By Micaal Ahmed
After 20 years as the chair of Famous Five Ottawa, pursuing a mission to empower women and celebrate their successes, local lobbyist Isabel Metcalfe has stepped back from her leadership role, saying her work is “pretty well complete.”
“Young women should be at the front of the room speaking and not at the back of the room organizing,” said Metcalfe, whose contributions to a cause that’s become mainstream politics in 2018 were feted at a recent Rideau Club soiree packed with many movers and shakers in the national capital.
The organization Metcalfe helped start “with nothing” in 1997 set an ambitious goal: inspiring women to become nation builders.
“She’s just a wonderful woman who is always there for women,” said Catherine McKenna, the federal environment minister and Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre.
“She helps women of all backgrounds, of all parties, and just recognizes that we need to get more women elected,” McKenna added. “And she’s willing to do what she can to help make that happen.”
Now, with “Famous Five Ottawa is in excellent shape,” according to Metcalfe, she decided that the time was right for her to say farewell and focus on her rapidly growing public affairs counselling business.
The Famous Five refers to the trailblazing women who fought for equal rights for their gender — and official “person” status in Canadian law — in the 1920s. A statue of the five women is located on Parliament Hill, on the lawn just east of Centre Block.
The list of successes celebrated by Famous Five Ottawa is long and growing: pioneering Quebec feminist and senator Thérèse Casgrain has graced the $50 bill, gender parity has been achieved in the federal cabinet, and now Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould is set to become the first cabinet minister to give birth while in office. The baby is due next month.
There’s more: the campaign to change “in all thy sons command” to the gender-neutral “in all of us command” has transformed the national anthem; and the #MeToo movement is reaching far and wide in politics and throughout society.
Through it all, Metcalfe and her fellow Famous Five advocates have been at the forefront of change. “I think that Isabel Metcalfe is a volunteer par excellence,” former prime minister Jean Chrétien, for whom Metcalfe worked as a political staffer, told iPolitics/Centretown News. “She was involved in every movement to promote a woman to run.”
Chrétien added: “Whenever there was such a movement, Isabel was not very far from it.”
When she looks back at two decades of advocacy, Metcalfe said two of her biggest achievements with Famous Five Ottawa were the placement of the Women Are Persons! monument on Parliament Hill in 2000 and the honouring of Casgrain and the Famous Five on Canada’s $50 bank note in 2004.
“To have women placed on a bank note is a very significant thing,” Metcalfe said. “The only other woman that has been placed on Canadian bank notes has been the Queen.”
Elizabeth May, the leader of the federal Green Party, described herself as a strong backer of Metcalfe despite political differences.
“I have loved working with Isabel Metcalfe over the years,” said May. “She is a well-known big-L Liberal, but in her support and mentorship of other women in politics, she puts partisanship to the side.”
May added: “Isabel used her creative energies in promoting the Famous Five, including in establishing our wonderful monument on the lawn near East Block. And we have all benefited from the large-scale reminder of the work to ensure that women are persons under our constitution.”
As Metcalfe looks around at how far Canada has come in recognizing women, she said: “It’s wonderful.”
“We have a feminist prime minister, he is very activist in that,” said Metcalfe. “We are working aggressively internationally in order to pursue better opportunities for women and girls.”
She said there has been an “incredible blossoming of women stepping forward to take their place in the legislative bodies of Canada. I think it’s fantastic. We are in a very interesting time right now. The conversation in regard to gender is very active, it’s very lively and I just think it’s wonderful.”
She did acknowledge, however, that “we always have a long way to go.
“We need to aggressively tackle pay equity, we’re all working through issues regarding sexual harassment, child care remains an important component of full involvement for women and men in the workforce. But we’ve had some tremendous successes in the last year or two.”
Referring to the five Albertans now immortalized on Parliament Hill, Metcalfe said:
“If the Famous Five were here today, they would be quite pleased.”
Metcalfe said the #MeToo movement contrasts sharply with earlier times in political workplaces, when women were unlikely to call out inappropriate behaviour.
“You needed to eat, so you wouldn’t dare complain,” she recalled. “But it’s changing now, so great.”
The #MeToo movement “is stretching everywhere,” she said. “It’s reaching into the corporate boardrooms, it’s reaching into our legislative bodies, it’s reaching through the film and television industry, through the media, it’s penetrating everywhere.
“And I think it’s because women feel that they don’t have to be part of a whispering network anymore. People believe them when they step forward.”
As for the future, Metcalfe said: “The advice I give to young women is, ‘Go, go, go’,” she said. “If you’re interested in public life, get out there and run and be heard.”
Produced in collaboration with iPolitics.