Nellie McClung was born Nellie Letitia Mooney, in Chatsworth, Ontario, Canada on October 20th, 1873 to a Scottish Presbyterian mother and an Irish Methodist father. She was the youngest of six children; at the age of six, she would move to Manitoba with her family. She would end up spending the duration of her life in western Canada. From a very young age, McClung showed an acute awareness and interest in the issue of female equality. In her autobiography entitled Clearing in the West, McClung cites the story of attending a picnic in her hometown of Winnipeg in 1882. The city had suffered from tremendous flooding and a collapse of the real estate market, and to uplift the morale of the community, a picnic was organized. The organizers of the picnic arranged for organized sports where there would be races held for the boys. The young McClung desperately wanted to participate in the race and hoped that there would also be races held for young girls. She stated, “The whole question of girls competing in races was frowned on. Skirts would fly upward and legs would show! And it was not nice for little girls, or big ones either to show their legs. I wanted to know why but I was hushed up.” It was that type curiosity and questioning of the status quo that marked McClung’s life and would ultimately lead her to demand female equality.
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As an adolescent, McClung would go on attend school for a period of five years until she was fifteen. When she was sixteen she completed her teacher’s training and was hired to work in the small town of Manitou which is located in the southwest of Manitoba. Throughout her career as a teacher she would make a conscious effort to allow her female students to partake in sports alongside their male counterparts. This was an important time in her life; while in Manitou she would board with the Reverend James McClung and his wife Annie. Annie played an extremely influential role in the life of Nellie; Annie McClung was the president of the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and it was Annie who encouraged Nellie to participate in social activism. McClung’s was also influenced by her Christian faith and her love for education. It was those two influences along with the influence of Annie McClung that would ultimately lead her to associate with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Coincidently, Annie would also become Nellie’s mother in law as Nellie would marry her son Robert Wesley McClung. . Nellie was very close to Annie and in her autobiography she stated that Annie was “the only woman I have ever seen whom I would like to have as a mother-in-law.” Nellie McClung would marry Robert Wesley McClung in 1896. By all accounts they had a very successful and loving marriage. Robert always supported Nellie and encouraged her to carry on in her struggle for female equality. They would go on to have five children.
In addition to being a mother and a social activist, Nellie was also a best selling author and journalist. As a young girl, her brother Will gave her a series of novels written by the great English author Charles Dickens. They quickly became her favorite reading; she admired Dickens as a writer and was also greatly impressed by the social critiques that Dickens wrote about. The influence that Dickens had on the life of McClung was clearly evident in her autobiography in which she stated that she wished “to do for the people around me what Dickens had done for his people. I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless as he had been a defender of the weak” McClung would go on write over sixteen novels, in addition to numerous short stories and poems.
What she stood for and What she Accomplished
Nellie McClung embraced a number of causes including but not limited to: temperance and then prohibition; female equality and suffrage, the involvement of women in politics, and even the ordination of women in church. Even though there are many contemporary historians who criticize first wave feminists for evoking the ideology of maternal feminism, it would not be accurate to simply label McClung as only a maternal feminist. While it is true that she often evoked woman’s moral superiority over men – she took different approaches at different times in her life, and used both maternal feminism and universal equality as arguments to advance the status of women. Also, one has to keep in mind the social environment that existed at the time period. One of the major tasks of a historian is the ability to empathize with the subject being studied. A historian has to be able to get at the mentality and the psyche of the people or time period being studied. During the early nineteenth century, a women’s rights activist could not be expected to rely on the principle of universal equality of the sexes to bring about the advancement of women. Also, the idea of maternal feminism is not unique to Canadian female activists. Similar tactics were used in America, Britain, and even in as distant a country as Russia.
One of the earliest causes that Nellie McClung embraced was that of temperance. As has already been stated, Nellie was introduced to the cause by her mother in law Annie. Annie was the president of the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. From a young age Nellie experienced the negative effects that alcohol had on the family. She saw numerous husbands and fathers drinking away the family wages to the detriment and neglect of their wives and children. Men would often come home in a drunken state and physically abuse their spouses and/or their children. Battered women were in a state of legal helplessness as they were considered dependants of their husbands and did not possess any property rights. Nellie McClung began to champion the cause of temperance and eventually outright prohibition.
Nellie’s involvement with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union eventually led to her involvement with the Political Equality League. One of Nellie McClung’s most endearing qualities was that she possessed great foresight. She understood that prohibition was only part of the problem. McClung strongly believed that women needed the right to vote. She felt that without the right to vote, women lacked the political clout necessary to influence politicians to enact legislation that would remedy the problems of both alcohol abuse and spousal abuse. It was because of this that Nellie expanded her social activism to include not just prohibition, but also women’s suffrage. McClung belonged to two different groups that both worked for women’s suffrage, they included the Canadian Women’s Press Club and the Political Equity League.
