The following is an excerpt from former NDP MP Peggy Nash’s new book, Women Winning Office: An Activist’s Guide to Getting Elected, a practical handbook for activist women on how to open doors and take their place in the political process. Women Winning Office was published in May 2022 by Between the Lines.
“I started whispering to some people I knew, saying I would like to run one day. Politics is all about timing. So I had built this core team of three friends who were supportive of this idea and wanted to be part of new politics in Canada. When the nomination opportunity opened up in Toronto Centre in 2013, Bob Rae had stepped down, I was actually in Russia with the Girls 20 Summit, and they were messaging me saying, “Did you see this news? Bob Rae is stepping down. We think you should jump in. We don’t know how competitive it is for the NDP, but there’s a moment here.” And I’m in Russia on a train going, “oh my gosh, is it now? What do I do?” I think it’s really important that you do have a team, even if it’s a couple people who encourage you to make that first leap because it’s very scary. There are so many unknowns. It requires resources you probably don’t have. The timing is never ideal.”
—Jennifer Hollett, federal candidate, Ontario
Never the perfect time
There is never a perfect time. If you wait for just the right time to take on a leadership role, time may pass you by. Don’t listen to the naysayers who proclaim that “people just aren’t ready to elect a trans woman in this area yet” or “I’m not racist, but you know how people can be around here.”
When I ran for federal NDP leader, I was told more than once that the time wasn’t right for a woman. Women had been elected NDP leader twice before, and some people said, “it didn’t work out.” Because the NDP was the federal Official Opposition when I ran for leader after the death of Jack Layton, and the party just might still win power, they believed it was time for a man to step up. This narrow mindedness from people in the party I was representing just increased my determination. Their limitations were not going to define me, and they should not define you.
However, be wary of people who say, “just go for it,” because it’s your life, and there are real consequences to running for office. Being an ambitious woman who is a public figure in a competitive and sometimes confrontational race can be a difficult adjustment. It can be disruptive for the career path you are already on, which may or may not be a good thing. It can be challenging for relationships with family and friends. There may be financial considerations for you. As a candidate you are a public figure, which takes some getting used to. So how do you decide? When is the timing right for you?
Just the right age
From young students to activist seniors and all in between, movements are an opportunity for us all. I’ve heard many say somewhat paternalistically “keep at it and maybe one day you too can be a leader.” Don’t be deterred if you want to act now. There are many notable young leaders, from environmental activist Greta Thunberg to courageous Pakistani Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Some people get elected at a young age and are re-elected because they are effective. Youth is no barrier to leadership.
My advice is wait for no one. Young activists can inspire thousands and even millions. I have seen student leaders at X (soon to be renamed) University, where I teach in Toronto, who are not waiting for permission to show leadership. They are challenging colonialism, fighting racism, struggling for better labour standards, and they are part of grassroots struggles for climate justice. What I see is a refreshing impatience for change and a belief that they can create a better world. Many young activists see that they are receiving a legacy of inequality and environmental degradation that they will be expected to deal with.
Young women are sometimes dismissed as not serious, too attractive, or too inexperienced. But there are women breaking these stereotypes. Social democrat Sanna Marin became prime minister of Finland at age 34, becoming the country’s youngest ever head of state. She is the third woman to lead Finland and now most of her cabinet members are women.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at age 29 was the youngest person ever elected to the US Congress in 2019 when she defeated a ten-term incumbent in a huge upset for the Democratic Party.
What about old age? Joe Biden was elected US president at age 78, and Nelson Mandela was first elected president of South Africa at age 76. While not without discussion, their advanced age was clearly not a barrier. Sometimes women can do this too, although older women are sometimes dismissed as unattractive, weak, inconsequential. A longtime Conservative MP once told MP and former NDP leader Alexa McDonough, then in her sixties, to “stick to her knitting” during an election campaign, a comment he likely would not have made to an older male MP.
