Women are equal—especially Ellen Fairclough
When she became secretary of state most people thought Ellen Fairclough had sealed the summit for a woman in polities. Now she’s boss of the cabinet’s touchiest ministry — and still ambitions
PETER C. NEWMAN
hen he unexpectedly came to power as prime minister of Canada, in June 1957, one of the minor campaign promises John Diefenbaker carried with him was the pledge to include a woman in his cabinet. No one was very surprised when he picked a lady named Ellen Fairclough from Hamilton. Even less was anyone surprised at the portfolio he chose for her —the secretaryship of state, a post which in the cabinet hierarchy traditionally commands the same prestige and complexity as spare goalie on a corner-lot hockey team.
It's a job usually handed to loyal but dull backbenchers, involving such routine as arrangements for congratulatory telegrams from the Queen for Canadians on their hundredth birthdays or sixtieth wedding anniversaries, and the administration of patent laws. Ottawa pundits confidently predicted that the assignment was in fact the political obituary of Canada's first female cabinet minister.
But following last winter's election, Diefenbaker confounded the experts by promoting Mrs. Fairclough to the senior and sensitive ministry of citizenship and immigration, apparently not merely as a symbol of feminine rights and a source of that sacred political instrument, the women’s vote, but as a working statesman capable, in the prime minister’s opinion, of doing a rough job as w-ell as any available man.
A chirpy, fifty-three-year-old political rarity with a vinegarish eloquence, Mrs. Fairclough has during the past year also briefly acted as prime minister of Canada and this country’s first woman ambassador—an appointment that rated the temporary title of “Her Excellency.”
Her achievements have spectacularly altered Mrs. Fairclough’s Hfc, but they have not changed her habits. She still prefers her Scotch on the rocks, enjoys whipping up a pineapple upsidedown cake, and delights in wearing some of the giddiest hats in Ottawa. She talks quickly with
many gestures; her expressive brown eyes highlight a face accustomed to being molded by an infectious smile. Just over five-foot-five, she appears taller because she carries her hundred and twenty pounds with military pride. Her shapely legs are always displayed to the best advantage in sheer hose and size 5’/2AA highheeled pumps. In an age of close-cropped heads, she has kept her hair long, smoothly waved into an old-fashioned bun. Her only make-up is face powder and a dab of pale lipstick. “I couldn’t get that eyelid-shading business straight, so I gave up trying,” she says.
Mrs. Fairclough is the sixth, and by quite a wide margin the most successful, woman member of Canada’s parliament. Her best-known predecessor was Agnes MacPhail, a Labor MP from Flesherton, Ont., first elected in 1921, who was a vocal backbencher for nineteen years. Miss MacPhail. a schoolteacher with a fluttering pince-nez, turned back fifteen hundred dollars of her first year’s four-thousand-dollar House of Commons salary as a protest against “extravagantly high parliamentary salaries.”
Mrs. Fairclough’s stipend, allowances and tax-free expense grants give her an annual income of twenty-seven thousand dollars, making her one of Canada’s highest-salaried women. She is also one of Ottawa’s busiest politicians. Her staff of thirteen assistants and secretaries (including an associate private secretary who has an assistant) answers an average of two hundred letters a day, most of them dictated or outlined by the minister.
Mrs. Fairclough controls the working lives of the nearly five thousand men and women in her department with masculine firmness. She handles the potentially difficult problem of woman boss and man subordinate, and the even tougher problem of woman boss and woman subordinate, by insisting that her directives be treated as ministerial continued on page 27
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orders, not the commands of a woman. "She doesn't expect special treatment, and she doesn't get it,” says Jim Moodie, her executive assistant.
The department Mrs. Fairclough heads is one of the cabinet's trickiest. “Few if any portfolios can get a government into more trouble,” says J. W. Pickersgill, her Liberal predecessor. Most of Mrs. Fairclough’s House of Commons speeches are quick, no-nonsense retorts. But occasionally she fumbles badly. Her worst performance was last June 9, when she moved for the first reading of a proposed change to the Indian Act. The opposition benches shouted for an explanation. “It's just a minor amendment,” she said. “I must confess openly that 1 do not have a copy of the bill with me.” A page-boy was sent for the document, which turned out to be one of the most significant changes ever undertaken in the administration of Canada’s Indians. It provided a procedure against evicting, from reservations where they had always lived, Indians whose ancestors had sold their treaty rights for money scrip.