Her most prominent opponent was the Premier Rodmond Roblin of Manitoba who, like most men in his day, felt that women did not belong in the public sphere. He even went so far as to use the rhetoric of maternal feminists against them saying:
“Does the franchise for women make the home better?…My wife is bitterly opposed to woman suffrage. I have respect for my wife; more than that, I love her; I am not ashamed to say so. Will anyone say that she would be better as a wife and mother because she could go and talk on the streets about local or dominion politics? I disagree. The mother that is worthy of the name and of the good affection of a good man has a hundredfold more influence in moulding and shaping public opinion round her dinner table than she would have in the marketplace.”
Nellie McClung and her fellow suffragettes did not lose hope. On January 27, 1914, they approached the Manitoba legislature to present their case. They were quickly rebuked by Premier Roblin, His speech was so illogical and nonsensical that Nellie was actually delighted. She continued to campaign for the woman’s vote. She staged a play and a mock parliament called the “Women’s parliament” in which she showed just how illogical the position of the Premier was. She had the audience in stitches with her use of humor and sarcasm. To Nellie’s delight, Premier Roblin was removed from office because of an unrelated political scandal and was replaced by a Premier who was much more supportive of women’s rights. Like many politicians, once in office the new Premier T.C Norris changed his position and said he could only bring in the female vote, if the suffragettes were able to demonstrate that there was sufficient support for their position. Nellie McClung responded by presenting a petition with over 40,000 signatures of her supporters. On January 27, 1916 the Bill for Enfranchisement of Women was passed and women in Manitoba were granted the right to both vote, and run for office. Nellie was also successful in her campaign for prohibition as prohibition would come into effect in the province of Alberta on July 1, 1916 as a result of a non-binding referendum or plebiscite.
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Another important accomplishment for McClung was the famous Persons case. When Nellie was born in 1873 she was not a person under Canadian law. That meant that a woman possessed few legal rights and even fewer property rights. In early 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the word “person” in section 24 of the British North America Act did not include women. Nellie McClung along with four other women – who came to be known as the Famous Five – petitioned the government to expand the legal definition of Persons. They appealed to the Privy Council of London to overturn the ruling of the Supreme Court. On October 18, 1929 the Privy Council ruled in favor of the women and expanded the definition of “Persons” to include women. That allowed women to serve as members of the Senate of Canada. In 1921, Nellie McClung would go on to run for election as a member of the Liberal Party of Alberta. She was successful in her bid, but the Liberals were defeated by the United Farmers of Alberta Party. McClung would end up serving in the Legislative Assembly for a period of five years.
One aspect of Nellie’s social activism that is often overlooked was her support for eugenics and a broader sterilization program. Nellie was an ardent supporter of eugenics – which literally means “well-born”. Eugenicists believed that they could improve society by instituting a process called selective breeding. Nellie McClung and other eugenicists believed that people with physical and/or mental disabilities should not be allowed to procreate and that they were not entitled to have children. Because of the ill-conceived efforts of eugenicists such as Nellie McClung, the province of Alberta passed The Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928. Following the passing of that piece of legislation, a province-wide sterilization campaign was launched in which thousands of women were sterilized. Research indicates that many women who were sterilized did not even possess any genetic defects. Research also indicated that a disproportionate amount of teenage girls and aboriginal females were the ones who were targeted for sterilization. It was unfortunate that someone who was so involved in social activism should have such an enormous blemish tarnish her legacy. In Nellie’s defense, eugenics was a dominant social theory at the time, and while that may serve as a mitigating factor, it does not excuse her actions. Nellie constantly fought against the status quo and social norms, it seems unfathomable that she would support such a despicable cause.
Notwithstanding Nellie McClung’s shortcomings, she was a remarkable woman. She was not only a wife and mother, but she was also a journalist, a politician, and a social activist. This essay was not even able to cover the full scope of Nellie’s activism. In addition to fighting for prohibition, women’s suffrage, and women’s legal equality, Nellie was also highly involved in campaigns to improve working conditions in factories, and also in allowing the ordination of female ministers in the church. Nellie was also a distinguished author; she published numerous novels, short stories, poems and other literary works. While critics may criticize her for her evoking the ideology of maternal feminism and for her support of eugenics, one has to take into account the mentality of the time period. Nellie was a product of her environment, and she was undoubtedly influenced by her surroundings. Nellie McClung deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest Canadians to have ever lived.
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