For Alexa McDonough, being second was a first in Canadian politics

Alexa McDonough might have been amused to see the heated debate that erupted on social media following news of her death over the weekend.

It was all about the trails McDonough laid out for women in political leadership positions in Canada – could the former NDP leader really be described as a “first” in this league?

It may be irrelevant. McDonough’s main achievement, at least nationally, may well be his victory in 1995 as second woman to be elected head of a federal political party. In what was definitely a break from past and still current tradition, New Democrats replaced one woman leader – Audrey McLaughlin – with another, McDonough.

Incredibly, this remains a rare achievement in politics on many levels. “We tried that once” continues to be a reality with women’s political leadership even now, nearly three decades since two of Canada’s major national parties experimented with women in leadership.

Kim Campbell is still the one and only woman elected to the leadership of the federal Conservatives; the federal Liberals have yet to choose a female leader. In the United States, Hillary Clinton’s experience seemed to scare Democrats of another woman leading the 2020 contest and possibly in the future as well.

In short, in the 21st century, the challenge for women is not to get the big jobs, but to keep them there.

This phenomenon is probably at the front of my mind right now because I recently read a critical copy of Kate Graham’s new book, “No Second Chances,” which explores a bizarre reality in Canada.

Here it is: only 13 women have led governments in this country, and none have been re-elected. It’s correct. Not one.

“There are disturbing similarities in their stories,” the book’s cover states. “Women tend to reach the top only in difficult political circumstances; they last in the upper position about half the time that the men do; and, when they run for office, they lose.

Graham’s book, due out this spring, is based on a podcast she hosted, featuring interviews with all 13 – from Campbell to British Columbia’s Christy Clark to Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne. Graham is a former provincial candidate herself, who ran unsuccessfully in London, Ontario in the 2018 election when Wynne was seeking re-election, and later ran to succeed him as leader of the Liberal Party.

I remember being at the 1995 leadership convention in Ottawa when McDonough was chosen and I remember my own surprise that the NDP replaced one woman with another. This was just a few years after the 1993 federal election which featured two female leaders: McLaughlin and Campbell.

The two women-led parties failed to even gain official party status in the Commons – the powerful Tories were reduced to just two seats and the New Democrats won nine. Coincidence? Perhaps, but there was much discussion at the time about whether either party would have fared better under male leaders.

Many women have come forward since McDonough’s passing over the weekend to talk about how she encouraged others to see politics as a world open to them.

Perhaps the best story, however, came from Megan Leslie, the former NDP MP for Halifax, who spoke in CBC’s “Sunday Magazine” about how she went to McDonough for advice after that a colleague made a flippant sexist remark.

McDonough told him to ‘suck it up’ – that’s normal in the hectic world of politics. Many of us who were there in the 1980s and 1990s remember receiving this kind of advice, and maybe even giving it too. This is what happens after you burst into a world as an outsider: you learn the rules, stay silent, and wait for the critical mass of others to make things better.

Leslie recounted how McDonough came to see her much later, after leaving Ottawa, to tell her that she regretted this advice. The progress of women in politics, McDonough realized, does not depend on it being something new, but on changing ideas – even your own ideas – about how the system works.

I like to think that McDonough would be most proud not just of her first place finish, but of what she has represented in terms of succession for female leaders. The objectives have changed since all these “firsts” of the 20th century, moving from women’s access to the highest positions to adapting to their presence.

McDonough helped the NDP break through the “I tried it once” barrier, showing that it is possible for women in top positions to be more than a temporary novelty. In a country that’s still not very good at giving women a second chance at the top spots, that’s a legacy in itself.

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