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Is there (still) a gender gap in politics? – University of California



“A few years ago I took my children on a tour of the state Capitol building. My daughter was very interested in the art — the woodwork, the decorative tiles, and the paintings. After viewing the gallery of governor portraits, she turned to me and asked, ‘Where are all the girls?’”

Bernadette Austin, associate director of the University of California, Davis, Center for Regional Change, studies regional issues and demographics in California, and told this story in a recent newsletter to stakeholders.


“We know that representation matters,” she wrote. “When we see people like ourselves in positions of leadership, it signals that someone who shares our history and worldview is making decisions that reflect our interests and values.”

California, as Austin’s daughter observed, has never had a woman governor, although nationwide, 44 women have served or serve as governors of U.S. states, with a handful having served as governors of U.S. territories. Nine women currently serve as governor of a state.

Persistent gender gap over most of half century

As the 2020 elections draw near, an all-time record of six women ran for president on the Democratic ticket. One candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, dropped out in late fall 2019. Some might call that number — which tripled the previous record — a victory for women’s representation in politics.

Not so fast.

While women have made great strides in entering the workforce, running companies and getting elected to Congress, there has remained a persistent gender gap in politics over the past 40 years, according to Xiaoling Shu, a UC Davis professor of sociology who studies this phenomenon.

The facts about women in political office:

  • U.S. House of Representatives: 102; or 23 percent
  • Senate: 25, or 25 percent
  • Heads of state: About 24 women at any given time
  • Women remain less than a third of all elected officials in the nation in 2019 (Source: Rutgers)

Shu’s latest research shows those attitudes have changed slightly since 2016, when the U.S. electorate nominated the first woman ever to a major political party, Hillary Clinton. She ran against Donald Trump for president and won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, but ultimately lost in the Electoral College, which cost her the election.

The 2020 Presidential Election

As of February 2019, six women had formally announced their candidacy for president:

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York)
  • Sen. Kamala Harris* (D-California)
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota)
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts)
  • Marianne Williamson

This is the first time in history that more than two women competed in the same major party’s presidential primary process. (Source: Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers)

*Harris dropped out of the race as this story was being written. Read UC Davis research about how Harris’ support may transfer to other candidates.

“Of all (gender) attitudes analyzed,” said Shu and her co-author of a recent paper, Kelsey D. Meagher, also of UC Davis, “Americans hold the most liberal attitudes toward women in politics, with no gender gap and little educational difference on this issue.” Their findings were published in May 2019 by the American Sociological Association. Women and men agree that both sexes are equally suited emotionally for politics, according to the survey the researchers used — General Social Survey of 57,000 people — but the period between 2016-18 saw a larger increase among women than men in supporting for women in politics.

“Women’s support for women in politics jumped between 2016 and 2018 after two decades of minimal growth,” Shu said.

Public polls tell a similar story. In 2018, a Pew Research Center study found that 61 percent of Americans felt positive about more women running for office in 2018. The number of people voicing support for women in politics was higher than in previous Pew surveys. There was little consensus, however, in these surveys, as to whether more women in politics would bring change to policy and politics, and even less agreement on whether women were being elected in larger numbers for a reason, such as the #MeToo movement, President Trump, or because Hillary Clinton was almost elected.

In recent decades, women in the United States have cast ballots in elections at higher numbers than men.

In the 2016 general election, 63 percent of the citizen voting-age population of women in the U.S. turned out to vote in the 2016 general election compared to 59.3 percent of that population for men, according to Mindy Romero, a UC Davis alumna who is founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at University of Southern California. She researches political behavior and race and ethnicity in voting for the university’s Sol Price School of Public Policy in Sacramento.

A hundred years of voting

Still, 100 years after women got the right to vote by amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women make up more than half the population, yet account for less than one-third of all elected officials at city, state and national levels combined.

Women in Congress

Women in Congress chart

Women have increased their representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the Senate, in recent years. Today’s House of Representatives has 126 women, which amounts to 23.6 percent of seats. In the Senate, there are 25 women, accounting for a quarter of the seats. The 116th Congress was the first to include Native American and Muslim women.
Credit: Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University

The share of candidates who are women varies by office type. Whereas women make up 42 percent of all school board candidates, they are only 27 percent of all city council candidates, according to research co-written by UC Davis assistant professor Rachel Bernhard. She is a political science researcher who focuses on gender, class and race in politics.

An even smaller share of mayoral candidates are women, coming in at 21 percent, researchers said.

