McClung, Nellie L. (1873–1951)

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McClung, Nellie L. (1873–1951)

Canadian suffragist, temperance activist, politician, writer, and public speaker who was a crucial force in the fight for women's political and legal rights . Born Nellie Letitia Mooney on October 20, 1873, in Grey County, Ontario; died on September 1, 1951, in her home outside Victoria, British Columbia; daughter of John Mooney and Letitia (McCurdy) Mooney; married R.W. (Wes) McClung; children: four sons and one daughter.

Selected writings:

Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908); Purple Springs (1921, reprinted with a new introductionby Randi R. Warne , University of Toronto Press, 1993); Clearing in the West: My Own Story (Thomas Allen & Son, 1935); The Stream Runs Fast: My Own Story (Thomas Allen & Son, 1945).

Born on October 20, 1873, Nellie Letitia McClung was the sixth and last child of John and Letitia Mooney . John Mooney had arrived in Canada from Ireland at age 18 to escape the famine and hardship that plagued his homeland. In 1858, he married Letitia McCurdy, a recent immigrant from Scotland, and established a farm in Grey County, Ontario. From childhood, Nellie was influenced by the contrasting personalities of her parents. John Mooney, warm and affectionate with a lively sense of humor, enjoyed joking and playing with his young daughter. Letitia, however, perhaps due to her Scottish Presbyterian background, was much sterner. Deeply religious and hard-working, she frowned upon these playful antics. Despite a childhood preference for her father, McClung as an adult was the product of both parents. Active participation in politics, social reform, writing, and motherhood was accomplished through tireless energy and hard work. Yet in all these activities, Nellie was guided by values derived from religious conviction and a lively sense of humor, both of which colored her work and endeared her to people.

Farming in Grey County was a hard life. The last area of the province to be colonized for farming, its land was poor, making only bare subsistence possible. However, by the 1870s the Canadian west was finally beginning to open up to settlement. Glowing reports of plentiful and productive land began to filter into Ontario with the commencement of railway construction and government suppression of western native populations. By 1879, Letitia and her eldest son, Will, had decided the family would go west. Will went ahead, staking out a large plot of land for the family 80 miles southwest of Portage La Prairie (near present-day Wawanesa, Manitoba). A year later, the rest of the family followed. The first settlers in the area, the Mooneys were at the forefront of a migration that was to populate the Canadian west within 30 years.

For six-year-old Nellie, the move west and homesteading was an adventure, remembered fondly in later life. Within several years, a small community had sprung up around the family, bringing with it services such as schools and social interaction. Naturally, it also brought with it the propriety of eastern society. Reflecting back, McClung remembered being stung by the sexual inequality present even within a frontier society. Writing in 1935, she described a picnic planned for the summer of 1882:

A committee was formed and a program of sports arranged…. I was hoping there would be a race for girls under ten, or that girls might enter with the boys. But 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. Still, I kept on practising and tried hard to keep my skirts down as I ran…. I could see my dress which was well below my knees, was an impediment, and when I took it off I could run more easily. I suggested that I would wear only my drawers…. My suggestion was not well received.

McClung's schooling was intermittent throughout her youth. When a school was finally established in 1883, she attended only sporadically due to responsibilities on the family farm. Still, by July 1889, she had passed the exams which allowed her attendance at the Normal school in Winnipeg for teacher training. At age 15, she headed for Manitoba's largest city.

At an early age, Nellie faced the choice between having a career or a family. In those days it was believed, and was in fact a reality for most women, that the demands of motherhood were too great to allow for work outside the home. Years later, McClung wrote about the dilemma she faced:

I had thought I was strong like Queen Elizabeth who kept clear of sex complications, but now I could see I was wavering. I knew that I would like to have a baby of my own sometime…. [Yet] marriage to me had aterrible finality about it. It seemed like the end of all ambition, hope and aspiration.

After five months of training, McClung chose a career and moved to the small town of Hazel, Manitoba, to teach all eight grades in a small schoolhouse. At the time, she believed she had rejected the call of babies, marriage and love.