The complexity and potential political dynamite of the citizenship and immigration post is due to the minister's responsibility for making the irrevocable decisions on deportation rulings and on appeals of immigrants admissible only for compassionate reasons. Each favorable verdict becomes a precedent, weakening the regulations.
vVith immigration currently more re.tricted than at any time since World war II, it’s a particularly touchy assignment. As well as administering the entry of new permanent residents and granting them citizenship, Mrs. Fairclough’s immigration officers examine the sixty million annual visitors who flow in and out of Canada through 343 ports of entry. Her department is responsible for the welfare of Canada’s 165,000 Indians living on 2.200 reserves. She also reports to parliament for the National Film Board, the National Library, the National Gallery, the National Archives, and the Peace Tower carillonneur.
Apart from her administrative and parliamentary duties, Mrs. Fairclough has, for the first time, brought a woman’s outlook into cabinet deliberations. Prime Minister Diefenbaker often consults her about the woman’s viewpoint on proposed legislation. “She makes her points with mature ability and a native charm she never misuses,” says Justice Minister Davie Fulton.
Despite an instinctive passion to advance the status of her sex, Mrs. Fairclough regards “the cause of women” as a nasty phrase. “Women in politics who think that a step forward is worthwhile only if it represents a victory over male prejudice are hopelessly out of date,” she insists. The most dramatic affirmation of her equality occurred in the House of Commons, on April X. 1952, wffien a mouse scampered onto the green aisle carpet and headed directly for her desk. Instead of clambering up on her chair and screaming, as the MPs expected, she tried to shoo the mouse toward C. D. Howe, her party’s favorite Liberal target. Before it could cross the floor, the
During the 1958 campaign she became the first woman ever to rate the title: “Madam Prime Minister”
politically inclined rodent was killed by a page-boy.
Although twenty-two women candidates ran in the last election, only one other — Margaret Aitken. PC. a newspaper columnist from Toronto — won a seat. As the sole woman on the government's front bench, Mrs. Fairclough's fashions are a daily whispering topic around the House galleries. "Ellen has an enviable clothes sense and a dash of smartness,” says Anne Francis, an Ottawa radio commentator. The most unexpected tribute to Mrs. Fairclough's appearance came from Andrei Vishinsky, former Russian ambassador to the United Nations. When she arrived at the UN as an official observer in 1950 dressed in a flaming-red suit, a reporter asked Vishinsky if he approved of the color. The Red diplomat, who then made a fetish of imitating American slang, shot back: "Yeah, she's just my speed.”
The minister’s main relaxation is reading murder mysteries. "They baille me,” she says. "In polities, I usually know how things are going, but in those books. I’m constantly being amazed." Her most enthusiastic non-political interest is Hamilton's Tiger-Cat football team. She goes to every game, and after last fall's Grey Cup victory she led the team's jubilant congo line through the lobbies of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. She has arranged her political schedule for this fall so that she can spend all hometown-game week ends in Hamilton.
The Faircloughs own a colonial-style six-room house on Stanley Avenue, a quiet street in Hamilton's west end. The home's most unusual furnishing is a basement pinball machine, but it is now seldom used. A resident housekeeper does all the cooking and cleaning.
The Fairclough marriage is an unusual partnership that allows husband and wife to follow unrelated careers, four hundred miles apart, at vastly different levels of responsibility, with no outward conflict or regrets. Fifty-threeyear-old Gordon Fairclough, the owner of the prospering Fairclough Printing Company, is an acid-humored undramatic printer-salesman, intensely proud of his wife, but successful in his own right. "It never occurs to me to wonder who's boss,” he says. "There's always been unanimity in almost everything. Both of us are happily occupied in our work."
