In September 2021, Iceland almost became the first European country to elect a majority female parliament, having already chosen its first female prime minister in 2009. But with 48 percent of its lawmakers female, Iceland remains the exception rather than the rule. Despite specific affirmative action measures promoted by the European Union, there are still more men than women in the legislatures of all member states, and the average representation of women is just over 30 percent. Only Sweden and Finland, which has a female prime minister of its own, also approach gender parity. As for the United States, although a record number of women were elected to Congress in 2020, they represent just 28 percent of the total.
In this context, Canadian advocates for the greater representation of women in electoral politics may take some consolation from knowing they are not alone. Some may also find several recent developments to be encouraging. The number of women elected to the House of Commons rose from seventy-six in 2011 to 103 ten years later, for example. Women made up 43 percent of the Liberals’ candidates in last year’s election and are 36 percent of the current caucus. Justin Trudeau committed to Canada’s first federal cabinet with gender parity in 2015, and that practice has continued. Today, women occupy the key posts of foreign affairs, defence, and treasury board as well as deputy prime minister and minister of finance.
Nevertheless, the progress made by women — whether greater entry-level access or leadership roles — is considered far too slow and haphazard by many critics. Nearly 70 percent of MPs are still men, for one thing. And the recent percentage increase of women in the Liberal caucus is partly due to a decrease in the total number of seats won by the party. Meanwhile, women made up 52 percent of the New Democrats’ most recent candidate list, but only eleven were elected, compared with fourteen men. The selection of Kim Campbell as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party was loudly trumpeted in 1993, but it led to a short-lived tenure as Canada’s first female prime minister. No woman has subsequently held permanent leadership of either the Conservatives or the Liberals. And though six of the thirteen provincial and territorial first ministers in 2013 were women, that number has now been reduced to two. In short, the success of Canadian women at both the beginning and the apogee of their political careers could be seen as a matter of two steps forward, one step back.
In Women Winning Office: An Activist’s Guide to Getting Elected, Peggy Nash, who served as an MP for two terms and was also president of the NDP, offers a call to arms, urging more women to step up and run. While the New Democrats and Liberals have long provided targeted support to women candidates once nominated, it is only relatively recently that concerted efforts have been made by parties to encourage women to put their names forward in the first place, a far more difficult proposition. (As the veteran Liberal organizer Jeremy Broadhurst once noted, Chrystia Freeland — then a well-known financial journalist — had to be approached three times before finally agreeing to participate in the 2015 federal election.)
This is not a book that analyzes the current gender imbalance in electoral politics, nor does it suggest changes to the system. Rather, it is a practical guide on how to play the game and win under the existing rules, regardless of political persuasion or level of government. In this, it is an unqualified success, full of excellent advice for those unfamiliar with electoral and party politics — a criterion that describes most first-time candidates. Indeed, Nash interviewed many female politicians whose experiences suggest such a guide would have been an invaluable tool when they initially ran. “I was told politics is about image, never about values or the capacity to lead,” Alejandra Bravo, a former candidate for Toronto City Council and federal office, said to Nash. “The advice I got was never around substantive questions of policy or even strategic political advice.”
In her first two sections, Nash specifically addresses the numerous questions and concerns that anyone, frankly, considering running for public office should ask themselves. She also offers up the testimony of various successful municipal, provincial, and federal candidates, who address head‑on the familiar objections to women entering politics. (What about the children? What about my career? Am I too young? Too old? Can I afford this?) These sections can be skipped by political insiders, Nash explains. For them, and for those who make it past the opening chapters, the remainder of the book is a master class in how to conduct a campaign, from recruiting volunteers and raising money to getting out the vote, handling the media, and participating in debates. While it emphasizes the specific challenges often faced by women (no, you don’t need to wear a string of pearls), any man considering a run for public office would also do well to consult this primer, since so much of the process and the pitfalls is universal.
Nash may be less successful with her second objective: encouraging left-wing female activists, in particular, to get involved in electoral politics. By laying out so clearly the many challenges and practical considerations involved in running for office, she may in fact persuade some potential candidates that it is better to continue putting pressure on the system from outside. (Sections on violence against women politicians and the growing polarization of society, for example, may underscore what is already a difficult decision for many.) And while would‑be politicians clearly have a greater chance of making a concrete difference at the municipal level or even the provincial level than in Ottawa, Nash’s own career offers little evidence that being elected as a third-party candidate will mean significant opportunity to change the system from within.
