Former Winnipeg mayor Susan Thompson still hoping to see 2nd woman in the job, but prof says obstacles remain

Susan Thompson did not become Winnipeg’s first female mayor because she wanted to break the glass ceiling at city hall — which is a good thing, because 30 years later, that still hasn’t happened.

“Everyone talked about how I broke the glass ceiling,” recalls Thompson, who was mayor from 1992 to 1998. “Well, I obviously didn’t. I think I put a little crack in it.”

Three decades ago this month, Thompson was sworn into office as the 40th mayor of Winnipeg, and the first woman elected to the job. 

“It was a calling — I had a calling,” she says. “It was my destiny.”

She’s disappointed that no other woman has pulled it off since. And on a cool November afternoon, that’s what she wants to talk about.

“There’s a saying: change happens slowly, or by revolution,” Thompson says. “Well, I might be in the mood for a revolution. There needs to be another seismic shift.”

Thompson is sitting in her Winnipeg apartment, on electric pink furniture (inspired, she says, by a magazine article that featured the stylings of Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s sister).

A painted pink metal toolbox sits next to her, holding stickers with one-word messages that inform her rules for life: Faith. Hope. Perseverance. Destiny. (They’re also the themes of the second book that she’s writing about her life.)

Woman with brown hair and glasses, wearing a yellow sweater, sits on a pink and white armchair, and holds a pink metal toolbox on her lap.
Thompson holds her toolbox ‘for life,’ which she says contains words to live by. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Close up of an open pink metal toolbox with white butterfly stickers on the outside. A hand points to individual stickers inside the toolbox that say: Perseverance. Leadership. Faith. Destiny. Hope. Voice. Legacy.
Thompson says she had ‘had a calling’ to become mayor. ‘It was my destiny.’ (Warren Kay/CBC)

Then there’s the small framed sign, with a more revealing insight: “First they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

That resonates with Thompson. From the get-go, her political career has been met with varying levels of ugly. 

There was the time a prominent radio personality asked her who would be her date for her mayoral engagements.

“Do you think he asked that question to [former Winnipeg mayor] Bill Norrie?” she says. “I told him I’d see if Tom Selleck was free.”

There was the time she was sworn into office. As per tradition, she should have been escorted into council by a marching pipe band. But they refused to do it, she says. So she recruited a lone piper.

A woman with brown hair wearing a red suit, smiles broadly as she holds a cetificate declaring her mayor of Winnipeg, while a man wearing a police uniform smiles behind her.
Thompson was sworn into office on Nov. 3, 1992. (CBC)

There was the failed meet-and-greet with council members. She invited them all to lunch — on her own dime, she adds — to articulate their goals. Two refused. “They said it was a bribe,” she says.

She was also told councillors had a secret pact.

“They were going to make my life so miserable that they were going to get me to quit before the end of my first term.”

She didn’t. And three years later, she did it all again, winning a second term in 1995 and completing her reign in 1998.

‘Sad reality’ that barriers remain: prof

No other woman has followed suit — at least, not in Winnipeg.

Elsewhere in the province, there has been some improvement. October’s civic elections saw 22 women elected as heads of council across the province. It’s a record high — but still an abysmal low, says Thompson.

Too many women, she thinks, are disproportionately saddled with too many of the traditional family responsibilities.

Kelly Saunders, an associate professor of political studies and gender and women’s studies at Brandon University, agrees. 

“Susan is absolutely right,” she says. “The sad reality is that here we are years later, and these issues are still at play. The things that were barriers then still remain barriers to this day.”

I don’t blame women who say, ‘Why would I expose myself to that?’– Kelly Saunders, Brandon University associate professor

There’s a new barrier in town, too: the combined rise of social media interaction and the fall of civility.

“A lot of the women don’t want to expose their families and their children to the barrage of criticism on social media,” says Thompson.

And with good reason, says Saunders.

Trolls target anyone in office, but women are particularly susceptible to misogynistic attacks, she says. Sometimes threatening. Sometimes in-person. (Think Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was targeted in August.)

Former Alberta premier Rachel Notley “is still the record holder in the country for the number of threats she received while in office,” Saunders said.

“I don’t blame women who say, ‘Why would I expose myself to that?'”

‘A long way to go’: councillor

Devi Sharma, now a Winnipeg city councillor, met Thompson in 1995, when Sharma was an assistant at city hall. Immediately, she was “truly inspired” by the mayor, she says.

“She paved the way for women like me.”

Now a veteran politician herself (she’s been the councillor for Old Kildonan since 2010), Sharma says she better understands the “old boys’ club” barriers that Thompson had to survive.

“We have a long way to go,” Sharma says. “We need more diverse women voices around the decision-making table.”

A woman with long black hair, wearing a black pant suit and brown, white and black printed shirt, stands behind a wooden podium with a gold metal desk lamp in front of her.
Devi Sharma has been the city councillor for Winnipeg’s Old Kildonan ward since 2010. (Submitted by Devi Sharma)

Saunders concurs.

“Women need access to the networks, and the money to open the doors and level the playing field,” she says. “You need the movers and shakers to make space for women.”

Case in point: Saunders says she’s encouraged by seeing newly elected Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham appoint a female chief of staff, Destiny Watt.

Thompson says she’s been trying that for years, actively urging Winnipeg women to run for office. So far, she’s struck out. But she’s not done trying.

WATCH | An interview with Susan Thompson:

An interview with former Winnipeg mayor Susan Thompson

2 hours ago

Duration 5:20

Winnipeg’s first female mayor, Susan Thompson, shares stories of her experience and why she thinks, 30 years later, Winnipeg still hasn’t elected another woman as mayor.

To mark the 30th anniversary of her election to office, friends and supporters are establishing a University of Winnipeg scholarship fund in her name.

“It’s for women in leadership to be able to attend university,” Thompson says. “Be it a not-for-profit, be it political, I don’t care.… If you feel you’re a woman in leadership, we’re going to help you get your education.”

So far, they’ve raised more than $300,000 toward the fund. 

In the meantime, Thompson has some free advice for any woman who dares to dream about political leadership: Trust your gut. Ignore the naysayers.

“I didn’t belong to any political party, I didn’t have any experience, but I knew it was meant to be. And I never doubted it,” she says.

“My point is, especially to women, if you do get that calling, don’t ignore it.”

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