Campbell, whose parents both served in the Canadian military in World War II, was born in Port Alberni, B.C. and began her education at UBC in 1964. At the time, the university had only 12,817 undergraduate students and held Saturday classes, which was the only time in the week when girls were allowed to wear pants to school. Campbell also remembers students smoking in class and Brock Hall being the only Student Union Building on campus.
Campbell’s interest in government also started blossoming during her time as an undergraduate student, when she first joined UBC’s Alma Mater Society as a way of getting more involved with the campus community. She served as Frosh president in her first year and later went on to become the society's second vice president during her third year.
In fourth year, Campbell went into Honours Political Science and chose to give up student politics to focus on her grades. After doing a year of graduate studies at UBC in order to qualify for a scholarship in England, she went to the London School of Economics, where she studied Russian and Soviet Studies.
According to Campbell, her early choice of a political science major stemmed from an interest in World War II and global affairs rather than Canadian politics at the local and federal levels. The thought of a political career wasn’t something that she had seriously considered until she came back to UBC as an instructor.
“I was much more interested in the broader, global issues,” said Campbell. “It wasn’t until I came back and taught political science that I began to think that politics might be a way of trying to make a contribution.”
In 1973, Campbell was invited to teach at UBC as a Soviet specialist, but only held the job for three years, as the university already had a full-time faculty member with the same specialization. She later decided to refocus her career and applied to UBC's law school, graduating in 1983.
“At law school, I was best known for writing and directing the law reviews that we put on every year,” said Campbell. “So it’s very funny when I go to reunions, people are like, ‘oh yeah, she did something else after she went to law school,’ but what was important was the law review.”
During the early 1980s, Campbell decided to run for a position at the Vancouver School Board. Nathan Divinsky, a popular UBC math professor and Campbell’s husband at the time, had formerly served on the school board for several terms and was running for a position for Vancouver City Council. Both Campbell and Divinsky were elected, but Campbell was the one who ended up receiving more votes.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to see whether I was suited to politics and politics was suited to me,” said Campbell. “You never know until you try whether you have the temperament that can take the criticism and all of the things that go with being in public life.”
In 1984, Campbell's first taste of local politics inspired her to run for a space in the provincial parliament under the B.C. Social Credit Party. Although Campbell’s campaign did not win her a spot in the first election, she later ran again and joined the Legislative Assembly for the Vancouver-Point Grey area in 1986.
After her time in provincial politics proved to be both interesting and frustrating in its limitations in bringing forth major changes, Campbell decided to run in the 1988 federal election. She served as a member of parliament in Ottawa from 1988 to 1993, during which time she also served as minister of justice and attorney general and minister of national defence. She was the first female to hold both positions, with only one other woman, Anne McLellan, succeeding her as attorney general since that time.
When Brian Mulroney stepped down as prime minister in 1993, the Conservative party chose Campbell as his successor less than a year before the next federal election. Campbell then served as prime minister from June 25 to November 4, 1993. Although Campbell’s approval soared during her time as prime minister, she lost the election to Liberal leader Jean Chrétien on October 25 1993, in large part due to the Canadian public's dissatisfaction with the Conservative party that had skyrocketed during the Mulroney era.
Some of the most salient issues that Campbell focused on during her time in office included replacing helicopters for the Canadian navy, negotiating gun control laws and fighting for greater focus on women's rights. She brought forth a law that would provide more protection for victims of sexual assault and spoke out against the Conservative party's strict views on abortion, although Bill C-43, which she pushed forth during her time as Attorney General, was criticized by both sides of the abortion debate at the time.
Both before and after her time in office, Campbell has been a vocal advocate for the rights of women and their access to various government positions. As the first woman to become prime minister in Canada’s history, she is also no stranger to the biases and difficulties that women who run for public office often face.
In particular, Campbell said that one of the biggest challenges she, along with other women, have to deal with during their time in politics includes the pressure to represent all women in the decisions that they make.
“It doesn’t mean that every woman [who goes into parliament] is going to be perfect, but when a man screws up and is immoral or a complete doofus, we don’t say ‘well, that’s the last man I’m going to vote for,” said Campbell.
Campbell also said that while there are more women in parliament now than there were during her time in office, the fight for more female representation in positions of power has continued to be the same uphill battle that it was during her early days.
That said, she firmly believes the only way to change the public’s preconceptions on who makes a good leader is for underrepresented groups, including women, to continue running for public office in order to, in their own small ways, begin to break apart the biases that make up our society.
“Every woman who goes in and gets the slings and arrows of gender bias, nonetheless, does a service by moving the goalpost,” said Campbell. “So I say to young women, you have to do it. You have the brains, you have the integrity and you have the perspective that must be there.”
After her defeat in 1993, Campbell has taught democratic transitions and gender and power at the Kennedy School of Business at Harvard University and served as Canada’s consul general in Los Angeles. She also helped found two international organizations, the Council of Women World Leaders and Club of Madrid, which aim to promote women's rights and democracy around the world. She is also the founding principal of the University of Alberta's Peter Lougheed College and spends most of her time abroad for her work in advancing fair governance systems.
But throughout it all, Campbell credits the education that she received, whether it be in the classrooms of UBC, during her time in Parliament Hill or through her diplomatic work afterwards, for allowing her to continue advocating for the issues that she has always felt so strongly about -- global affairs and women's rights.
“I was a political scientist who then had the opportunity to live a political life at all three levels of our government,” said Campbell. “Now being able to share those insights and that experience in parts of the world where people are trying to create democracy is very valuable.”