Nancy Pelosi, a rare exception, has at age 80 been re-elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives. And there are many older activists who refuse to give up. I, too, have felt, as an older woman, the assumption that I would just fade away. The sexist message is: who wants to see, let alone hear from, an older woman. Men can also face ageism but, as usual, there is a gendered aspect that is dismissive, paternalistic, and infuriating.
Pelosi aside, age considerations in politics can be particularly gendered. Young men right out of school, men in their 70s who have retired from successful careers, men with infants, school-aged children, teens, all are considered fine as candidates. In fact, we don’t usually even ask about men’s personal life. We just assume that whatever personal considerations he has, someone is looking after things for him.
Our lives as women, in contrast, are often a source of great interest and speculation. Prime child-bearing years for women are precisely the time when people start to move up in their careers. If we are limited during this time, it’s likely to be hard to catch up.
When Jacinda Ardern was running in a general election as leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party, she was repeatedly asked if she intended to have children, and if so, how could she devote herself to the job of running the country.
Ardern’s answer to the media was that if she chose to get pregnant that was her private business. She then became the world’s youngest female head of government at age 37 and later became the world’s second elected head of government to give birth while in office. Her partner took time off to care for the infant when Ardern returned to work. A subsequent article about her had the headline: “Honey, hold the baby. I’ve got a country to run.”
She’s an inspiring leadership role model to many, as an engaging leader who speaks frankly of the challenges of parenthood. Ardern has garnered plaudits around the world for her handling of COVID-19 and for her response to the terrible Christchurch Mosque massacre. She showed great empathy with the affected families and community members, and she acted quickly to pass tough gun laws.
There are now many women who have given birth in office and nursed babies in parliament. While there is still much work remaining in establishing supports for new parents, especially childcare provisions, the situation is improving.
The only question is: When is the right time for you? Leading an organization or running for and winning office is very time consuming. You need to be motivated and energized. If it will tear you apart to run when you are pregnant or have your kids at home, then don’t do it. But know that it can be done and done successfully. Yes, sometimes there is guilt when you can’t be in two places at once. It’s a terrible feeling, but a couple of missed family events won’t destroy your children or your partner. You can manage to keep strong family ties when elected. Likely you won’t be starting a time-consuming hobby. Save that for another period in your life, but you can choose how to use your time in a satisfying and productive way.
I’ve heard people say “Oh, I can’t run right now, because I have to get a Masters first.” Or “I can’t run until I achieve X, Y and zed.” This notion that there’s a particular standard CV or life experience, your biography, that counts above others in politics is a number one operating impediment to running… I was 32 with two kids, told I was too young, too left, too Latina. Progressive councillors gave me the advice to get a makeover, gain thirty pounds, so you have more credibility, wear high heels when you canvass. I was told politics is about image, never about values or the capacity to lead. The advice I got was never around substantive questions of policy or even strategic political advice. Unfortunately, you have to have a high tolerance for unfair scrutiny of areas of yourself that have nothing to do with your political capacity.
—Alejandra Bravo, Toronto City Council and federal candidate
Working and running for office
Can you take time off? Can you afford to take time off to run for office? Running an election campaign can take months of work. If you have an employer who is flexible with your hours and you would face no repercussion from running for election, then you’re in a great situation. If your employer wants you to stick to your job full time, then you are going to need to be prepared to work evenings and weekends on your campaign. Some high-profile people won’t announce their candidature till late in the game so that they can keep their current positions. This can be risky, but they are counting on their high profile to win them votes.
Be prepared for any outcome: If you run for office, you need to be prepared for any outcome. If you run expecting to win and you don’t, you might find yourself looking for a job. Women who are already in the public eye, for example in the media, sometimes cannot return to their previous position because they ran for office. They are told they need to be seen as impartial as well as to be impartial.
Conversely, if you run only to be a name on a ballot and suddenly your party has an upswing and you are swept into office, a win can derail other career plans.
