La Premiere Ministre: Kim Campbell and the Power of Narratives

In 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected the personhood of women. Women were robbed of the opportunity to be appointed to the Senate and many felt condemned to crushed dreams and career aspirations. However, in the face of this discrimination, five women decided to change the future and signed a petition to request the government appoint a female senator. These women became known as the Famous Five and pushed open the door for female involvement in politics. As a result of their efforts, women were confirmed to be persons and eligible to join the Senate. Sixty-four years later, Kim Campbell became the first woman to become elected as prime minister.

In honour of Persons Day, on October 18th, Kim Campbell in partnership with the Women’s History Project, Famous 5 Foundation and Famous 5 Ottawa, hosted The Power of Women’s Voices in Public Life. Campbell demonstrated through her incredible sense of humor the importance of stories when describing the achievements of women. However, positive narratives are often undermined due to the belief that women cannot make an impact in their respective sphere. According to Campbell, “The more women are seen, the more we can undo the impression they don’t belong.” This involves telling the stories of women with remarkable historical contributions to empower women to pursue leadership roles.

One of Campell’s largest emotional challenges after her election involved overcoming the fear of failure. Campbell feared that if she failed, it could damage the ability of the women who followed in her footsteps to excel in political leadership. Campbell realized “If someone fails, she failed because she failed, not because women fail. You can not like me but my gender should not be a determinant. This is why narratives matter and we must create the understanding that history has been created by incredible women.” This is crucial as many women often carry their gifts and aspirations with the fear of being overlooked if they make a mistake. According to Campbell, the measure for equality should not be based on women’s ability to deliver this perfection, but rather “For women to get to the same point as men where they are equally forgiven.”

Increased female participation in politics can help build a common belief in female leadership. Chi Nyugen, executive director of Equal Voice, a political advocacy organization, is dedicated to achieving this goal. According to Chi, “Over the past few years, we’ve seen more and more women step up to lead across all parties – and, the public is quite comfortable and on board with seeing more women and gender diverse people in elected office. We’ve seen two provinces now, back to back, have meaningful increases in their legislatures in 2023 (Alberta and Manitoba). Each time we send more women to legislatures, councils and the House of Parliament, we model and shift the narratives about women’s places in politics.” These are important transformations, but there is still more history to write.

To conclude the event, Campbell highlighted where the future could lead with a story from her time in office. After the election, she was disappointed that there was no French feminine equivalent of “Le premier ministre.” In response, she made a package of pens labeled “La premiere ministre,” which still lie in a closet on Parliament Hill waiting for the next female prime minister. She dreams that one day, the next female prime minister finds them while she partners with the visions of the Famous 5 and all the women who came before her to shape the world with more stories of female success.

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