Events did not go exactly as planned, however. While living in Hazel, Nellie met and was deeply impressed by Annie E. McClung , wife of the local minister. It is reported that Nellie decided that Annie would make an excellent mother-in-law and took the liberty of seeking out and meeting the eldest McClung son, Wes, who worked in the local pharmacy. In the fall of 1892, Nellie secured a teaching job in the larger community of Manitou. By this time, the McClungs were also living in Manitou and invited Nellie to board with them. There, Nellie's relationship with Wes blossomed. Wes appreciated her lively sense of humor and intelligence and was receptive to ideas about women's rights. From the beginning, Nellie knew that he would not expect her to devote all of herself to him. On August 25, 1896, they were married.

The new couple decided to settle in Manitou, where Wes established himself as a pharmacist. Nellie immediately left teaching and devoted herself to the tasks of housework and childcare. With the three young children she had by 1901, there is no doubt that being a wife and mother had become a full-time responsibility. However, McClung's decision to embrace motherhood did not mean that she had rejected her desire to find fulfillment in a career. As the following years would prove, she would be one of the few women of the time to succeed in both of these areas.

McClung became actively involved in the Manitou branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Formed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1874, the WCTU advocated total abstinence based on the belief that alcohol was the cause of many of the social and economic problems plaguing society. Its goal, in most cases, was enforced abstinence through legislated prohibition. By the standards of today, the women of the WCTU often seem backward or anti-feminist. Although they glorified motherhood as the natural state of women, they were progressive in that they also believed that women should be involved in public life (through the professions, politics, etc.). In their view, men and women were different but complementary, and it was necessary to have the attributes of both sexes represented in the public realm in order to ensure a stable and prosperous society. McClung subscribed wholeheartedly to these beliefs, which guided her involvement in the temperance movement and in other causes throughout her life.

During this period, she also began to write, encouraged in this as in her temperance activities by her mother-in-law, Annie McClung. Finding the time and energy was difficult as she noted in her journal: "With three small children and a house to run you can imagine the sort of frame of mind I'm in. In fact, the frame is all that is left of my mind." Still, encouragement came when several of her articles and stories were published in Methodist Sunday school publications. Finally, in 1908 her novel Sowing Seeds in Danny was published. The book was instantly successful, becoming bestseller of the year in Canada with over 100,000 copies sold. In the years to follow, McClung would publish an additional 15 books and many articles, most attaining wide readership. For McClung, who had always wanted to be a writer, this success brought not only fulfillment but recognition and popularity among Canadians, a factor which was helpful in her later crusades for women's rights. It also brought a sizeable income, a rarity for women at this time and a help in paying for domestic care and other expenses.

Never retreat, never explain, never apologize. Get the thing done and let them howl.

—Nellie L. McClung

In 1911, Wes decided to work for a life insurance company, moving the family to Winnipeg (the capital of Manitoba). The move marked a change in Nellie's thoughts about social reform. Although she remained committed to temperance throughout her life, the reality of female inequality in Canadian society moved progressively more into focus for her. Unlike Manitou, Winnipeg provided the specter of poverty, disease and "immorality," with women and children the most visible victims. As well, city living provided extended social opportunities. Through organizations like the Canadian Women's Press Club, McClung was exposed to troubling issues. Of primary concern, as in the case of alcohol abuse which temperance was meant to negate, was women's vulnerability in a society which offered them no legal or political status and protection. Legally, a woman's husband could sell the family property or will it away without any provision for her care. Women did not even have rights to their own children. Thus, Nellie's concerns spread beyond temperance to social reform, landing eventually in the suffrage movement.

