Journalist and Host
The daughter of Fernand Ouimet and Cécile Chartier, Lise Payette studied at Montréal’s Pensionnat de Ste-Angèle, where she earned an arts and sciences diploma in 1949. She married journalist André Payette in 1951 and began her radio career in 1954, working at various stations in Trois-Rivières, Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec City and Montréal.
Payette spent six years in Paris, France (1958–64), where she wrote for Châtelaine magazine, Nouveau Journal, Petit Journal, La Patrie and La Presse. She also co-hosted Interdit aux hommes alongside Martine de Barsy, conducting interviews with many European personalities such as Jean Rostand, François Mauriac, Simone Veil, Françoise Sagan, Romain Gary, Louis Aragon, Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Tino Rossi, Alain Delon, Gilbert Bécaud and Charles Trenet.
After returning to Montréal, she hosted a daily morning show for Société Radio-Canada (SRC) called Place aux femmes (1965–70), squarely addressing issues as sensitive at the time as divorce, spousal and family violence, unwanted pregnancy, the obstacles women face in higher education and women’s exclusion from the corridors of power. Broadcast during a period of social and cultural upheaval, Place aux femmes alerted the men and women of Quebec to shared problems and highlighted the issue of gender equality. It is now considered to be the first feminist magazine program on Radio-Canada.
At the same time, Payette hosted Easy, Sunday at the Fair, D'un jour à l'autre, Le temps des sauterelles and Studio 11 on the broadcasting company’s French and English networks. From 1972 to 1975, she made the leap to Radio-Canada television, helming a late-evening talk show called Appelez-moi Lise. This hugely popular program helped introduce Payette to a wider audience. In 1975, she chaired the Comité des fêtes nationales du Québec (see Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day) and joined the sovereigntist movement.
As a respected public figure with a voice, Lise Payette championed and helped raise popular awareness of the main demands of Quebec feminists. She encouraged women to take their rightful place in the public sphere. During the 1976 provincial election, Payette decided to enter new territory, suggesting to René Lévesque that she stand for the Parti Québécois. Lévesque agreed and offered her the riding of Dorion.
Elected on 15 November 1976, Payette became minister of Consumer Affairs, Cooperatives and Financial Institutions (1976–79). Her term in office saw the establishment of a no-fault auto insurance plan (under which accident victims would be compensated regardless of fault) and the creation of the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ). She states that it was her initiative to replace the slogan “La belle province” with “Je me souviens” on licence plates; however, this claim is contested. Payette spearheaded reform to the Consumer Protection Act and the creation of the Secrétariat à la Condition féminine.
On 21 September 1979, Payette became the first minister of state for the Status of Women, a position Lévesque created for her. In her new role, her mission was to defend all files relating to women, both in Cabinet and on the government priorities committee. Payette set up Status of Women offices in various ministries, including the ministry of Labour, and was involved in implementing an early policy on the status of women put forward by the Council on the Status of Women (Pour les Québécoises : égalité et indépendance). Payette worked toward better day care and day care centres, as well as the establishment of maternity leave, a support-payment collection system and women’s crisis centres.
Payette was actively involved in a major family law reform that radically altered the Civil Code, especially in terms of recognizing spousal equality in the moral and material leadership of the family. Men and women had not only the same rights but also the same duties, and women were now no longer subject to the authority of their husbands (marital authority, in legal terms). Effective November 1980, Payette also became minister of state for Social Development.
Controversy: The “Yvettes” Incident
On 8 March 1980, International Women's Day, Lise Payette decried before the National Assembly the gender stereotypes that were still prevalent in Quebec’s school books: the little boy, Guy, played sports and liked competition, while the little girl, Yvette, helped out around the house and was obedient. At a partisan meeting the following day, Payette reiterated that the province’s school books encouraged women’s continued submissiveness and their adherence to the housewife mould. She said that Claude Ryan, leader of both the No side and the Quebec Liberal Party, wanted women to remain “Yvettes,” adding that he had married one.