For women who do rise to the challenge and succeed in getting elected, upward mobility is hardly guaranteed. Real power is found at the highest echelons of the political milieu; not all members will find themselves on the government benches, and very few backbenchers become ministers. Even fewer will ever reach the rarified rank of leader, and only the leader of a winning party can become the head of a government at either the provincial or the federal level.
Given the slim chances women face, Kate Graham’s recent collection of interviews provides a rare opportunity to hear from twelve exceptional politicians first-hand. As an unsuccessful provincial Liberal candidate and leadership contestant herself, Graham is only too familiar with the challenges.
Graham teaches political science at Western University, in London, Ontario, and No Second Chances: Women and Political Power in Canada arose from a series of podcasts she did in 2020. The book includes the complete text of her interviews with the former first ministers Kim Campbell, Eva Aariak, Catherine Callbeck, Christy Clark, Caroline Cochrane, Nellie Cournoyea, Pat Duncan, Kathy Dunderdale, Pauline Marois, Rachel Notley, Alison Redford, and Kathleen Wynne, who share their recollections and perspectives on important events during their tenures. As such, it makes a significant contribution to the historical record.
But Graham is on less solid ground when she attempts to cast a broad theoretical net over the experiences of her subjects by claiming they offer proof — or at least overwhelming evidence — for her theory that, unlike men, women who successfully lead political parties to power in Canada receive no “second chance” at electoral victory. “Canadians re‑elect incumbents all the time — except when it comes to female first ministers,” she writes. “In fact, as of 2021, Canadians have never re-elected a female first minister.” In her view, the so‑called glass cliff hypothesis — which argues that women are more likely to be selected as leaders in the first place when the party in question is in the wilderness and has little hope of winning office — explains her claim. Women in these situations are set up to fail.
Few would question the existence of the glass cliff, but many of the women Graham interviewed do not fit this scenario. More importantly, there are numerous other factors involved in the defeat of each of them, belying not only Graham’s assertion that women leaders in Canada are not given a second chance to govern but also her claim that gender bias is at the root of their failure. At a minimum, more research is needed to make the case.
Gender alone cannot explain the defeat of several of these women, and in some instances it may well be insignificant. Take, for example, Campbell’s experience nearly thirty years ago. The University of Ottawa political scientist Geneviève Tellier has carefully shown that the glass cliff phenomenon may have been a factor in her selection. But it was hardly the only reason for her demise. In fact, the hype that followed her ascent in 1993 as the first woman leader of the Progressive Conservatives — and the positive media coverage that portrayed her as an exciting new option compared with the Liberals’ “yesterday’s man,” Jean Chrétien — led to encouraging public opinion polls that appeared to give the party a real chance at re-election. Certainly no one expected the Tories to be reduced to two seats. Nor can one ignore the role that Campbell herself played in the humiliating defeat, from refusing to be prepped for the televised leaders’ debates (a mistake from which the Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff should have learned years later but did not) to her memorable declaration that an election was not the time to spar over policy.
At the provincial level, there are almost no similarities between the situations in which Callbeck, Marois, Clark, and Notley found themselves or the reasons for their defeats. While Notley may or may not have been selected as Alberta’s NDP leader because everyone believed the party had no hope of winning, she did turn the situation around almost single-handedly. Moreover, her government’s subsequent loss could hardly be blamed on gender bias when it was her party’s initial victory in the province’s conservative heartland that was the real anomaly. As the prominent NDP pundit Ian Capstick observed in one post-election interview, no one could have saved the New Democrats in 2019. As for Graham’s argument that women on average govern for less time than their male counterparts, one could simply note that four of Christy Clark’s five male predecessors in Victoria were in office for much shorter periods than she was.
Some of the possible culprits identified by Graham for gender bias are also problematic. The University of Calgary scholar Lisa Young concluded in an extensive 2006 study that neither a negative bias on the part of the electorate nor the system of political financing could be blamed for the failure of women to make greater gains in Canada. Instead, Young pointed to the actions or inaction of political parties (notably of the various iterations of Conservatives since 1993) as well as the decline of organized feminism as more significant factors.
Time frame must also be considered an important factor in the progress of women in electoral politics in Canada. Both Young’s study and Graham’s interviews reflect the situation as it once was. At the municipal level, women remain badly under-represented, holding barely one-fifth of mayoralty posts, but the increase in female cabinet representation at the federal level and in several provinces over the past few years has been significant. Will the greater presence of women in positions of power on the government side of the aisle also translate into a greater number of women in leadership roles? Certainly, the underlying premise of both of these books — that the continued under-representation of women in electoral politics at all levels comes with a cost to society — is one that bears repeating.