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women in politics

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

As the head of a homeless shelter in Thunder Bay, Patty Hajdu worked in an environment that was volatile and violent.

A confident, intelligent woman, Ms. Hajdu said she learned not to be afraid, how to protect herself and keep her staff safe. And she loved every minute of it.

When it came to running for federal office last year, however, Ms. Hajdu was terrified to ask people in her community to back her political ambition, describing "an intense fear" of fundraising made especially onerous given that the long campaign meant candidates could raise as much as $200,000.

"I think there is probably a gender difference there," Ms. Hajdu said in a recent interview. "I didn't have trouble asking people to donate to the homeless shelter – that was always just fine. But to ask people to donate money so that I could win an election felt really awkward."

The 49-year-old rookie politician, whose surname is pronounced "High-dew," said she worked through her fear, finding three experienced fundraisers in her community who helped her.

Not only did she win her Thunder Bay-Superior North riding in the October election, Justin Trudeau appointed her Minister for the Status of Women.

She is no stranger to struggle.

As a youngster, she and her brother were sent from Montreal to Minnesota to live with her aunt and uncle because her mother could not care for them. She credits them with instilling in her the importance of an education.

Eight years later, her mom – who moved to Thunder Bay to be near her children – was back on her feet, with a job driving a school bus, and brought them back to Canada.

Ms. Hajdu did not have a relationship with her biological father.

As a single mother herself, Ms. Hajdu raised two sons as she studied at university. She and her sons' father were not suited for each other, and were together for only about five years, she said.

She was the first person in her family to earn a university degree. "I always knew that education was going to be the game changer for me, and then … for my children," she said. "Both my aunt and my mother are incredibly intelligent. They just didn't have the opportunity for education for a whole bunch of reasons, probably mainly economic."

Ms. Hajdu's brother, who served in the military, died at the age of 34 of a congenital heart defect. He was homeless. "He really struggled," she said. "He didn't have a very good education. I think he had some learning disabilities and he just wasn't able to ever settle."

She tells her sons to "put one foot in front of the other."

Clearly, they listened – one is studying journalism, and the other is a welder.

And Ms. Hajdu earned an MA in public administration, and became executive director of Shelter House Thunder Bay, a busy facility that employed 80 people.

But she was becoming frustrated with the lack of co-ordinated effort at the federal level in addressing issues around social housing, mental health and education. So, when a nurse practitioner she worked with, Tannice Fletcher-Stackhouse, urged her to run federally, Ms. Hajdu jumped in.

"She always gets stuff done. … She was a single mom and she raised two boys on her own, and grew up poor – that actually made her a stronger person," Ms. Fletcher-Stackhouse said.

So far, this is what Ms. Hajdu has learned from her experience as a woman in politics: "I learned that there are very few of us."

She said her portfolio involves a lot of work on gender-based analysis.

The Auditor-General has criticized governments for not following through on plans to study the different effects that policies, programs and laws have on women and men.

Politics, Ms. Hajdu said, is still a "rich man's game," and for women, the idea of raising the money to be involved is daunting. She said the party put a lot of emphasis on fundraising ability at candidate schools.

Grace Lore, a PhD candidate focusing on women in politics, agrees fundraising is an issue. "To the extent that women are making 77 or 81 cents on the dollar … then women have fewer of their own resources going into politics. But, there is more to it than that: Women often follow different career paths into politics."

Ms. Lore points to Ms. Hajdu as an example. She came from the social-services sector, which does not pay huge salaries – she earned $85,000 a year.

"Not only is your income different, your networks are different," she said. "You aren't coming from business or law, and so the people you know don't have the same amount of resources to support you."