He spends tw'o week ends a month in Ottawa and is affably resigned to a category which places him among parliamentary wives on the capital's protocol lists. At a Government House reception in 1955. when Mrs. Fairclough was less well known. Governor-General Vincent Massey brushed past Gordon, saying: "I must speak to Mrs. Fairclough about a little party I’m giving for members’ wives." Gordon stopped him. "Just a minute, sir." he said. "That's me you're talking about."
The Faircloughs’ twenty-six-year-old son. Howard, was until recently the piano-playing bandleader at the Club Kingsway, in Toronto. He still plays the piano, but now spends most of his time working at his father's plant.
Except for her occasional week ends in Hamilton. Mrs. Fairclough now lives at the Chateau Laurier Hotel. After a slimming eight - o'clock breakfast of orange juice.'toast and coffee, she starts each working day by leafing through
the large green notebook where she marks down her appointments. “I plan how best everything can be fitted in." she says. "Then I proceed to clean it up." In her work, she is direct and concise. She loses her temper at visitors who are not. When she gets an overlong memo, she slams it into her OUT basket with the notation: "Cut it short.”
The brisk pace Mrs. Fairclough maintains in her office was useful to her during last winter's election campaign. She made more than sixty speeches in two cross-country junkets, ridiculing Liberal leader Lester Pearson's tax-reduction proposals as "a smart gag," and trying to rally the women's vote behind PC! candidates. The effectiveness of her tours can’t be measured because voting results aren't broken down by sex. but campaign managers all over Canada judged her influence to be so valuable that requests for her visits were exceeded only by the number of invitations extended to Diefenbaker.
She had to interrupt her campaigning for several trips to her secertary of state’s office in Ottawa. During Diefenbaker’s speech-making trips, the senior cabinet member in town was named acting prime minister, because government papers constantly require the signature of the head of state. Howard Green, Davie Fulton or Donald Fleming usually took the job but on February 21 and 22. Mrs. Fairclough became the first woman in history to rate the address: “Madam Prime Minister."
Only in the last week of the campaign did she find time to visit her home riding, but her organization stirred up interest with teams of sign-carrying dogs and free salt shakers, both marked: “Ellen's Best for Hamilton West." Her winning margin of fourteen thousand votes was the most decisive victory ever given a federal politician in Hamilton. Her Liberal and CCF opponents lost their deposits.
Mrs. Fairclough’s constituency ranges from the mansions on Aberdeen Avenue to Hamilton's worst waterfront slums and includes a large part of the city's large Italian community. The Italians once objected to the Conservative Party as being reactionary, but now they vote solidly for Mrs. Fairclough, known among them as La Signorina. She captured their loyalty by spending many evenings at the Italian Community Centre, sipping beer out of a bottle, dancing the violent Neapolitan tarantella, and refereeing the men’s games of hoecie, a lively form of bowling.
Mrs. Fairclough claims to have inherited a sympathy for the displaced, because her maternal ancestors were United Empire Loyalists—she’s a fifthgeneration Canadian. She started her first after-school job at twelve, toting change around to the cashiers at a Hamilton department store. At sixteen, after a course in typing and shorthand, she got a full-time clerk’s job at the Hamilton Soap Works by claiming to be eighteen.
During the next decade she switched jobs almost every year, each change removing her a little further from stenography. which she was determined would not be her career. During offhours she studied accounting, played centre for Hamilton's United Church Basketball Team, and for a time was the pianist on an hour-long Sunday afternoon musical program over CHML. which featured songs by her sister Mary —now the office manager of Gordon
Fairclough's printing business.
She met Gordon, her future husband, at sixteen during a church social and never had another beau. They courted for ten years with remarkable equanimity: when Ellen was too occupied studying accountancy, Gordon would squire her sister. They were married in 1931; Howard was born a year later. When the baby was two, Mrs. Fairclough returned to work as an apprentice accountant. By 1935 she had passed her CPA exams and established her own business. Eventually she was named secretarytreasurer of the 320-member Canadian Wholesale Grocers' Association, a trade group representing the main food jobbers in the country.
