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Answering the call: Advice for women thinking about running for public office

It is often said that women are reluctant to run for office unless or until they are asked. That was not the case for Chender.

Colourful and artistic image of a woman's face

“We need more women in politics” has become a louder refrain since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The data suggest women are taking this mandate to heart – not only in the U.S., where record numbers of women will run in the upcoming midterm elections, but in Canada, where organizations like Equal Voice are holding workshops and leading campaigns to encourage more women to run for elected office.

Claudia Chender is one woman who answered the call. A lawyer and graduate of UVic Law, Chender is the New Democratic Party (NDP) member of the legislative assembly for the Nova Scotia riding of Dartmouth South, where I live. She was elected last spring.

I sat down with her to talk about her first year in politics and get some advice for women thinking about making the leap. (Full disclosure: I canvassed for Chender a couple of times during the campaign.) Here is what I learned.


1. Don’t wait to be asked.

It is often said that women are reluctant to run for office unless or until they are asked. That was not the case for Chender. “It’s not popular to say this,” she says, “but it’s definitely something that I always thought I might do…and it was really a matter of timing.”

There were several sparks: Chender’s constitutional law professor, Andrew Petter (former attorney general of B.C.), encouraged his students to consider elected politics, and she developed “a desire to have an impact in that way.”

“Change is made by people who are passionate about making it.”

In politics, luck can also play a part. The incumbent member of the legislative assembly in Dartmouth South resigned the day after the 2016 U.S. election – and Chender saw an opportunity. She was also acquainted with Susan Leblanc, who had recently won the NDP nomination in the neighbouring riding. When they met for coffee, Leblanc mentioned that her party was actively looking for a candidate in Dartmouth South. Chender said she would consider it.

“We often have this idea that we need a certain qualification, or we need a certain job, or we need a certain role or a certain amount of knowledge. But I don’t think that’s true,” Chender says. “Change is made by people who are passionate about making it.”


2. The personal is political.

The feminist mantra that the personal is political is certainly true here. Five of seven members of Nova Scotia’s NDP caucus are women, several of whom have young children. This situation has helped Chender “navigate the logistics” of political life knowing that in caucus, “there is that shared experience and understanding.”

As education critic, Chender draws on her personal experience as a volunteer and parent in the public school system. During the recent overhaul of Nova Scotia’s education legislation, she was a vocal advocate for a system that is “humane and compassionate and works for everyone in it.” But she says humility, cooperation and being a voice for constituents are more important to her than achieving a certain outcome.


3. “It’s always been done that way” is not an answer

Tradition is a big part of politics in Nova Scotia, which has the oldest responsible government in North America. “We are in a building every day that’s 200 years old and where things have been done pretty much the same way that whole time,” Chender notes. But having more women in the House means calling certain traditions into question.

Take the House sitting rules, which are in force while the legislature is in session. The government often moves to extend hours on short notice, which can require early mornings, late nights and sometimes all-nighters. Chender points to other legislatures that impose a deadline after which the government cannot call for extended hours as a possible solution to minimize last-minute disruptions to legislators’ schedules.

The #MeToo movement has also strengthened calls for structural change. The movement hit Nova Scotia politics earlier this year when Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie resigned after an independent investigation implicated him in sexual harassment. Chender challenges the misconception that #MeToo is just about rooting out “a few bad apples.”

“We actually have to completely reformulate the social contract between men and women,” she says.


4. Having more women in politics is good. Having more progressive women is even better.

If we want to increase the number of women in politics, do their actual politics matter? For Chender, the answer is yes: progressive women in politics can have a more positive impact, whether as advocates for more resources for local hospitals or by proposing legislation on parental leave for municipal councillors.

She notes that Nova Scotia has a record number of women from all parties in the legislature right now. “That changes the tenor of the place,” she says. “It really does. There is a way that things work better when there are more women around.”