“One thing we really see in this study is that women are doing great — but mostly in offices where people assume they are qualified due to their gender, like school board races.” — Rachel Bernhard

“When the stereotype is that women aren’t qualified — mostly in executive offices like mayors — they do worse than male candidates, even though they have more government experience,” Bernhard added.

There are tremendous challenges to achieving parity, echoes a nationwide study, “Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond,” from Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics.

For instance, women of color made historic gains in the 2018 election, but remain far behind Caucasian women and certainly behind Caucasian men, who dominate politics. Moreover, gains for women in the 2018 election were concentrated among Democratic women at every level of office, while the number of Republican women in office fell short of previous highs, according to Rutgers researchers.

“Achieving gender parity among candidates and officeholders will be unlikely without Republican women,” the Rutgers researchers said.

“The Republican Party’s reaction to women’s losses in 2018 and recruitment efforts in 2020 will serve as one indicator of whether the party serves as a gateway or gatekeeper to Republican women’s candidacy and officeholding.”

Women’s rights and suffrage

Despite the persisting political gap in officeholders, American women have a long history of fighting for their rights in politics. The United States was a “pioneer in the development of women’s rights, ideas and activism,” wrote Ellen Carol DuBois, UCLA professor of history emerita, in “Women’s Rights, Suffrage, and Citizenship, 1789-1920.” This is the 20th chapter in The Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History, edited by UC Davis historians Lisa Materson and Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor.

“Nothing about the history of women’s rights, especially women’s political rights on a national level, reflected the automatic workings of American democracy,” DuBois continued. Instead, she wrote, it was women who were determined to have an equal place in the nation’s political affairs, who pushed long and hard, who were able to achieve anything. It took more than a half century of steady political effort.

Women played an active role in the republic being established as 13 colonies broke free of British rule. They persevered, for example, in rejecting imported fabric in favor of the cloth they made at their wheels and looms. They formed “daughters of liberty” clubs to match the “sons.” One of the first histories of the American Revolution was written by a woman, Mercy Otis Warren, of Boston. Some even fought along with soldiers, in addition to nursing, cooking, washing, and raising money for them. But, DuBois documented, they went unrecognized as being part of the polity.

Abigail Adams in 1776 famously admonished her husband, in her letters, to “remember the ladies,” in the “new code of laws” governing the United States.

She pointed out to John Adams and other members of the Continental Congress as they prepared to declare independence from Great Britain that the harsh English laws governing marriage could make husbands “tyrants” over their economically dependent wives. Yet those laws stood.

A Progressive turn, and California

Life magazine voting cover
Women have increased their representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the Senate, in recent years. Today’s House of Representatives has 126 women, which amounts to 23.6 percent of seats. In the Senate, there are 25 women, accounting for a quarter of the seats. The 116th Congress was the first to include Native American and Muslim women.
Courtesy, Special Collections, UC Davis Library

By 1912, Progressives formed a third political party, taking some of those in the Republican party and women supporters with them. But many black women remained loyal to the party of Lincoln. As with most third parties in history, much of its growth split the votes, both literally, with the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and figuratively, through party loyalties to women’s suffrage and other issues.

“In California, by contrast, a 1911 referendum stimulated by the rise of Progressivism narrowly succeeded in enfranchising the state’s one million women,” wrote DuBois. A network of women activists formed clubs, unions and suffrage societies and organized what would now be seen as a typical campaign using pictures, telephones and modern graphic design to promote “votes for women” rather than the old-fashioned “suffrage.” They printed leaflets in Spanish for Latino voters and supported labor reforms.

By 1915, 10 states, all west of the Mississippi, had revised their constitutions to enfranchise women. It was clear, wrote DuBois, that the only way to get all women the vote was through an amendment to the federal Constitution.

By 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote only applied to the states, so Puerto Rican women and Filipinas would organize separately, which didn’t succeed fully until more than a decade later.

The continuing gender gap in voting

On the whole, women lean significantly more Democratic than men, often by 10 percentage points, said Romero. In California, that gap is even wider. Among women, notably, married women lean slightly more Republican than single women.

In surveys, women consistently cite the economy, health care and education as crucial issues that determine how they vote — rating them more highly than men do. As a group, women often find themselves more affected by economic declines. They vote issues that affect their economic vulnerability and are more likely to prefer an active government that produces a stronger social safety net — a key difference in viewpoint separating Republican and Democratic party platforms, Romero said.

“Race is a key contributor to the huge gender gap in our diverse state,” Romero said.

