An Interview with Canada's First Female Prime Minister: Kim Campbell.


It took more than 75 years from the election of the first woman parliamentarian to the date when a woman parliamentarian became prime minister. Kim Campbell, who had brief tenure in the position in 1993, is also the only woman to hold the position so far. In this interview she reflects on her achievement, examines progress women have made since that time, and offers some ideas of what type of work is left to do as Canadians move towards gender equality in politics.

Interview with Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell

CPR: It's been almost 25 years since you served as prime minister, a historic moment for all Canadians, but especially for women parliamentarians. Can you take us back to what you were feeling at that time? And what were your colleagues and Canadians telling you about what this landmark moment meant to them?

KC: As you may remember, it was the end of a tumultuous second mandate for the Mulroney government with the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the defection of Lucien Bouchard, the failure of the Charlottetown Accord ... the implementation of the GST was a big constitutional battle. It was a tumultuous time and the prime minister decided very late in the second mandate that he was not going to continue.

At that time, more than half the caucus gathered around me, and I didn't feel I had an option but to run. Even as far back as when I was Minister of State of Indian Affairs, I would be out travelling the country and people would tell me: "When Mulroney goes, you're going to be our next leader." This was rather awkward as there was no leadership race and I certainly wasn't trying to create one.

When I decided to run for the leadership I knew that we had a fairly difficult challenge. Canadians do alternate their governments, we had been in power for two mandates, and we didn't have an issue to fend off the Reform Party as we had with free trade in '88. We also didn't know what to expect with the Bloc Quebecois, though I had colleagues from Quebec who came into caucus saying: "The BQ just nominated a complete unknown to stand against me and they're already running ahead of me." The other thing was that we were all very tired. In the previous 12 months we had gone through a referendum campaign, a leadership campaign, and now we were entering a general election campaign. It was not an optimal time to run.

I suppose what kept us somewhat hopeful was the idea that Canadians may not support a regional party such as Reform (which wasn't running a full slate of candidates outside the West) or the Bloc Quebecois (which only ran candidates in Quebec). Also, Gallup published a poll that summer in which I had the highest approval rating of any prime minister in 30 years. That caused a bit of a scare among some Liberals and others who thought, maybe Kim can pull the rabbit out of the hat.

There was also very little time. When I was sworn in on June 25 we were near the tail end of our mandate. As you know, if you don't hold an election within five years of the previous one the constitutional hook comes to pull you off the stage. It was clear I was going to have to call an election early in the fall.

But we weren't yet in election mode. And in terms of being a female candidate, that was also very significant. I think, around the world, people do like women when they are governing. However, campaign mode exaggerates traits that some people are less comfortable seeing in women--being forceful, being argumentative, being adversarial.

My concern was, being a woman, if we lost would that be a giant setback for other women? On the other hand, there was an enormous amount of excitement in the summer of 1993. People were excited to have a woman prime minister. There was a sense among some people that we had beaten the Americans, that we had gotten there first. I still meet people--especially those who were young women at the time--who say that's what got them interested in politics. But it wasn't only women who were excited. I met a man on the day that I won the leadership who told me, with tears in his eyes, that this day was for his daughter. Parents could now say to their daughters, "you could be prime minister." It wasn't one of those things you'd sit around the dinner table and discuss anymore, like "Will we put a man on the moon?" You do it and then you don't wonder about it anymore. You change the conversation. To be the instrument of that is very rewarding and very exciting.

It was also interesting, running as a woman prime minister, to confront some things that were perplexing. And I was fortunate in my political retirement to have time to take up some of those issues by getting into this whole body of literature of cognitive and social psychology about gender barriers and implicit attitudes and why when people put words in your mouth you don't get the benefit of the doubt.

People were and are uncomfortable with the idea of a woman prime...

To continue reading