At a time when gender-balanced cabinets are the norm in the House of Commons, it’s difficult to imagine a 52-seat provincial assembly with only one female member.
But that was Alexa McDonough’s reality 40 years ago when she became the first woman to lead a political party in a Canadian legislature.
In his stellar new book Alexa! Changing the Face of Canadian Politics, Stephen Kimber notes the newly minted NDP MLA for Halifax Chebucto faced “unrelenting bullying and harassment from many of her male colleagues.”
What’s more, the chamber didn’t even have washrooms for female members, forcing her to “go through the coatroom and out into the foyer and go through the crowds of people who were lined up waiting to go into the galleries and the other people who were lined up to go into the washroom.”
Although born into privilege and originally involved with the Liberal party, McDonough came from a family deeply rooted in the NDP and its forerunner, the CCF.
She was an early and effective champion for civil rights and, over time, evolved into a passionate and dedicated feminist whose legacy continues to inspire women to get involved in politics.
Kimber deftly balances the personal and political aspects of McDonough’s life to provide a complete picture of a woman who made historic electoral breakthroughs and who led the NDP both provincially and federally.
He also connects the dots to show how McDonough helped set the stage for Darrell Dexter becoming Nova Scotia premier in 2009 and Jack Layton becoming federal opposition leader in 2011.
Published by Goose Lane Editions, Alexa! was commissioned by McDonough’s brother and sons. But Kimber says the family “not only allowed but also encouraged me to go wherever the story led.”
This freedom is evident in the author’s disclosures about the former politician’s personal life, as well as the revelation that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010.
Although excellent and highly recommended, Alexa! does have a couple of shortcomings.
Kimber uses the terms “socialism” and “socialist” interchangeably with “social democracy” and “social democrat.” Some might consider this fair play, but many on the political left will consider it a serious offence.
Also, the account of McDonough’s time in Ottawa would benefit from another perspective. Direct insights from one or more of her caucus mates would have improved this section of the book.
These quibbles notwithstanding, Alexa! is a compelling and well-written portrait of a trailblazing, influential politician.