“Female voters of color, led by California’s significant Latina population, are driving the gender difference in voting. And both California’s already large proportions of single women and women of color are on the rise.” — Mindy Romero

Women and the black vote

Young black woman at a voting booth
A black woman votes in a recent election. Black women have played an integral role as active voters in the United States.
Credit: UC Davis/Getty Images

Despite the large gap that remains for women of color in politics, black women also had an important part of grassroots politics even before they had the right to vote, and it is this strong tradition dating back to Reconstruction that helped pave the way to propel Barack Obama into the presidency. These are the findings of UC Davis historian Lisa Materson, author of the 2009 book For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932.

Materson, associate professor of history, illustrates in her book that as African American women migrated beyond the reach of southern white supremacists, they became active voters, canvassers, suffragists, campaigners and lobbyists. They mobilized, gaining a voice in national party politics and electing representatives who would push for the enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments in the South. When black men got the right to vote in 1870, black women, though disfranchised, helped them to remain informed and vote for causes important to their communities.

Obama’s national victories, she wrote in a blog as he entered his second term as president, emerged out of the specific historical context of Chicago politics and black women’s political activism.

“That the nation’s first African American president holds deep political ties to Chicago is no coincidence because Chicago has long been a key historical site of black political power in the U.S.” — Lisa Materson

The gender difference in voter turnout continues today, and is greater for blacks than the general population or whites, noted Romero, of USC. African American women have had much higher turnout than their male counterparts in every election during the past two decades. In 2016, Romero said, African American women voter turnout was 9 percent higher than for African American men. This marked the largest difference in black voter turnout since 1996.

Historically, achieving the vote came in stages

Women voting in the early 20th century
The first women vote in a general election in California.
Courtesy California State Library

“Women in Illinois acquired voting rights in three stages: suffrage for school officials in 1891, expanded suffrage for many municipal and federal offices in 1913, and the full franchise in 1920,” wrote Materson in the introduction to her book. It was similar in other states, with women getting pieces of voting rights a little at a time before the enactment of the 19th Amendment.

Between 1915 and 1928, black voters in Chicago helped to put more black men into office than any other American city, including a black Congressman, Oscar DePriest, said Materson. His 1928 victory made him the first black American to serve in Congress since 1901. Black men continued to win in Chicago, and Obama was no exception. He lost one election, but won a seat in the U.S. Senate that made him the nation’s fifth black senator, giving him national recognition and eventually, the presidency.

Women candidates and the ‘double bind’

Scholars are looking at how women candidates are viewed differently than men, particularly in media coverage. Erin C. Cassese, associate professor of political science at University of Delaware, is among many researchers looking at the “double bind” — or the need for candidates to embody a particular mix of both masculine and feminine traits in order to appear palatable to American voters. “The double bind was a challenge for Hillary Clinton’s candidacies in 2008 and 2016, and we will evaluate how it manifests in 2020,” she said in an analysis published by Rutgers.

At this writing, Elizabeth Warren was a frontrunner among Democratic challengers to President Trump. Christine Jahnke, a nationally recognized speech coach and author based in Washington, D.C., and founder of Positive Communications, said Warren has a style that differs from her male counterparts in the election.

“Warren is continuously redefining what leadership looks and sounds like. It’s exciting how she energized huge crowds with policy solutions, not bombastic rhetoric,” Jahnke wrote in the Rutgers analysis.

“Warren calls out corruption while speaking empathetically for those who’ve lost the most. And voters are listening.”

Amber Boydstun, associate professor of political science at UC Davis and a specialist on elections and media said it remains to be seen if Warren will continue to energize the electorate. “We’ll need to wait and see whether voters’ enthusiasm for Warren is enough to break through the double-bind barrier.”

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Dozens arrested in Hong Kong on Tiananmen crackdown anniversary



Police in Hong Kong have detained dozens of people on charges of “breaching public peace”, including a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers and a man who held a candle, during a crackdown on commemorations of the anniversary of the bloodshed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Restrictions in Hong Kong have stifled what were once the largest vigils marking the anniversary of the bloody crackdown by Chinese troops on pro-democracy demonstrators, leaving cities like Taipei, London, New York and Berlin to keep the memory of June 4, 1989, alive.

Near Victoria Park on Sunday night, the previous site of yearly vigils, hundreds of police conducted stop and search operations, and deployed armoured vehicles and police vans.