During the decade leading up to 1920, suffrage was the primary focus of McClung's public life. She had come to the conclusion that the only way to address female inequality was to secure the vote for women. Consequently, in 1912 she helped found the Political Equality League (PEL), one of several provincial associations dedicated to the cause of female suffrage. The League held public speeches, distributed leaflets and petitioned Parliament, all to no avail. Suffrage was not popular in early 20th-century Canada. However, the presence of women like Nellie McClung was beneficial to the suffrage movement, for she was not threatening to established concepts of femininity. She was, after all, an attractive woman with a husband and five children (two more children had been born between 1904 and 1911). As well, her popularity as a writer and public speaker, combined with a humorous and gentle nature, had the effect of disarming critics. This is not to say that McClung was not capable of biting satire and criticism, or that she did not suffer a great deal of abuse at the hands of critics. However, in her writing and speaking she employed a sense of humor that was not threatening and was greatly successful at publicizing suffrage ideas. This was exactly the tactic used when the League decided to stage a "mock parliament" in 1914.

The idea of a mock parliament was not new, having been used by other suffrage groups. However, the PEL developed a strategy to maximize its effectiveness. First, they went to the Manitoba legislature to request the vote be granted to women, fully expecting the premier, Sir Rodmond Roblin, to reject the request. McClung, who had been nominated as the group's speaker, presented an eloquent and compelling argument for female suffrage. Luckily for their plan, Roblin was not swayed and replied with fawning condescension, expressing his concern for womanhood should the weaker sex become involved in the dirty business of politics. The group had booked the Walker Theater, and in it, for the next three days, their mock parliament depicted a session of Parliament with heckling, bills, and the usual activity, except that all the members of the legislature were women, with Nellie McClung as premier. In the final scene, the "government" received a delegation of men requesting the right to vote. McClung's reply was a perfect reversal of Roblin's arguments. Accurately mimicking the premier's mannerisms and speaking techniques, she complimented the men on their appearance while expressing concern for the sanctity of the home if men were allowed to vote.

It gives me great pleasure to receive you here tonight. I want to compliment the deputation for their courtesy—and candor—and gentlemanly appearance…. If all men were as intelligent as these representatives of the down-trodden sex seem to be, it might not do any harm to give them the vote. But all men are not as intelligent…. Politics unsettle men, and unsettled men lead to unsettled bills—which lead to broken furniture, broken vows—and divorce!

The event was a resounding success. Reported extensively in the Canadian press, it raised public awareness and sympathy for the suffrage cause.

The mock parliament has been deemed the turning point of the Canadian suffrage movement; female enfranchisement was now only a matter of time. Within months, the opposition Liberal Party endorsed female suffrage and placed it in their platform. Growing popularity meant that it was now considered politically advantageous to support this issue. However, even after the Liberal victory in 1915, there was hesitation, forcing the suffrage organizations to apply pressure on the government. On January 27, 1916, Manitoba women became the first Canadian women with the right to vote. Within the next few years, the rest of the provinces (except Quebec) and the federal government followed suit.

By 1918, it would seem that McClung had much of which to be proud. Both suffrage and Prohibition had been passed in Manitoba and were steadily achieving success in the rest of Canada. Wes had been transferred to Edmonton, Alberta, in 1914, forcing Nellie to commute extensively between the two provinces during the campaign. Consequently, following the victory, she decided to settle down and devote herself to writing. By 1921, however, she was back in the public spotlight as a member of the Alberta legislature. Although elected as a Liberal, McClung remained true to her convictions, supporting or rejecting bills according to conscience rather than party affiliation. During the next five years, she supported legislation for old age pensions, mothers' allowances, factory regulation, minimum wages and birth control.

Despite all the victories of these years, by 1926, McClung must have been questioning the value of her success. In that year, she lost her seat in the election. A heated battle during the last four years had led to the repeal of Prohibition, despite her best efforts. Furthermore, there was no evidence that female enfranchisement had led to the great social and moral reform that many had envisioned. Generally, women tended to vote like men. Perhaps it was the recognition that enfranchisement alone would not lead to the liberation of women that led McClung to become involved in the now-famous "Persons Case."

