Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bearded, Women, Leaders

It's been 70 years since a major party leader had a beard, over 110 years since an opposition leader had one.

A century ago facial hair used to be quite common, in Parliament and out. The NDPs selection of the bearded Thomas Mulcair as Leader makes one wonder, if beards can depart in a trend unnoticed from politics, what less obvious and more important characteristics of our representatives have disappeared?

It is not surprising that the last party leader to have a beard was J.S.Woodsworth, founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Woodsworth's beard was reminiscent of Lenin's and no doubt influenced by that great contributor to the socialist ideology.

The last opposition leader to have a beard was Liberal Alexander Mackenzie, he later became Canada's second Prime Minister from 1873-1878.

Other than Woodsworth and an interim leader in 1919 facial hair really faded from the faces of leadership in all parties until Jack Layton reintroduced Canadians to what would shortly become his icon, the mustache.

But for over 70 years mustaches and beards disappeared from the offices of power, with the social influence of fashion no doubt the contributing factor. But as clean-shaven faces began to dominate in the 1940s and indeed even earlier, a trend which no doubt should be one of the most obvious to detect, it has for all intents and purposes gone unnoticed, until now, with the NDP election of Thomas Mulcair.

The inability to perceive the absence of a style, facial hair in this case, is a consequence of fashion. It is not a conscious decision by society to change the popular norms of appearances, including of those in power; but fashion, without reason and direction, merely morphs subtly over time until it is quite different from what it once was. Just as society never consciously agreed to abandon leaders with beards, it is a cautionary note that even the most obvious of attributes can go unknowingly neglected for decades.

The adornment of facial hair may be quite innocuous of a fashion trend, but what about more important features that seem just as subject to the popular whim of fashion, and whose absence is just as ignored, that of women in political leadership roles is but one example.

Beards disappeared unconsciously from the Canadian political landscape for decades without much attention paid, women leaders among other trends are unfortunately just as vulnerable to falling out of fashion. The only females ever to hold the highest positions in their federal parties are few, and can be counted on one hand. The fact that they never gained traction with the public only highlights that more needs to be done to bring gender equality out of the boutiques and into the department stores.

But if anything is to be done, our leaders' appearances and genders must not be made subject to fashion, to that irrational popular whim that pervades our society influencing change undetected. So that by 2082 we won't elect a leader, be they bearded or woman, and be startled to see that we didn't have one for over 70 years.

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