Police took away more than a dozen people at the scene, according to the Reuters news agency, including activist Alexandra Wong, 67, who carried a bouquet of flowers, a man who held a copy of “35th of May”, a play on the Tiananmen crackdown, and an elderly man standing alone on a street corner with a candle.


“The regime wants you to forget, but you can’t forget… It [China] wants to whitewash all history,” said Chris To, 51, who visited the park in a black T-shirt and was searched by police.

“We need to use our bodies and word of mouth to tell others what happened.”

In a statement, police said 11 men and 12 women aged between 20 and 74 were detained on suspicion of “breaching the public peace at the scene”.

A further four people had been arrested on Saturday for “seditious” acts and “disorderly conduct”, and four more on suspicion of breaching the peace.

‘Shameful campaign’

Discussion of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square – when China’s Communist Party sent in troops and tanks to quash peaceful protests – is highly sensitive for Chinese authorities and commemoration is forbidden on the mainland.

Hundreds – by some estimates, more than 1,000 – were killed.

Commemorations of the event have also become increasingly off-limits in Hong Kong since China imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, effectively barring anyone from holding memorial events.

After the enactment of the security law, Tiananmen-related visual spectacles, including statues at universities, were also removed. Three leaders of the group that used to organise the vigil were charged with subversion under the law. The group itself was disbanded in 2021 after being informed by police that it was under investigation for working on behalf of foreign groups, an accusation the group denied.

Most recently, books featuring the event have been pulled from public library shelves.

Ahead of the anniversary, senior officials in Hong Kong warned people to abide by the national security law but refused to clarify if commemoration activities were illegal under the legislation. Authorities also tightened security across Hong Kong, deploying as many as 6,000 police, including riot and anti-terrorism officers, according to local media.

Following Sunday’s arrests, the office of United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said in a tweet that it was “alarmed by reports of detentions” in Hong Kong and called for the “release of anyone detained for exercising freedom of expression & peaceful assembly”.

Amnesty International also condemned the detentions, saying the use of colonial-era sedition charges against activists and the persistence of non-conforming voices “lays bare the futility of the authorities’ attempts to enforce silence and obedience”.

It added: “The Hong Kong government’s shameful campaign to stop people marking this anniversary mirrors the censorship of the Chinese central government and is an insult to those killed in the Tiananmen crackdown.”

Despite the anniversary crackdown, some Hong Kong individuals and businesses quietly marked June 4.

A shop gave away candles, while a bookstore displayed Tiananmen Square archival material. Jailed Hong Kong activist Chow Hang-tung, one of the leaders of a group called The Alliance, which used to organise the June 4 vigils, said on Facebook that she would hold a 34-hour hunger strike.

‘Clear conclusion’

In Beijing, meanwhile, Tiananmen Square was thronged with tourists taking pictures under the watchful eyes of police and other personnel but with no obvious sign of stepped-up security.

Ahead of the anniversary, a group of mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen crackdown sought redress and issued a statement renewing their call for “truth, compensation and accountability”.

“Though 34 years have passed, for us, family members of those killed, the pain of losing our loved ones in that one night has tormented us to this day,” the group said in a statement released by the New York-based watchdog Human Rights in China.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning, when asked about the government’s response to events around the world to mark the anniversary, said in Beijing on Friday that the government had already come to a “clear conclusion about the political turmoil in the late 1980s”.

In democratically-governed Taiwan, the last remaining part of the Chinese-speaking world where the anniversary can be marked freely, hundreds attended a memorial at Taipei’s Liberty Square where a “Pillar of Shame” statue was displayed.

Kacey Wong, an artist who is among dozens of Hong Kong residents who have moved to Taiwan, said more than 30 years of commemorating the 1989 protests had made it a part of life.

[“Detained” below]

Wong said an artist friend, Sanmu Chen, had been detained along with others while attempting to stage a public street performance in Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.

“So, it’s all engrained in our subconscious that we should care and practise our sympathy towards other people who are yearning for democracy and freedom,” Wong said.

Taiwan Vice President William Lai, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate in next January’s election, wrote on his Facebook page that the memory of what happened in Beijing in 1989 must be preserved.

“The event commemorating June 4 has continued to be held in Taipei, which shows that democracy and authoritarianism are the biggest differences between Taiwan and China,” he said.

Vigils were also held around the world, from Japan to Australia, with people standing with candles next to images of the brutal crackdown.

In Sydney, dozens of demonstrators rallied at the Town Hall, chanting “Free Hong Kong”, while holding up yellow umbrellas, the symbol of pro-democracy protests since 2014, and placards.

