Peter MacKay's wife doesn't help his - or our - cause
Jun 27, 2014

Peter MacKay's wife doesn't help his - or our - cause

The latest flap over sexist comments from Justice Minister Peter Mackay came about when a Mother's Day and Father's Day emails from Peter Mackay to his staff were leaked to the media. The comparison isn't pretty: put side by side it makes it seems like mothers should be applauded for doing housework like changing diapers and making dinners while fathers are praised for moulding, guiding and influencing their children. Sigh.

That the comparison is clearly sexist shouldn't exactly be controversial to most readers of this blog, but the blame game is a little less straight forward. Let's get a few things out of the way first before I get into why I am not impressed with Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay's - Peter Mackay's wife - spirited defence of him.

I don't actually blame Peter Mackay that much for approving these messages, and I don't blame the apparently female staffer who originally wrote them. If someone showed either of them to me in isolation - or together but a month apart - I might not have noticed either. In isolation, the Mother's day message is a perfectly fine applause line for managing the tricky work-life balance that being a parent can demand. Maybe Peter Mackay is a huge sexist, I don't know, but not noticing it in these emails hardly proves it.

What they do demonstrate quite poignantly, however, is just how pervasive our societal views of gender roles, particularly with respect to parenting, really are. The association between mothers changing diapers and making dinners - and fathers with building character and positive influences - is very strong. There is both a descriptive asymmetry - women do indeed do a higher share of the housework on average - and a normative one - society tacitly promotes these gendered roles.

The fact that I feel I - a self styled progressive feminist male - could have easily written these letters is a problem. One sits down to think of some laudable traits of mothers and because it is so latent within society, it is natural to immediately jump to changing diapers and making dinners. When it is pointed out it is easy to see the problem, but because the problem is so embedded in our societal views, it doesn't stand out. I once read a study on academic reference letters that showed how when giving references for male students, professors would speak to their academic qualities like intelligence and work ethic, but for female students would speak instead more towards their social qualities such as being a friendly person. Nobody is actively trying to be a sexist, but these prevailing societal attitudes filter into our actions. I don't for a moment think you or I - and certainly not Peter Mackay - are immune to this.

Where I am going to bring criticism on Peter Mackay - and his wife in her open letter - is not in the action, but in the response. Or, more correctly, in the failure to seize the opportunity and say something positive and instead pushing the issue - for it is, truly, an issue - under the rug as part of an overblown media controversy. While I think the prevalence of these attitudes is so strong in society that people can be forgiven for repeating societal memes without thinking, when we are called to think on them because of such a controversy, the opportunity should be taken to identify, condemn, and attempt to rectify these same societal attitudes.

Nazanin's main point is that Peter Mackay isn't a sexist, and is actually a stand up guy and that the criticisms of him are either made up or overblown. She starts to lose me a bit with the "anti-Conservative media" big, but by and large it is a well written defence of her main point. However, what it doesn't bother to do - as Peter Mackay himself didn't do - is take this opportunity which is sticking out like a sore thumb to speak to our perceptions of gender roles, of how they pervade society and find themselves trickling into, say, Mother's and Father's day emails. Neither lays out the case for why the emails are indeed problematic, and the underlying problems in society that they symbolize.

Had either of them done that, then we wouldn't be having a debate over whether Peter Mackay is or is not a sexist. We would be applauding him for tackling a difficult and important subject.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Anonymous said...

She apparently referred to MacKay as being brought up in a single mom family. As far as I know, and Rosie Barton also said this on CBC, this was incorrect. Elmer MacKay was his dad. Not only was Elmer around his son, he was also a Minister in Mulroney's cabinet. Schreiber, who was Mulroney's generous "friend", was even a better friend of Elmer MacKay, and had talked about arranging for Peter MacKay to spend some time in Europe to get his training/work experience (documented in Stevie Cameron's book "On the Take" about the Mulroney days).

I think she also opened another potential can of worms when she attacked the media and the Bar Society for misrepresenting what her husband had said. It will be worse if the audio gets released and shows that she was wrong

If it is true that she had got it wrong about her husband's upbringing, she probably does not know as much about her husband as she thinks she does. Which would raise valid questions about her spirited defence of her husband's character, eh? LOL

Elipsis said...

I don't know who those people are.

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