This tactless remark, for which Payette publicly apologized in the National Assembly, would spark strong reactions. In the editorial pages of Le Devoir, Lise Bissonnette criticized Payette for attacking a political leader through his wife, stating that as minister for the Status of Women she had a duty to defend all women, for whom “she should be providing the most equality possible.” Liberal Party activists wasted no time exploiting the minister’s blunder and organized a “Brunch des Yvettes” in Quebec City, followed by several more, including one in Montréal that attracted more than 15,000 activists for the No side.
Although some observers saw this as a schism in the Quebec women's movement, addresses given at the time by such feminist activists as Thérèse Casgrain, Solange Chaput-Rolland, and Monique Bégin did not touch on the status of women and the feminist debate. On the contrary, they focused on the No option, because the purpose of these rallies of “Yvettes” was to give supporters of the No side an opportunity to express their political views. On 20 May 1980, the No side won the Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association with nearly 59.56 per cent of the votes cast.
Television Writer and Journalist
Lise Payette did not seek a second term of office and withdrew from political life after being the focus of the “Yvettes” incident. In the 1980s and 1990s, she devoted her time to writing soap operas, including La bonne aventure, Les Dames de cœur, Un signe de feu and Les Machos, all of which were hugely popular. In 1992, she launched her own production company, Point de Mire, of which she was president until 2003.
With nearly 10,000 interviews to her credit as a broadcaster, Lise Payette had a profound impact on Quebec radio and television. A staunch advocate on behalf of women, Payette made the leap into politics to advance the cause of women’s legal rights. She was also behind the feminization of job titles in Quebec: upon taking office as minister of Consumer Affairs, Cooperatives and Financial Institutions, she insisted that the feminine la be used with her title (the masculine le would normally have been used). Often one to provoke and agitate with the topics of her interviews, scripts and speeches in the National Assembly, Payette was instrumental in making the issue of gender equality the focus of public debate.
In 2014, her granddaughter Flavie Payette-Renouf and Jean-Claude Lord made a documentary titled Lise Payette, un peu plus haut, un peu plus loin about her social and political legacy. In April 2015, on the 75th anniversary of women's suffrage in Quebec, Payette took part in the documentary 75e, elles se souviennent along with other political and media personalities.
Archival records on Lise Payette are kept at the Vieux-Montréal archives centre of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Quebec.
Honours and Awards
- Woman of the Year, Canadian Women in Communications (1994)
- Florence Bird Award, International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (1997)
- Tribute, Prix Gémeaux (1998)
- Grand prize, Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television (1998)
- Gold medal, Mouvement national des Québécois et des Québécoises (2000)
- Officer of the National Order of Québec (Ordre national du Québec) (2001)
- Prix Réalisations (achievement award), Réseau des femmes d’affaires du Québec (2003)
- Honorary doctorate (Feminist Studies), Université du Québec à Montréal (2009)
- Prix Pierre-Vadeboncœur, Confederation of National Trade Unions (2012)
- Prix Guy-Mauffette, Prix du Québec (2014)
- Témoins de notre temps (Éditions du Jour, 1970)
- Recettes pour un homme libre (Éditions du Jour, 1971)
- On l’appelle toujours… Lise (Éditions La Presse, 1975)
- Le pouvoir? Connais pas! (Québec Amérique, 1982)
- La Bonne aventure (Québec Amérique, 1986)
- Le chemin de l’égalité (Fides, 1996)
- Des femmes d’honneur : une vie privée, 1931-1968 (Libre expression, 1997)
- Des femmes d’honneur : une vie publique, 1968-1976 (Libre expression, 1998)
- Des femmes d’honneur : une vie engagée, 1976-2000 (Libre expression, 1999)
- Le mal du pays (Lux Éditeur, 2012)
- Des femmes d’honneur (Québec Amérique, 2014)