In 2011 in the NDP surge of the Orange Wave, many candidates were elected who never expected to win. Students had to set aside academia; people left jobs they were happy with. One candidate, Ruth Ellen Brosseau was a single parent, a student, and part-time bartender. Long before the election she had planned a trip to Las Vegas and went on her holiday during the campaign. When the NDP swept most of Quebec in the 2011 election, she was elected to represent a francophone riding, while speaking very little French.
I remember the day of our first caucus meeting after that election. We were in a beautifully decorated huge room in Centre Block of the House of Commons. It was so different from the tiny meeting room in the basement where we had gathered the last time I was elected. A massive painting of the Fathers of Confederation loomed over us. There was a striking contrast with the “Fathers” and our caucus members, since almost half of our MPs were now women, many quite young, some were Black, Indigenous, many francophones. It was thrilling.
I took a seat waiting for things to start and when the doors opened to let the media in to get some photos and footage of our new group of MPs, an overwhelming crush of reporters with cameras and microphones came flooding to where I was sitting. Then I realized I was next to Ruth Ellen. She handled the bombardment of questions with grace. The media and pundits tried to make her election a joke and called her “Vegas.” Little did they know that the voters in Berthier—Maskinongé, Quebec, were not going to be pushed around. Their votes were not a joke for the entertainment of the media. They rallied around Ruth Ellen, and she reciprocated by quickly becoming proficient in French, and she dedicated herself to the people she was elected to represent. When many New Democrats lost in 2015, as the Trudeau Liberals pole-vaulted from third to first place, Brosseau was re-elected to her seat and just narrowly lost in 2019 when the BQ surged in Quebec. Running for election unexpectedly changed Brosseau’s life, and she excelled with the opportunity.
Consequences, win or lose: Whatever your current career path, whether your work is precarious, or if you are an academic on tenure track, if you’ve just lost your job, or you are about to make partner in a law firm, or you’re involved in a big research project, or you’ve just been elected head of a community organization—whatever it is, think about your career priorities and the consequences whether you win or lose if you run for office. This is a personal decision only you can make. There is not just one right time to run.
“Real life” can be the priority: If a parent is dying, if a child is seriously struggling with mental health, if your partner just lost their job, these are real life factors to consider. I raise these situations, not to discourage you, because I know people who kept their sanity during these lifechanging challenges by being in public life. But if for you the timing is not great, there’s no harm in waiting for another chance. Sometimes real life is the priority.
Your finances: If you can, get your life in order before you run. While local election campaigns, unlike in the US, have reasonable spending limits, you should consider the financial implications. If you have a massive student debt, or just took out a big mortgage and can’t afford to take time off work, think carefully about your plans. Unfortunately, the massive burden of student debt today in Canada can take decades to pay. This debt shouldn’t deny you democratic participation.
But do consider your finances. You will fundraise most of the money you need for your campaign from others, but you do have some expenses. Some parties will reimburse you for your incidental expenditures like meals, childcare, and transportation. But if you want to buy new outfits and shoes for the campaign you might end up having to cover that.
We need more elected representatives who understand what it’s like to live paycheque to paycheque, to worry about the rent, having a cheque bounce, or not be able to pay off debt. These representatives might make decisions more in line with the everyday needs of the people they represent. But do think about the personal pressure that places on you.
Know that life goes on: Life goes on, even during an election. The first federal election I ran in was on my birthday. We had worked our hearts out and the polls were looking good in our favour. The election had been my focus for months but the last few weeks I was ultra focused like a border collie chasing a ball. Election night was heartbreaking; we didn’t win.
A few months later I was driving on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A police car behind me put the flashers on and pulled me over. It was impossible to be speeding. My infraction? My licence sticker had expired on my birthday, election day. I had been so engrossed in the campaign I had let it slip by. Fortunately, I got away with a warning. I had let a lot of my life slip while I was focused on the campaign.