And in London, before marching to the Chinese embassy, protesters staged a re-enactment featuring a blow-up tank and women dressed in white, emulating a statue to liberty set up on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A 59-year-old poet from China’s Sichuan province told the AFP news agency at the Trafalgar Square rally that his family fled soon after the Tiananmen crackdown.

“Chinese people in my generation know what happened but the younger ones, not really,” said the man, who declined to be named for fear of Chinese reprisals.

“Their parents, their grandparents, need to keep up the knowledge and we all need to remember at events overseas like this.”



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Trudeau continues to stand by David Johnston despite calls for him to step down



Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is committed to keeping David Johnston in place as Canada’s special rapporteur on foreign interference, despite a majority of MPs voting to call on him to resign.

Trudeau said in Toronto Friday that he looks forward to public hearings the former governor general is expected to hold “across the country” over the coming months before he releases a final report by the end of October.

“He is taking very seriously this question and he is digging into the facts,” Trudeau said.

The House of Commons passed an NDP motion earlier this week, with the support of Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs, that urged Johnston to step aside and asked the government to call a public inquiry.


Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in Winnipeg today that Johnston has to go but wouldn’t name a potential replacement.

“All the parties in the House of Commons should come together and agree on someone who is not partisan, not connected to any party leader and who has a track record of objectivity, preferably as a judge,” he said.

Poilievre has criticized the special rapporteur role as a “fake job” and questioned Johnston’s ability to objectively scrutinize the Liberal government’s handling of alleged foreign meddling because of his ties to the Trudeau family.

David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, arrives to present his first report in Ottawa on May 23, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Poilievre is refusing to review a classified portion of Johnston’s initial report into foreign interference, saying it would prevent him from publicly criticizing the federal government on the subject.

Johnston has defended his integrity and downplayed his connections to the prime minister, saying this week he intends to stay on in his role.

“When I accepted the mandate to act as independent special rapporteur, I did so with full knowledge of the fact that the work ahead would be neither straightforward nor uncontroversial,” Johnston said in a media statement earlier this week.

“I deeply respect the right of the House of Commons to express its opinion about my work going forward, but my mandate comes the government. I have a duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed.”

Trudeau accused Poilievre and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet of letting political arguments and political attacks get in the way of facts.

“They have refused to get security briefings on the actual facts surrounding the intelligence and the question of foreign interference, because they want to continue to smear a man of unimpeachable integrity and deep commitment and service to Canada,” Trudeau said.



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From power to powerless: The high costs of a political life



Life after public office is not always a stream of plum assignments. Dealing with defeat can be devastating

Current Liberal House Leader Mark Holland has spent nearly his entire career in politics except for one four-year gap after losing a close race in the 2011 federal election. That loss was so crushing he attempted to take his own life.

“I volunteered and lived in my community my entire life,” Holland told the National Post. “You put your heart and soul on the line, and when you lose, it’s hard not to take it personally. You feel personally rejected, and that’s really hard to get over. You feel like your neighbours and the people you’ve been working alongside forever have suddenly rejected you.”


Holland told the story of that loss last October while testifying before the procedure and House affairs committee. He made the shocking public admission of his suicide attempt in front of his peers.

“Because I had thrown my entire universe into this enterprise at the expense of unfortunately a lot of other things I should have taken better care of, I was in a really desperate spot,” Holland said during his testimony.

“I was told I was toxic, Conservatives hated me, no organization would want to hire me. My marriage failed, my space with my children was not in a good place, and most particularly, my passion, the thing I had believed so ardently in and was the purpose of my life was in ashes at my feet.”

Attempting to end his life served as the “genesis” of Holland seeing his life differently and “reframing the choices” he faced.

When Bill Morneau resigned as Finance Minister in 2020 he went on to a fellowship at Yale, joined CIBC’s board of directors and wrote a book released earlier this year. Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney landed at Calgary law firm Bennett Jones. While many Canadians assume life after politics is a stream of board appointments and plum assignments, it isn’t always an easy landing. Being an elected official is a unique profession as the job’s singlemost important qualification is appealing to people and garnering the most votes on election night. Being defeated can be a devastating blow to one’s self worth.

You put your heart and soul on the line, and when you lose, it’s hard not to take it personally

Mark Holland

Holland told the National Post that being a politician in an all-encompassing career, and having it suddenly taken away was traumatic. “It’s so much part of your identity, that it takes a while to get over,” he said.

