Ellen Louks Fairclough was Canada’s first female federal cabinet minister. Appointed in 1957 as Secretary of State in the Progressive Conservative (PC) administration led by John Diefenbaker, she served as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration from 1958 to 1962 and then as Postmaster General until both she and her party were defeated in the April 1963 federal election. Fairclough’s appointment, which came a generation after women were appointed to cabinets in Great Britain (Margaret Bondfield, 1929) and the United States (Frances Perkins, 1933) marked a significant milestone in the efforts by Canadian women to achieve political representation following the granting of female suffrage at the federal level in 1918.
Raised in the booming industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, Ellen Louks Cook was one of five surviving children born to Nellie Louks and Norman Cook, who had moved their family from rural Ontario a few months before Ellen was born in January 1905. Although the family economy—Norman built houses, Nellie took in borders, and the children pursued odd jobs—occasionally faltered, Hamilton offered opportunities for those with energy and ambition. Ellen had both. In the fall of 1918, at the age of 13, she enrolled in a commercial program offered in the local high school and three years later entered the full-time labour force, working at a series of secretarial and book-keeping jobs. During the 1920s, she embraced new enthusiasms, moving away from her family’s strict Methodist injunctions against drinking, dancing, and dressing in ways that shocked her elders. She also drifted from her family’s Liberal Party allegiances to support the Conservative Party, which championed the tariffs that protected Hamilton’s industries from US competition. As a “working girl” earning her own way, Ellen’s power in the Cook family increased dramatically. For a brief period during the 1921-22 recession, she was the sole bread-winner in the household.
When the Great Depression descended in 1929, the brokerage firm where Ellen worked collapsed. She made ends meet by filling the growing need for part-time book-keepers. In 1931 she married her long-time boyfriend, Gordon Fairclough who worked in his father’s printing business, which also languished in the dismal economic climate. Their only child, Howard was born in 1932. Facing downward mobility, the Faircloughs pursued a strategy that could only have succeeded in a companionate marriage. There would be no more children and Ellen became a working mother. Since Hamilton was the epicenter of Canada’s birth control movement, which proceeded in defiance of laws against counseling and disseminating birth control, the Faircloughs had local resources to support their resolve. Ellen took accounting courses leading to accreditation as a general accountant in 1935, becoming one of very few women in a male-dominated field. Her career flourished, helped along by the networks in the Church of England, the United Empire Loyalist Association, Zonta, and the Conservative Party. With Gordon’s support, she rose to the vice presidency of the Ontario Young Conservatives in 1937. During the Second World War, Ellen lectured widely on the importance of women becoming more active in public affairs and coordinated a program to encourage voter turnout in municipal elections.
The success of left-wing candidates in contests for Hamilton city council prompted Liberal and Conservative party bosses to seek contestants who could best the popular radicals. Inevitably, their gaze focused on the attractive, socially-conscious, and hard-working Ellen Fairclough. She won a seat on the Hamilton city council in 1945 and in 1949 was elected comptroller and deputy mayor. By national standards, Hamilton was a good place for women to achieve electoral success in the immediate post-war period. A Women’s Civic Club, which mobilized female voters for civic elections, had been established in 1930 and from the outset proved effective. When Ellen joined the council, her colleagues included Communist Helen Anderson and independent feminist Nora Francis Henderson. This proved to be a high point in female participation until 1978, when three women again sat on Hamilton’s city council.
Provincial and national political parties also sought female candidates in this period. Relegated to opposition benches federally since 1935, the Conservative Party reinvented itself in 1942, choosing the Progressive premier of Manitoba Robert Bracken, as its leader, adopting the name “Progressive Conservative,” and approving a platform with a strong pitch to labour and women. Professional women such as Ellen Fairclough became the bulwark of demands that the Progressive Conservative Party champion equality for women in the public sphere of politics, privileges, and remuneration for their work. Ellen lost her bid for the Liberal stronghold of Hamilton West in the 1949 election but succeeded the following year after the incumbent resigned to take a position on the bench.
