Out in the Open

Former PM Kim Campbell is still waiting for another woman to lead the country

Kim Campbell, Canada's first and only female prime minister, says she'd like to see another woman take the reins.

'I'm trying to keep healthy so I can be there for the swearing-in of the 2nd female prime minister'

Kim Campbell was Canada's first female prime minster, but she says she doesn't want to be the last. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
Listen to the full episode53:59

When Kim Campbell won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1993, making her the first female prime minister of Canada, she remembers the reaction of one of her supporters, a man.

"[He had] tears running down his cheeks, saying, 'This is for my daughter,'" Campbell said.

Twenty-six years later, Campbell remains the only woman to have led the country. The numbers of female leaders in Canadian politics today are, she says, "pathetic."

"I keep saying I'm trying to keep healthy so I can be there for the swearing-in of the second female prime minister," Campbell said in an interview with Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay, where she reflected on her political career.

In Canada, to date, there have been five women elected to lead federal parties with seats in the House of Commons, and five women who served as interim leaders. There have been a total of 11 female premiers — but currently there are none. 

Campbell waves from the stage after being chosen as the new leader of the Progressive Conservative party at a leadership convention in Ottawa on June 13, 1993. (Phill Snel/The Canadian Press)

"That's pretty pathetic," said Campbell, who previously chaired the Council of Women World Leaders, a network of 75 current and former presidents and prime ministers, including former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

"I think it's important for women to do these things, to be seen … because it changes the landscape from which people get their sense of how the world works."

'An old boys' club'

Before entering federal politics, Campbell cut her teeth at the local and provincial levels in Vancouver. By the time she got to Parliament in 1988, she says that "it was less of an old boys' club than it had been before."

But still, she faced resistance.

"I did find sometimes people pushing back … in a way that I think indicated that they found a woman doing this was really kind of irritating," said Campbell, who, during her federal career, held four cabinet posts, including minister of justice.

Campbell, seen here in the top row, poses with prime minister Brian Mulroney's cabinet appointments in Ottawa on Jan. 30, 1989. Campbell was named minister of state, and would later serve as minister of justice for three years. (Charles Mitchell/The Canadian Press)

In 1993, when Brian Mulroney announced his retirement, Campbell won the party leadership and succeeded him as prime minister.

While she had a lot of supporters, Campbell also had her share of critics. 

"One reporter [from the Ottawa press gallery] said to me, with a curled lip, 'I've known every prime minister since Lester Pearson,' and the implication was, 'You're not like any of them,'" she said.

Looking back, Campbell says she recognizes now that she faced a lot of cognitive biases and implicit attitudes surrounding women in leadership roles while she was in office.

"I didn't look or sound like any of them. So when you're the first, you run into the contradiction between people's kind of implicit sense of who gets to do that job," she said.

Opponents questioned her ability to lead because she didn't have children. Critics, as well as media coverage, also characterized her as too off-the-cuff and too eager for power.

During the 1993 federal election, Campbell faced off against Jean Chretien, Lucien Bouchard, Audrey McLaughlin and Preston Manning. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"Power is real and somebody is going to have it. So, if you would exercise it ethically and in the national interest, why shouldn't it be you? And why shouldn't it have been me?"  

She called out this treatment as "sexism" and "hypocrisy."

"Not the sexism that says 'We don't like women,'" she said. "It's the sexism that holds you to a different standard, that doesn't give you the benefit of the doubt, that operates on the assumption that you don't really belong there."

Twitter backlash

After four months in office and a heated election campaign, Campbell's Progressive Conservatives lost the vote to the Liberals in a landslide. 

Since leaving politics, Campbell has been active in both the public and private sectors, presiding over global organizations and serving as director for several companies.

In 2016, she was selected by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to chair a non-partisan advisory board to recommend a shortlist of candidates for the Supreme Court of Canada, which led to the appointment of Justice Malcolm Rowe.

In August, Campbell faced backlash and apologized for a tweet she wrote, and has since deleted, saying she was "rooting for" Hurricane Dorian to hit U.S. President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. (At the time, she said it was "intended as sarcasm.")

"At the same time that [Trump] is making decisions that will actually make climate change and global warming worse, my view was, well, if a hurricane hits Mar-a-Lago maybe he'll get the point," she said.

Bringing gender parity to Parliament

During the last election, 26 per cent of people elected to the House were women, a record number for Parliament. The year Campbell was elected, women made up 13 per cent of the House.

However, according to data from CBC/Radio-Canada, during the last three federal elections, fewer women in the country's major political parties ran for office than men, and they were also elected less often. 

As the years go on and nobody else has done this, I feel an obligation to remind people of what it really meant to be elected the leader of a governing party.- Kim Campbell

A major factor behind those losses, according to CBC/Radio-Canada, is that men were four times more likely to be put in party strongholds rather than hard-to-win ridings. 

Campbell says that "as long as the parties are controlled by people who are men and who see people who look like them as the natural candidates," there will be a dearth of women in politics.

She says she would like to see structural change, such as two-member ridings where voters are able to elect one man and one woman to send to Parliament. 

"That would give you instant parity, and I think you're going to have to do something like that," she said. 

Campbell is seen here speaking at a Daughters of the Vote event on Parliament Hill in March 2017. The event brings women from across Canada to Ottawa to represent their federal ridings. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The system of two- or multiple-member ridings used to exist in Canada. Campbell points to the Maritimes as an example, where, in some cases, dual member ridings were used to balance the number of Protestant and Catholic representatives. 

In the meantime, Campbell's still waiting for the next woman to follow in her footsteps and take on the role of prime minister.

"As the years go on and nobody else has done this, I feel an obligation to remind people of what it really meant to be elected the leader of a governing party," she said. 

"The value of it is to inspire others to aspire."

Written by Althea Manasan. Interview produced by Debbie Pacheco. This excerpt is adapted from the Out in the Open episode "Kim Campbell Is Still Waiting for Another Woman to Lead Canada."


  • A previous version of this story referred to Jacinda Arden as the prime minister of Australia. She is, in fact, the prime minister of New Zealand.
    Oct 08, 2019 12:39 PM ET