Léo Duguay, who until 1988 represented the Winnipeg-area riding of Saint Boniface-Saint Vital for the Progressive Conservatives, said that Holland’s experience is not uncommon among former MPs transitioning to private life after politics.

“Some were very lucky, I was one of them. Some people right away find a job and something they like, and they’re good,” he said.

“Some people never expected to lose — so there’s that shock of people you thought were your friends and supported you and voted for you, to find that a whole bunch of people didn’t vote for you, and you’re out.”

Leo Duguay (left) with Don Mazankowski and Jim Prentice in 2010.
Leo Duguay (left) with Don Mazankowski and Jim Prentice in 2010. Photo by Postmedia

Dugay, who has served as president of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, said depression and suicidal thoughts aren’t unheard of among their ranks. “For the people who lose, and even those who planned their loss, the shock is much greater than they thought,” he said.

Tiziana Casciaro, a professor of organizational behaviour at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said “transitional trauma” is a very real phenomenon, rooted in the gain and sudden loss of power. “It’s a basic need that we all have, to feel that we are in control, to some extent, of our existence, that we can influence the world around us,” she said.

“When you’re in politics and voted into office, you’re given control over resources that many value, and therefore you become important in their eyes.”

Losing an election, she said, is a blow like nothing else in the corporate world. “A position in a corporate or business environment is accomplished through the work you do,” she explained, saying that your continued employment in most jobs is based on your perceived value.

“You don’t have to put your name out there in front of thousands or millions of people — depending on the scope of the election — and be judged by them. In a sense, you’re much more vulnerable.”

Some have no idea how to look for a job, because they’ve never done that

Léo Duguay

While MPs who’ve accumulated at least six years of service qualify for a government pension, Dugay said about 40 per cent of former parliamentarians aren’t eligible. In nearly all cases, MPs who resign or are voted out are eligible for a one-time severance allowance of 50 per cent of their annual salary, as well as access to transitional benefits including education funding.

“We’ve found people who didn’t say a word and went back to their communities, and five months later are unemployed — they don’t know what to do,” Dugay said. “Some have no idea how to look for a job, because they’ve never done that.”

For Sue Barnes, who represented London-West for the Liberals for 15 years, the realities of her narrow October 2008 election-night loss hit fast.

“One of the things that affected me immediately was going from masses of emails and your calendar being filled every weekend with events … because somebody’s replaced you,” she recalled.

Sue Barnes, left, shakes hands in London, Ont.
Former Liberal MP Sue Barnes (left) in London, Ont.

Barnes said she experienced feelings of grief over her loss for at least a year. “Not for the job, but what it meant to me,” she explained. “The connection to people working hard and solving problems —I really missed the intellectual stimulation of the job.”

People don’t know what to say to you — it’s very socially isolating

Holland, who lost by less than 3,300 votes to Conservative candidate Chris Alexander in the 2011 election, had similar recollections.

“You move from your calendar and phone constantly being filled to suddenly all of that being displaced and being completely silent,” he said. “You realize how voracious this life is, how much it takes over so many elements of your life, and you’re left to fill those back in.

He also found that after leaving office some people just avoided him. “It’s not that people don’t like you anymore, it’s just awkward,” he said. “People don’t know what to say to you — it’s very socially isolating.”

Casciaro, who co-authored a book on the topic titled Power for All, said serving at the will of the people — and suddenly having those same people take your power away — can impact one’s sense of self-worth.

“You lose that, and you lose at the same time two of the most basic things that any human being really has — protection from harm and the uncertainty of life, and you feel like you’re at the whims of the world and this notion that you don’t matter as much because you aren’t in control of things that are highly consequential for a lot of people.”

While Holland would eventually run again and win in 2015, he spent much of his four-year hiatus rebuilding his life.

“When you do this work, as a member of Parliament, there’s no plan B,” he said. “It is all-consuming, you give every inch of yourself, you don’t have time to plan what you would do if you were to lose — you can’t go into an election thinking you might lose.”

Barnes, who was a lawyer before politics, had to face the realities of being an unemployed 56-year-old looking for a new line of work. “I was 15 years out-of-date,” she said about the possibility of restarting her law practice.

She recognizes that her pension-eligible years of service left her in a better spot financially than others, which she credits with giving her some options.

“I loved the work, but I was exhausted by it,” she said. “It catches up to you after a while.”

If you’re thinking about suicide or are worried about a friend or loved one, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1.833.456.4566 toll free or connect via text at 45645, from 4 p.m. to midnight ET. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.


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