Michelle Rempel is a 36-year-old Conservative MP, former cabinet minister, rumoured candidate for party leadership, and—if her wildly popular National Post op-ed published Monday titled "Confront Your Sexism" is any indication—Canadian feminist icon.
But while Rempel is a fierce supporter of women in politics, her skilful use of feminist rhetoric should raise more red flags than confetti among those concerned with gender equity.
Identity representation in politics is something voters have responded to positively, evidenced by Justin "this is what a feminist looks like" Trudeau's much-memed quip "because it's 2015" in response to establishing the first-ever gender-balanced federal cabinet.
Those three words put heavy mileage between Trudeau's new Liberal government and Stephen Harper's old tenure. To remain relevant, the Conservatives need to learn how to better play the representation card. Rempel is mastering it, setting herself up as someone who can not only talk the talk, but own the pulpit. In her own words, she knows she needs to be able to "knock Trudeau off his game."
Rempel is a young, brilliant and accomplished woman—and now, more than ever, voters seem to be responsive to her particular attributes. It is no secret she is entertaining the idea of a Conservative leadership bid. Now is her time—if only her workplace wasn't filled with sexist white men who won't shut up about her ass.
Rempel has experienced the ugliness of sexism in a very real way. She faces harassment from fellow MPs and voters alike, noting that these responses deter women from running for office, regardless of political affiliations. Her well-articulated op-ed argues that this "every day sexism" is not women's problem to solve—it's men's. She rains down fire on men who do nothing to support the women in their lives, or address the barriers women face in our culture at large. With shocking anecdotes, she illustrates the abhorrent behaviour present among our male elected representatives on Parliament Hill. To her credit, it's a rather wonderful charring.
In the piece, she also "checks her privilege" and acknowledges that the sexism she experiences is much different from that of, say, a single mother or an immigrant woman. And, in what is a likely first for a Conservative MP, she describes herself as "cisgender," so that's pretty cool. She appears to be making sincere efforts to understand and address these issues, utilizing the rhetoric of feminists and other social justice advocates.
However, to echo her deeply insufferable quoting of Shakespeare, therein lies the rub. She acknowledges the privileges she has without acknowledging that her party has contributed to a culture where she has those privileges at the expense of others. The whole concept of privilege involves an understanding that Canadian society is structured to benefit some members above others—and that structure is largely determined by the laws and economic policies that govern the country. Her effective use of social justice rhetoric masks the fact that she and her party have, in fact, exacerbated gender inequality.
It was only six months ago, before getting demolished by the Liberals, that her party leader Stephen Harper was trying to ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab, not considering maybe these women would have a much chiller time in this country if the prime minister didn't feel compelled to tell them what they could and could not wear during a citizenship ceremony.
At the same time, he was shrugging off the UN's call for an inquiry into the over 1,000 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women because, "Um it, it really isn't high on our radar, to be honest," in addition to refusing to participate in a national debate on women's issues. In 2015, an internal report from Status of Women Canada stated that women have "hit a brick wall" in terms of pay equity and that the country "lacks a national strategy" to address violence against women.
Rempel was first elected in 2011, when Harper led the Conservatives to a majority government. This was after he shut down 12 of the 16 Status of Women offices across the country, drastically altered funding criteria for non-profit groups so they could no longer focus on research and advocacy, resulting in groups like the National Association of Women and Law closing their national office, because who needs to make it easier for sexual assault survivors to navigate the legal system anyways. If I were an aspiring feminist political icon, that's definitely the party I'd sign up for.
Rempel's National Post article isn't the first time she appropriated feminist rhetoric without acknowledging how her party's policies marginalize women. In 2013, she stood up in Parliament and used a consent awareness campaign created by feminists at the University of Calgary (including myself, full disclosure) in support of Bill C-36, ignoring the voices of sex workers, denying their agency and conflating all sex work with sexual assault. When our group responded saying she misrepresented our campaign and our message to promote her party's agenda, she was silent.
Identity politics can only get us so far, evidenced by what we see in the States with the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Sanders is as old as old white men come, yet he has received support from feminists, black and indigenous activists. Why? Because he does more than acknowledge his privilege—he has created his campaign around policies that actually address the root causes of that privilege and seek to eradicate it.
Rempel is a woman who has had to deal with awful levels of sexism on Parliament Hill. Does that mean she will be able to lead her party into a brighter, more equitable future? Maybe if she could change everything about it: its core values, membership base and economic policies. And what is she even doing at a conference where the keynote speaker is Professional Xenophobe Ezra Levant?
Rempel's experiences of sexism are real and valid. Her voice on this particular issue deserves to be heard. But her ability to employ feminist rhetoric so well should be scrutinized carefully, especially as the party looks to find someone who can hold their weight against Trudeau. Right now, Rempel's feminist rhetoric only serves to benefit herself as a fierce and articulate politician, rather than seeking answers to address the root causes of gender inequality.
Follow Emily Leedham on Twitter.