Inspiring a girl to vote

By Leslie Campbell, May 2013

History lessons do make a difference.

Back in the 1970s, during the second wave of the women’s movement, I often felt angry as the blinders came off, exposing the injustices of the patriarchal culture I lived in. But I also recall sweet pleasure in discovering my foremothers. I devoured books and articles about women in history, both Canadian and otherwise. I went to see Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Table.” I even bought and restored Nellie McClung’s house in Winnipeg. Those inspiring history lessons had a profound influence on me: I ended up teaching women’s studies, then starting a women’s magazine. And, as you’ve likely noticed, they ignited in me a keen interest in politics and democracy. In other words, they made me, if I can be so bold, a good citizen.

So I get it that knowing our history and having role models is crucial to both women and the broader society. And I assumed that over the last few decades women would have found their way into the history books so that everyone could benefit from those lessons. There’s certainly no lack of dramatic stories and interesting characters in women’s history.

Yet, Sandy Mayzell, a woman who’s made it her mission to turn young women on to politics, says those history lessons still aren’t happening, at least not in any consistent way. And the result is apathy: “When I go into the classrooms, I’m struck by how oblivious and apathetic most students are about politics, particularly the crucial and challenging role of women in politics.”

This is not a good thing for democracy. A disengaged citizenry leads to poor governance. “We need all voices present to get good decision-making,” says Mayzell. According to her research only one in four Canadian politicians are women (we’re tied with Australia at 39th, just behind Mexico, Iraq and Sudan).

Mayzell has been working diligently, bringing her considerable enthusiasm and skill set (past program manager of BC Arts Festival, filmmaker, actor, speaking coach), to bear, free of charge, to turn things around. Her project is called “Dancing with the Octopus: Women and Politics in Canada and Beyond.” It’s multimedia and non-partisan, with a goal “to encourage conversation about women’s involvement in politics—to get our voices heard and our needs reflected in government policy, and to encourage equal partnership with men.” The second goal, she says, “is to address youth apathy; I believe that it’s critical to engage young women and girls to think about leadership and political participation by providing role models and sharing stories.” To these ends, she’s produced numerous short video interviews with Canadian politicians, including Elizabeth May, Carolyn Bennett, Denise Savoie, Leona Aglukkaq, and others.

Most recently she’s been concentrating on one “tentacle” of the Octopus (there are eight): “Dancing Backwards: Let’s Get Canada’s Political Women into History.” She’s already launched the pilot program involving students in four Victoria schools—in grades 5, 8 and 11—where she does lively presentations about the contributions of Canadian historical women. Over ensuing classes, students choose one politically influential woman from Canada’s past, and tell her story using poetry, video, skit, puppet show, graphic story, narrated dance, etc. These are filmed, with the strongest ones posted on the Dancing Backwards website. 

Mayzell is gathering and creating other materials for teachers to work with. She says teachers are keen to include women in their Canadian history curriculum, but are often overtaxed; so they need easily accessible, good resources at their finger tips—or a nearby online library such as Mayzell is creating. 

Mayzell has now worked with about 100 students and reports transformational results: “It’s amazing to observe how quickly their attitudes flip from apathy to enthusiasm and curiosity, when students see video clips of political women in action.”

As for the historical information she imparts, she says, “The students are shocked that someone had to fight for their rights as women, to fight for them to be recognized as persons. It’s fantastic to see their eyes light up and go whoa!” 

At the beginning of each presentation, Mayzell always asks: Who plans to vote? Virtually no one puts their hand up. But at the end, when asked again, all hands go up. “There’s excitement, there’s an understanding that they count. And for me that’s worth a billion dollars!” says Mayzell.

She feels there’s a hunger for this type of content and the personal storytelling form of presentation (particularly in the wired age). Describing the first time she did her presentation—to 55 grade 8 students on a Friday afternoon—she says: “Do you know, I could hear a pin drop for almost the full two hours. It was unbelievable.”

Despite her energy and passion, Mayzell knows she can’t do it all on her own. She wants to train others to do presentations. She’s looking into interns from university education departments and theatre schools, but also foresees a role for boomers who want to do something positive and fun. “I think we can deal with serious subjects in an entertaining way, with humour and even elegance,” says Mayzell.

“If we want to ensure democracy, we need to reengage our young people,” says Mayzell. “Young women need to learn that they count, their vote counts and there is a place for girls in every conversation and political arena.”

Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. For more information and videos see www.dancingwiththeoctopus.com. There’s a fundraising campaign which runs till May 11 at www.indiegogo.com. P.S. Don’t forget to vote on May 14.