Campbell's Coup

updated 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FROM THE BEGINNING, KIM CAMPBELL was a groundbreaker. In 1963 she was elected the first female student council president at Vancouver's Prince of Wales high school and immediately made it clear she would lake no guff from the mostly male student council. "There are some pretty big boys here," she said, "but I have a big gavel."

Now she has a bigger one. Last week, Campbell, 46, was sworn in as Canada's first woman prime minister after the country's ruling Progressive Conservative Party chose her to succeed the unpopular Brian Mulroney, who announced his resignation in February. The choice came as no great surprise; Campbell—with her sharp tongue, intimidating intellect and sassy charm—has always been something of a standout. Promising not to "blandify" herself during the campaign, she has blasted people who boast about not being involved in politics as "condescending SOBs." Three years ago, for a portrait book on prominent Canadian women, she appeared bare-shouldered, holding her legal robes in front of her. The photo—the pose was her idea—led critics to label her "the Madonna of Canadian politics."

Campbell, whose father was a Vancouver prosecutor and whose mother was an artist, was christened Avril Phaedra, but began calling herself Kim after her parents' marriage ended in 1959, when she was 12. Her mother left for England with another man, and her father soon married a woman nearly 20 years his junior. Kim, buffeted by the domestic turmoil, endured an adolescence she has described as "very unhappy."

A political science major at the University of British Columbia, Campbell met and later, at 25, married Nathan Divinsky, a 47-year-old math professor. A renowned chess master and political conservative, Divinsky influenced Campbell's move to politics. In 1980, while studying law at UBC, she won a scat on the Vancouver school board, where she slashed budgets and reportedly derided striking teachers as "terrorists" who needed "a kick in the ass." When her marriage ended in 1983, Campbell continued in politics. Alter running for leader of the provincial Social Credit Party in 1986 and coming in last, Campbell began to learn the value of coalition-building. By 1988 she was polished enough to win a seat in Parliament.

Campbell stood apart from her gray-suited male cohorts, and in 1990, Mulroney named her Canada's first female attorney general and justice minister. She pushed through a tough gun-control law and legislation to protect the rights of rape victims before she was promoted to defense minister last January.

A year into Campbell's term as attorney general, her second husband, Ottawa lawyer Howard Eddy, left after four years of marriage. Recently, Campbell—who still maintains a home in Vancouver—struck back at those who whispered that politics was more important to her than domestic happiness. "My marriage has ended, and I'm very far from home," she lamented. "I find the life here sometimes unspeakably lonely and very difficult."

Campbell spends what time she has these days with her parents—both of whom now live in Vancouver—and her sister, Alix, 48, a lawyer in Victoria. She has only a few months to fulfill her vague promise of a bold "new style of leadership" before general elections are held this fall, when her party's five-year term expires. As usual, Campbell is up for the challenge. "There's never been a percentage in playing it safe for me," she says. "I can't afford to play it safe now."

DAVID ELLIS
JOAN DECLAIRE in Vancouver, NATASHA STONYOFF and JULIE GREENWALT in Ottawa

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