By Sylvia Bashevkin, YWCA Toronto 2020 Woman of Distinction for Education
Emily Dickinson opened one of her most well-known poems with the lines:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
Written in the 1860s, Dickinson’s verse draws our attention to a storm-tossed bird that refuses to be blown off course. In the persistent fluttering of its tiny wings, she captures the promise of better times.
Perhaps each of us is a metaphoric songbird caught in a gale. We must stay focused on our values and our goals no matter the circumstances.
In August 2020, five months into the pandemic, two historic breakthroughs happened for women in leadership roles. In the United States, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden named Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Toronto MP and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as federal finance minister.
Never before in American history has a Black or Asian woman attained the status Harris reached. Prior to last month, no Canadian woman held the power to deliver a federal budget.
Harris and Freeland also stand out for other reasons. Unlike many other women in public life, they identify themselves as feminists. Both are accomplished professionals, one a lawyer and the other a journalist, who have used their elected positions to highlight discriminatory attitudes and practices. There’s much to be celebrated in their records and many causes for optimism about their future contributions.
But for them to be responsive, citizens like us need to keep our wings in motion, inspired by the hardy warblers in Emily Dickinson’s imagery.
Public leaders this fall face no end of varied and daunting challenges. Minister Freeland faces a divided society that on one side expects the federal government to help people cope with the fallout from COVID-19 and, in other quarters, worries how long public borrowing can continue at this pace. She needs to craft policies that recognize an epidemic of psychological insecurity. Being cut off from regular face-to-face human interaction since March has made many Canadians more anxious and concerned about themselves and the fate of their own small bubbles, and less focused on the larger society and its well-being. Like economic inequality, psychological insecurity has grown over time and erodes the glue that binds democratic societies together.
Freeland needs to be reminded of how this pandemic has specifically marginalized many women and girls. As finance minister, she has the tools to address the consequences of working mothers leaving the paid labour force as businesses close or downsize and childcare options contract. What kinds of supports will her first budget provide to girls in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods, for instance, where clubs, sport teams, and academic mentorships that proved crucial to so many are now shuttered?
These are the kinds of questions Emily Dickinson’s poetry provokes in my mind. Her verse encourages each of us, like the bird in the storm’s fury, to remain steady, afloat and on course.
Sylvia Bashevkin is this year's YWCA Toronto Woman of Distinction in the field of education. Sylvia has been a professor in the University of Toronto's Department of Political Science for nearly 40 years. She is dedicated to promoting women in research and academic leadership.
Image by Giorgio Trovato.