The "Persons Case" was initiated by Emily Murphy , a popular writer, political activist and magistrate. As a magistrate, Murphy was bothered by an 1876 British common law ruling which declared that "Women are persons in matters of pain and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges." Still in effect, this ruling meant that women were not equal in Canadian society. In order to challenge it, Murphy seized on the issue of the Canadian Senate. According to the constitution, the Senate was to be filled by "qualified persons" appointed

by the governor-general (the prime minister in practice). Thus Murphy, through various women's groups, started a campaign to force the government to appoint a woman to the Senate. Fed up with being ignored, a group of five women—McClung, Murphy, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards , and Louise McKinney —decided in 1927 to petition the prime minister to decide if the word "persons" included women. Choosing to avoid the issue, the prime minister and his associates passed the matter along until it ended up before the Canadian Supreme Court, which decided that women were not "persons" within the meaning of the Act. The "Famous Five" (as they later became known) decided to take their case to the Privy Council in London, England, which at that time was the final court of appeal for Canadians as well as the British. Finally, on October 18, 1929, the news came that the Privy Council had decided that women were "persons."

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King knew he would have to appoint a woman to the Senate. Emily Murphy was the most obvious choice, due to her involvement in the matter and experience as a magistrate; vengeful after so many years of Murphy's persistence, however, King refused to consider her. In 1930, he appointed the first woman, Cairine Wilson , to sit in the Senate.

The importance of the "Persons Case" was found not so much in the presence of a woman in the Senate, but in its symbolic and legal value. The declaration that women were in fact "Persons" was a great step towards ensuring female equality in Canadian society. With the "Persons Case" and her participation in the suffrage movement, McClung had played an instrumental role in the two most important victories of the women's movement in early Canadian history.

As Canada entered the Depression and the Second World War, McClung again devoted her energies to writing. Two collections of short stories were published in 1930 and 1931, followed by two volumes of collected essays in 1936 and 1937. It was during this period that she also wrote her autobiography in two volumes entitled Clearing in the West (1935) and The Stream Runs Fast (1945). In 1935, the McClungs moved to their final home at Gordonhead, B.C. (near the capital of Victoria), where Wes retired.

Nellie, however, was not ready for retirement. Along with prolific writing, she remained active in public life. In 1936, she was the first woman appointed to the new Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's board of governors. The CBC had been created by the government to regulate radio wave use and licensing to ensure that all Canadians were served by the new medium of radio and to guarantee the presence of Canadian content. McClung, recognizing the potential influence of radio, and thus of the CBC, on Canadians, took her role very seriously. Two years later, she was appointed as a delegate to the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. Although McClung recognized the League's ineffectiveness in preventing international conflict, she felt that it nonetheless played an important role through its efforts to ensure international standards in labor relations, social welfare and human rights. Thus, she was pleased by her appointment to the Fifth Committee which studied social legislation, refugees, narcotics, nutrition, housing and labor conditions.

Gradually, McClung was forced to slow down, as arthritis and heart problems took their toll. She and her husband spent more time together, becoming avid gardeners. In 1946, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. "The day I married Wes I did the best day's work I have ever done," she said. In many ways, their marriage was a model for women contemplating a career. Popular conceptions held that suffragists did not make good wives or simply could not find someone to marry them. Yet for 50 years, McClung had successfully combined a public career with the demands of marriage, and she and Wes had remained happy together.

Five years later, illness had finally overtaken her, and she lay dying at home. Reportedly, during her last few days, there was a moment when she became quite still. As Wes bent over to check on her, she quickly opened her eyes. "Oh, I'm still here," she said. "I'll never believe I'm dead till I see it in the paper." On September 2, 1951, the papers reported that Nellie McClung had died the previous day at the age of 77.


Benham, Mary Lile. Nellie McClung. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1984.

Hancock, Carol L. No Small Legacy. Wood Lake Books, 1986.

Savage, Candace. Our Nell: a Scrapbook Biography of Nellie L. McClung. Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979.

suggested reading:

Strong-Boag, Veronica. "Introduction," in In Times Like These. University of Toronto Press, 1972.

Catherine Briggs , Ph.D. candidate in history, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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McClung, Nellie L. (1873–1951)

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