She spoke these words a few times over the course of the evening and – most powerfully – she ended on them. “You have a right to be here.”
Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of Grape Growers of Ontario and long-time local politician was speaking to a room full of women (and a few men) at Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce‘s Women in Niagara (WIN) Council event: WINspirational Women. I had the additional pleasure of sitting beside Debbie’s mother, Pearle Roy, and chatting with her about how strong all of her daughters are.
In 1978, at the age of 21, Debbie Zimmerman, then working as a journalist for the Grimsby Independent, ran for Town Council on a $25 bet. Having spent some time complaining to her colleagues about the hours at the tennis club not being fair to the public, a man she worked with encouraged her to run, because he believed in her; because he believed she could make a difference, and he put a $25 wager on whether or not she would. At the time, she had to seek permission from Henry Burgoyne and was told that she could run, but she had to move to advertising if she was going to stay employed by the paper.
Debbie won the election, even after performing terribly in the debate against her grade 8 principal from Grimsby Secondary School, and fell in love with the opportunity to make changes in the community by bringing people together and sticking to what she believed in. She recalls, though, that on the night of her election win, her father arrived at her home to say, “I’m a little concerned about this. Who’s going to cook dinner for your husband?” Debbie notes that her father was very supportive and expected all of his children, including his girls, to do well, but that he still had an expectation that a domestic role would be fulfilled.
After 11 years on Town Council, Debbie took a run at Regional Council in 1989, going on to become the first woman to hold the position of Regional Chair (after Tim Kenny, then mayor of Thorold, dared her and bet $25 she’d win the seat) from 1997 until 2003. She continued to sit on Regional Council until she opted to take a break from politics in 2014.
Whilst some people she encountered when she first ran in 1978 were critical of how she thought she could get elected, so young and with little experience, Debbie said most people were refreshed by someone new running; they were supportive and enjoyed that someone so young wanted to make a difference. It was when she ran federally that she encountered the real nastiness we hear about in politics.
Debbie ran to represent the federal Liberals in 2004 and learned very quickly how “in your face” and “nasty” politics at this level is. She shared that people “go at the core of you.” She admitted that she wasn’t prepared for the “behind the scenes nastiness.” (Practical Feminist sidebar and blog entry to come: Really, are any of us, ever?)
There is something quite special about a trailblazer sitting down and sharing with a group what she learned about leadership and politics. Debbie shared with us that she wishes she had been tougher and that you do grow a thicker skin by sticking to what you believe in.
When asked what we can do to encourage more women to enter the political arena, Debbie’s advice was simple: “Do it. Get started. Don’t think about the consequences. Just get started.” As women and fellow community members, we need to both learn to support each other and learn where to find that support.
It was when Debbie began to speak about having a right to be there; that you need to shake yourself loose of any feelings of doubt or unworthiness (or the Imposter Syndrome) and embrace it that Pearle, Debbie’s mom, interjected with her own experience with feelings of inadequacy. Pearl shared with us that, for a long time, she thought Debbie’s father was smarter than she was, until the day she realized that wasn’t true. “Maybe women forget that when they’re not sure of themselves, remember these guys sitting beside me don’t know more than I do. In fact, probably not as much.”
In conclusion, I’m not sure if Debbie knows how powerful her words were last night. I’m not sure if she knows that sitting down with us and opening herself up to answering Ruth’s questions so candidly had a significant impact on the women to whom she was speaking.
Like so many of us, Debbie wants to see the best of what women can bring to politics. She is not suggesting (nor are most of us) that women are smarter or otherwise better than men. Instead, what we know is that women bring a different perspective. The conversation changes when women are also at the table. And because that is, in fact, the case, we need to dive in and help each other out, because you don’t get anywhere on your own.
“Don’t give up. You have a right to be here.”