A review of Women Winning Office by Peggy Nash

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Women Winning Office:
An Activist’s Guide to Getting Elected
by Peggy Nash
Between the Lines
May 2022, 282 pages, ISBN 9781771135993

Women Winning Office: An Activist’s Guide to Getting Elected, is a motherly sharing of experience from someone who wants women to succeed in their own unique way.  Growing up in a working class family, Peggy Nash  never imagined  that she would become a strong trade unionist, the president of a Canadian political party (the New Democratic Party -NDP) and a federal Member of Parliament. Now, in Women Winning Office she offers a blend of social criticism, encouragement and information to women who want to follow in her footsteps.

Historically, she notes, society has been led by white males from the worlds of business, law, finance and the professions.  While they may believe they hold progressive views on human rights, they are content with the status quo and its power relationships because it has worked for them.  Nash adds that, too often, women in public office “are interchangeable” with such men.  Just because women are more numerous in legislative bodies nowadays doesn’t mean that they will address inequalities and injustice.

From her first job with an airline, Nash moved on to work for the Canadian Auto Workers, a “male-dominated union with a strong male culture.” There she organized conferences for union members who were women, racialized and/or gender-diverse; protested against free trade and fought for child care and other rights.

Nash is convinced that “It is only on the left that there is forward-looking change.”  She  believes a  movement can effectively pressure those in power to take action.  Early on as an activist, she believed that the worthiness of a cause led to victory, but experience has taught her that being right often doesn’t matter because powerful interests don’t care what’s right.  She sees electoral politics as a route to attaining the power to effect change.

Convinced that a party of the left can retain its principles while in power, she disagrees with those who want the social democratic New Democratic Party to abandon its aspirations to govern and be content as the “voice of conscience” in Canada. Though the New Democratic Party has not yet formed a federal government, (it was the federal official opposition from 2011 to 2015)  it has formed governments from time to time in six Canadian provinces. At the time of writing this review, it is in power in one province and the official opposition in four provinces.

Should a woman run as an independent, or as a candidate for a recognized party?  In Canadian municipal politics, everyone is an independent in theory.  At the provincial and federal levels, most successful candidates have a party affiliation.  Nash acknowledges that independent candidates are free of strong central control and vetting; adherence to policy and discipline, and the nomination process that a party requires.  To her, though, having the party brand and its financial and other support was important.

Nash’s 260 page book has seven sections: Who Gets to Lead?  You are Formidable. Beginning your Campaign.  Getting Your Story Out.  Campaigning. The Election, and Afterwards.   She refers aspiring candidates to excellent interviews and speeches by a number of progressive women who have sought election, such as American Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  While Nash’s experience is with a Parliamentary system of government and especially relevant to other countries who also have the Westminster model, her advice will strike a chord with any woman interested in seeking office.

Nash has included inserts in which women of colour are quoted on particular subjects.  In one, Laura Mae Lindo, an NDP member of the Ontario legislature, tells about being invited to open a school event. On arriving she encountered someone in charge  who didn’t expect the member of the legislature to be Black, and challenged  her right to be there.  Another racialized woman  addresses the notion of “electability”, which has been used as a weapon to exclude women, especially Black and Indigenous women from running. “If you organize and strategize, everybody is electable,” she writes.

As a former party volunteer and member, I was particularly glad to see Ms. Nash address volunteering and fundraising.  She advises candidates to make volunteering a positive educational experience for those they recruit.  A campaign manager should never write off a volunteer as too young or too old. Someone who can’t canvass may be able to do telephone work, for example.  

From time to time, leaders of a riding association have complained to Nash that they can’t get enough volunteers. In her view, often those in charge “want to control everything tightly and won’t let others lay a full role.”  They also “fail to recognize the different perspectives of others” who then get “shut out or shut down” and that it’s time to “open the windows and let in some fresh air.”  My sentiments exactly.

Regarding fundraising, the candidate’s financial officer and team should first approach those who can give the most.  If the team goes back for more, again ask the bigger donors first, rather than the smaller ones who may not be able to afford more. If someone says they’re at their limit, “take them at their word and don’t bother them” says Nash. Yes!

Gender-based violence against women and diversity candidates has always been an obstacle to women running for office, and is worsening as politics become more polarized.  Nash once believed that having more women in public life would reduce such violence, but experience has taught her otherwise. “The stronger you get the more they’re going to threaten you,” she says.  She tells women to take threats seriously and report them to the police, to never canvass alone, especially in apartment buildings, and to avoid accepting invitations to enter peoples’ homes.

“Lead like a woman, and be the change you want,” Nash concludes. “Imagining a better world, a world of economic, environmental and social justice allows us to set our sights on where we want to go.  Getting there is not impossible; it just hasn’t happened yet.

Ruth Latta’s work-in-progress, A Striking Woman,  is inspired by a Canadian woman trade union leader