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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.

With the nickname "Vegas girl," Ruth Ellen Brosseau was something of a joke on Parliament Hill in the days after the 2011 general election, and it seemed her prospects for success were few.

She was the NDP candidate who famously went to Las Vegas to celebrate her 27th birthday in the midst of the election campaign – and then became part of the May vote's so-called "orange wave," in which the NDP increased its seat count from one to 59 in Quebec.

The single mother, who at the time was the assistant manager of a Carleton University bar, had never stepped foot in Berthier-Maskinongé, the Quebec riding for which she was suddenly the MP. Her French was rusty, she had no political experience, and had visited the Parliament buildings only on a school trip.

Overnight, Ms. Brosseau became the subject of intense media scrutiny. She was mocked – the attractive single mother was an easy target – and portrayed as someone not fit to be an MP. She was so much of a distraction that some people in the party wanted to cut her loose.

Today, Ms. Brosseau is the NDP agriculture critic – her riding has dairy and chicken farms – and vice-chair of caucus. She is bilingual, and a sought-after speaker on political organization.

Ms. Brosseau says she learned how to be an MP from Thomas Mulcair, who also represents a Quebec riding. She met with Mr. Mulcair, then the deputy leader, immediately after the 2011 election and he introduced her to mayors and other officials in her riding. She also studied French, and her first question in the Commons was in French.

She believes she has finally shaken off that demeaning nickname. "The girl from Vegas; the bartender; the anglophone in a francophone riding – but [now] she does speak really good French and she knows her issues. I think we are past that."

Last October, she was among only 16 New Democrat MPs in Quebec to be re-elected – and she got more votes than in 2011.

Kathleen Monk, a public affairs consultant, was the party's strategic communications director when Ms. Brosseau was first elected. She says Jack Layton, the party leader at the time, was determined to support Ms. Brosseau and asked her to "fix" the controversy, and help Ms. Brosseau deal with the media and other issues.

"Everybody had counted her out," Ms. Monk recalls. She says the media attention led to "some of the most ugly experiences" she has ever had with the national press gallery.

Reporters were clamouring to speak to Ms. Brosseau, but she made her constituents her priority. "The parliamentary press gallery … were doing everything to get her kicked out of caucus … in terms of the narrative that was being created around her," Ms. Monk says. "The criticism and lens that was being placed on her background as a single mother, a bartender, and the inference that comes with the work of a bartender."

They decided Ms. Brosseau would skip the national media in favour of the local paper in her riding, where she thanked her constituents for their support. When she did not fulfill any of the dire predictions about how she would perform, the media attention died down.

Ms. Brosseau and others elected in the orange wave did not have it easy in the House of Commons, either. Laurin Liu was 20 years old, and one of the McGill University students – the so-called "McGill 5" – who were recruited for ridings the party was not expected to win in 2011 and became accidental MPs.

She lost in last year's election, and is back at McGill finishing her undergraduate history degree. "We really had to prove our legitimacy," she says of being a young, female MP. "As women … we were out-numbered three to one. I think we had to work doubly hard to prove ourselves within the House."

Hard work is something Ms. Brosseau knows. She was a teenager when her son, who is now 15, was born, and managing work, sometimes two jobs, and his busy life prepared her well for politics.

In addition, she believes people can relate to her better because of her background.

"I think my constituents really appreciate the fact that I am not your typical cookie-cutter politician. I have experienced things in my life. I know what it's like to work precarious jobs and not have stable employment."

As with other female MPs, she has crafted her own support network. Her parents live near her house in Gatineau, across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill. Her son goes to their place after school to do homework. Ms. Brosseau tries to make it home around dinner time. During the weekend, he will sometimes go with her to the riding.

"I'm used to having to juggle work and family. It is a balancing act," she says. "I love the job … I wouldn't have tried to run again if I knew my family life was suffering or my son was lacking."