Before Fairclough won the May 1950 bi-election, five women had experienced electoral success federally, and, of these, only one—Agnes Macphail—managed to hold her seat for more than one term. None of the 19 female candidates in the 1949 federal election was successful. As a result, Fairclough was the lone woman in the House of Commons until she was joined by two PCs (Margaret Aitken and Sybil Bennett) and one Liberal (Marie Ann Shipley), in 1953, all three representing Ontario ridings. It was a tribute to Fairclough’s high profile that 47 women ran for a federal seat in 1953, the highest number in any election until 1972. Her success also spooked the Liberal Party into appointing three female senators in 1953.
A skilled public speaker, Fairclough emerged as a star on the opposition benches and became one of the Progressive Conservative Party’s most popular members. She learned to deflect sexist treatment (the ultimate compliment was that she “thought like a man”) and to deal with the inconveniences, including the lack of female washrooms, in the Parliament Buildings. As Chair of the Party’s Labour Committee, Fairclough showcased her party’s progressive credential by speaking in support of social welfare and human rights legislation. She was so persistent in her demands that the government pass laws against discrimination in hiring practices on the basis of sex, race, and religion and to grant equal pay for equal work in the civil service that she received much of the credit when the legislation passed in 1956. In the same year, John Diefenbaker became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and promised in the run-up to the June 1957 election that he would appoint a woman to his cabinet. Diefenbaker might have chosen two women—Margaret Aitken had also won a seat—but that idea was never broached. With longer service in the House, Fairclough was the obvious choice.
She found cabinet life frustrating at times but also enjoyed the opportunity to effect public policies. During her brief tenure as Secretary of State, she initiated Dominion Day (now Canada Day) celebrations on Parliament Hill and, as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (a portfolio which included Indian Affairs), she introduced legislation that gave Aboriginal peoples the right to vote and that eliminated discriminatory polices based on race and ethnicity in the Immigration Act. If hers was not the most impressive of cabinet records, most members of the fractious Diefenbaker cabinet probably hoped to achieve more than they did.
Following her defeat in the 1963 election, Fairclough became Corporate Secretary of Hamilton Trust and Savings Corporation and resumed her involvement in a wide range of voluntary organizations. She remained marginal to the Women’s Movement in the 1960s, declaring that she was not a feminist, a word that she equated with man-hating and aggressive protests. She nevertheless lent her name to the Ellen Fairclough Foundation, established in 1986 to support female candidates, and she endorsed Flora MacDonald and Kim Campbell in their bids to lead the Progressive Conservative Party. The death of her son Howard from lung cancer in 1986 and Gordon’s subsequent stoke forced Ellen to cut back on her commitments, but she remained active by writing her memoirs and maintaining a busy social life. She died in a nursing home on 13 November 2004.
Resources and Further Reading
Bashevkin, S.B. (1993). Toeing the Lines: Women and Party Politics in English Canada (2nd ed.). Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Conrad, M. (1996) Not a Feminist But…: The Political Career of Ellen Louks Fairclough, Canada’s First Female Federal Cabinet Minister. Journal of Canadian Studies, 31 (2), 5-28.
Fairclough, E.L. (1995) Saturday’s Child: The Memoirs of Ellen Louks Fairclough, Canada’s First Female Federal Cabinet Minister. Ed. Margaret Conrad. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
Lowe, G. (1987). Women in the Administrative Revolution: The Feminization of Clerical Work in Canada. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
McLaren, A. and A. T. McLaren. (1983). The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1980. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart.
Sharp, S. (1994) The Gilded Ghetto: Women and Political Power in Canada. Toronto, Harper Colins.
Strong-Boag, V. (1988). The New Day Recalled: Lives of Girls and Women in English Canada, 1919-1939. Toronto, Copp Clark Pitman.
Stuart, R. (1988). The First Seventy-Five Years; A History of the Certified General Accountants’ Association of Canada. Vancouver, CGA Canada.
Tillotson, S. (1991). Human Rights Law as Prism: Women’s Organizations, Unions, and Ontario’s Fair Employment Act, 1951. Canadian Historical Review, LXXII (4): 532-57.
Trimble, L. and J. Arscott. (2003). Still Counting: Women in Politics Across Canada. Peterborough, Broadview Press.