Prepay, prebook, organize: Do your best to get your life in a semblance of order. You don’t want financial insecurity nagging you if you can help it. If you can, prepay bills so they don’t get forgotten. Plan for childcare or parental care ahead of time. In a campaign you will be busy, and the rest of life seems to take a back seat.
Organizing a team of personal supporters is how many candidates do best in a campaign. These are friends who will do daycare runs, prepare a meal or pick up dry cleaning for you. This village of supporters can also be a circle of support when the going gets tough in a campaign. If you are a non-traditional candidate you need your posse around you during the campaign. After all, you are running for those like you whose voices have too long been ignored. Collectively you can win.
The political landscape
As well as considering the time of your life, career, and personal circumstances, you also need to consider the local and broader political context. Strong indications of a good time to run are:
- a vulnerable incumbent where you plan to run
- solid issues for you to run on
- a community that will be with you
- your party’s leader is performing well
- your party is up in the polls
- your opposition party’s leader is losing support
These trends, though, are often hard to know in advance. Governments tend to have a shelf life of two or three terms. After that people may be looking for a change. Sometimes you can catch a wave of change to get elected. Sometimes you can win by bucking the trend because of your profile and hard work. The key is to get a good sense of the politics in your area and provincially or nationally. If it looks like your party is winning nationally, more people will vote for you.
It may seem that all the odds are against you, but you want to run anyway. As outlined in chapter 5, “Activism in Movements or Electoral Politics, or Both,” you can run for a variety of reasons, not just to win. Perhaps you want to run provincially to build support and name recognition, but your real goal is city council or the federal seat. Perhaps you want the chance to speak about universal childcare in meetings in your area and in the media. There are many valid reasons for running. Just remember, whether or not you intend to win, sometimes you do. Politics and elections can be unpredictable.
Don’t wait to be asked
Make a clear-eyed decision about when the time is right for you. Don’t sit back, waiting to be asked. Even leftist parties don’t necessarily understand or recognize the power of non-traditional candidates. Your hard work and dedication won’t automatically be rewarded. People may think you’re doing such a great job they want to keep you where you are. Hardworking but modest women are often seen as dedicated, unselfish, and unambitious. Waiting to be asked gives away your power to someone else. Use your passion for the issues you care about to fuel your desire to speak up.
Women are often asked several times to run for a position before they decide to go for it, whereas men will step forward and run without being asked. There are many good reasons for not running, but sometimes they are excuses for not wanting to step into the limelight. Unless you go after what you want you might get overlooked. Your shyness can turn to resentment if you don’t act.
You decide: Early in my political career, when I needed to make a significant decision, my first campaign manager told me to talk it over with the most important person in my life, do a final gut check, and then to let them know the answer. Solid advice that guided me over many hurdles.
Ultimately, you are the one to make the final decision based on your own circumstances. Only you know your innermost feelings, your relationships, the stability of your life and your finances, your history, your goals, and your comfort level. Do your research, think about your life, speak with your loved ones, check your gut.
But the thing is, we’re taking the voice we had in the old world, and we’re just screaming it louder in this liminal [or transitional] space that’s been created by the pandemic. It’s like, you know that game—with your kids, when you press against each other, and the other person jumps out of the way, and you fall on your face? There is nothing in our way right now… So if we just sort of go flying to the abyss it’s a waste of our energy. So it is coming up with some strategies, now that we have all this room and voice. How are we going to use it? What are we going to say with it, that isn’t shouting at the wall, or at the man. It’s not to say the wall and the man aren’t there, it’s just that their power has greatly diminished in liminal times.
—Andrea Reimer, City Councillor (2008–2018), Vancouver, BC
Peggy Nash is a former NDP Member of Parliament for the Parkdale–High Park riding and has served as the Official Opposition Critic in the portfolios of Finance and Industry. Before her first election in 2006, she was a senior labour negotiator with the Canadian Auto Workers (now UNIFOR), in the auto, transportation and service sectors. Nash is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, a board member of the Broadbent Institute and a frequent media commentator and international speaker on politics, women’s rights and democratic engagement.