TORONTO - A battle of the sexes erupted at the Ontario legislature Tuesday after an editorial photo illustration, deemed by many to be derogatory to women, was discovered on the website of Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella.

The photograph posted Monday depicts former Lanark Landowners' Association president Randy Hillier at an Ontario Progressive Conservative barbecue accompanied by Leader John Tory and Conservatives Scott Reid and Lisa MacLeod.

Thought bubbles beside each of the politicians suggest they're not particularly pleased to be sharing a stage with the controversial farm activist. The blurb beside MacLeod, however, suggests she'd rather be "baking cookies'' than standing beside her leader at a campaign event.

"I very much wish I was somewhere else, at this very moment. Baking cookies, perhaps. Oh my,'' reads the caption.

While MacLeod sheepishly admitted her outfit was a little "Betty Crocker,'' she said Kinsella's comments had "crossed the line.''

"What discourages me most is the person who owns the blog is fairly well known in Canadian politics as somebody who is in the inner circle of the Liberal campaigns both federally and provincially and disappointing that that's an attitude that he thinks is OK and that he thinks is acceptable,'' MacLeod said shortly after the photo was removed from the website.

While the Liberals remained quiet, refusing to comment on the matter throughout the day, MacLeod urged Premier Dalton McGuinty to "take a stand'' and articulate his thoughts on the posting.

Kinsella removed the posting around midday, suggesting in an e-mail that his wife didn't find it very funny.

"I unreservedly apologize to anyone who was genuinely offended,'' he said in a subsequent blog posting.

New Democrat Cheri DiNovo said comments like the controversial caption discourage women from getting involved in politics at a time when the very opposite is instrumental.

With one in five female members of the Ontario legislature slated to trade political life for family life come the Oct. 10 election, she said the timing couldn't be worse.

"You look around the halls here and the only portraits that you see are men. The only women represented in the hallowed halls where the public is able to walk are the Queen and Agnes McPhail and yet you have all these portraits of men. What does that say to our children?'' she said.

"Their spin doctor comes out with a cartoon that is blatantly sexist. What does that say to women who are thinking of going into politics?''

Women have to be nominated and encouraged to run for office, and the best apology the Liberals could make would be to get behind a plan to make the next speaker of the Ontario legislature a woman, DiNovo said.

"We've never had a woman speaker in this (legislature). That is a step we can all take in the next (provincial) Parliament to put forward women candidates only and to have a woman speaker,'' she said. "That says a great deal about power in this (legislature), however symbolic.''

Modernizing the assembly and making it more family-friendly so primary caregivers feel they could participate in the political process is a more viable solution, MacLeod said, urging the other parties to make it a priority by including operational reform in their election platforms.

"There's a real substantive need for us to start looking beyond the rhetoric and looking at how we can actually take some real tangible, real result-changing efforts, such as putting daycare on site, shortening sitting hours and actually debating relevant issues in the legislature.''