The position first brought her into contact with official Ottawa, although her political interest dated back to the year after her marriage, when she and Gordon helped establish the Hamilton branch of the Young Conservative Association.
By the end of the war she had become so involved in behind-the-scenes political work that she decided to run for Ward 3 alderman in Hamilton. She lost by three votes. Next morning. Gordon counted thirty-three phone calls from apologetic friends who had forgotten to cast their ballots. She got the seat anyway a few months later, when H. L. Smye, her victorious opponent, resigned. After four years as alderman she moved up to controller and. because she headed the polls, became acting mayor.
Her taste of politics soon created an appetite that Hamilton City Hall was not important enough to satisfy. She decided to fight Colin Gibson, the Liberal minister of mines and resources, for the Hamilton West seat in the 1949 general election. Gibson beat her easily, but a year later he was appointed to the Ontario Appeal Court Bench and she won the resulting by-election with a 406vote margin.
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her two-piece dress, she was officially introduced to the House of Commons on May 30, 1950. There had been no woman MP since the defeat of Gladys Strum, a Saskatchewan schoolteacher, in 1949. Over the clatter of desk thumping. as Ellen was being led into the House by George Drew, George Cruickshank, a Liberal backbencher from Clayburn. B.C., yelled: "Boy. I could kiss that!" He crossed the floor and tried to peck her left cheek. She ducked.
During her seven years in opposition Mrs. Fairclough became one of the PCs’ champion talkers, rising more than seven hundred times on issues that included the sloppy dress of postmen and a suggestion that the Canadian Army use more women cooks.
She introduced measures to prohibit
discrimination against women workers so often that Liberal Labor Minister Milton Gregg once demanded why, if the matter was really so important to Canadian women, he had received no representations about it from the National Council of Women, the country’s main lobby group for feminine rights. Next day, a National Council of Women delegation called on Gregg. It was headed by the minister's own wife. Liberal amendments to labor legislation in 1956 incorporated most of Mrs. Fairclough's suggestions.
The Fairclough partisan fervor was most apparent on May 25, 1956, during the climax of the pipeline debate, when she draped a silken, eight-foot Canadian ensign over Donald Fleming's parliamentary seat, moments after he was temporarily expelled for defying the speaker’s rulings. She stoutly denies that it was a pre-arranged exhibition. "I had a llag handy at the appropriate moment," she says, "because what would happen had been obvious all afternoon. I did it to demonstrate that somebody had stood up for the democratic rights ot parliament.”
Her parliamentary behavior has subdued considerably since her days in opposition. "I never go into the House looking for a battle,” she says. "But 1 won't run away from one." Because her departmental duties as Secretary of State in the first Diefenbaker cabinet were so light, she was chosen to represent Canada officially last spring at both the birth of the West Indies Federation and the inauguration of Argentinian President Arturo Frondizi.
At the Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, celebrations she aroused the envy of delegates' wives by having long chats with Prince Aly Khan, the former husband of Rita Hayworth, now Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations. For the presidential inauguration in Argentina, she held the temporary commission of special ambassador.
In her new job. Mrs. Fairclough has little time for such pleasant side trips. Aside from her ministerial duties, she conducts a private crusade to get more women into parliament. She accepts up to six a week of the dozen or so speaking invitations she receives from women's groups in every mail. "Get in there!" she urges her audiences. "Don't worry, you won't get tarnished—though you may get polished up a bit. And when you enter politics, don’t waste time trying to please everyone. It can’t be done. Just relax and stick to your convictions.”
Mrs. Fairclough predicts that the number of women politicians in Canada will double during the next decade, and that someday a woman may even hold this country’s highest office. "I see no reason." she says, “why a woman of exceptional gifts could not be prime minister of Canada. But that doesn’t mean me."
Her own ambitions are not satisfied, but she admits to no specific future goal. "I'm too dashed busy to think about it." she says.
Away from the rush of official Ottawa. Gordon Fairclough recently spent an evening with a visitor in his lonely Hamilton living room, leafing through a photo album that chronicles the progress of his wife’s remarkable career. "Ellen has not only preached the equality of women.” he summed up quietly. "She has proved it." -k