithSince the election of Alberta's first female party leader in October 2009, many have wondered if the province's politics were beginning to shift.

Danielle Smith was a young journalist challenging the governing Progressive Conservative party for not being conservative enough. Her gender was a novelty in leadership, but her conservative views were not. While her fiscal conservatism appealed to old-style conservatives, her libertarianism and support for abortion perplexed social conservatives. The popularity of the Wildrose Alliance Party soared, partly due to Smith's leadership skills, and partly to her opponent's lack of them.

RedfordAlison Redford has re-energized the PC party.
Photo by: Steve Waldner
Two years later, another woman took the helm of an Alberta political party, or perhaps more accurately a political dynasty. Alison Redford, former justice minister and attorney general, pulled out a surprise victory against more establishment candidates. As the new leader of the governing party, her transformative potential is significantly greater than Smith's. Her leadership campaign has energized supporters, many of whom were inspired to participate in politics for the first time. She won back defectors to the Wildrose Alliance, and has cut into support for the Liberals.

As these new leaders prepare to square off in a province-wide election campaign, it's interesting to speculate whether gender will have an impact. One of the more obvious differences is female voter support. Alison Redford has moved many women to new levels of political engagement, and has wooed female supporters from other parties to the PCs. Their numbers, and their energy will add momentum to Redford's campaign. Voter turnout may increase among women who are more motivated to cast their ballot in support of Redford's new vision and against the Wildrose Alliance's bid for increased legislative presence.SmithDanielle Smith has low support among women voters.
Photo courtesy of Dave Cournoyer/ Creative Commons

By contrast, recent polls show Danielle Smith's support among women voters is low. This isn't surprising. Studies have long traced a 'gender gap' across the political spectrum. Women are less likely to support, or become candidates for right-wing parties. Those women who belong to right-wing parties tend to diverge from the party line on issues like public safety, healthcare, and education. Some women will vote Wildrose Alliance because its leader is a woman, but more will not because of the policies associated with the party. Socially-conservative women may not support Smith because of her position on abortion, and if they can't bring themselves to vote for another party, they may simply stay home on election day.

Lori WilliamsPhoto by: Derek Mange

Gender can also be associated with differences in leadership styles. For example, women tend to be more collaborative and consultative, and more willing to compromise. There has been evidence of this within the parties led by Redford and Smith, but the competition for seats during an election works against compromise between parties. Opposition parties have been hammering the government in the current legislative sitting in an attempt to counter renewed Tory strength. In the contest for the party's leadership Redford respectfully disagreed with her opponents, and invited them to work with her after she won. It will be much tougher to take the high road against opponents fighting for their political lives. Despite the inevitable remarks about competition between women, these leaders are likely to focus more on issues and policies, and less on personalities. It will be fascinating to observe an election contested by two female leaders, its impact on the character of the campaign, and on voter engagement.

Lori Williams is an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University.

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