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People

writer Nellie Letitia Mooney McClung

by DG Graham | June 5, 1998

The Scene: 1914. The Manitoba Parliament sitting, watching the approach of a delegation of people in search of the vote. Smug, mildly tolerant expressions on the faces of the Parliamentarians; nervous, determined expressions on those of the petitioners. “Congratulations on your splendid appearance” condescends the Premier to the delegation. “Thank you, but we do not want approbation on our appearance, but the vote” replies the Delegate. Chuckles and an exchange of bemused glances from Parliament. The Premier endeavours to explain. “Of course, of course, but surely you must see that you were made for something higher and better than voting. When you ask for the vote, you are asking me to break up happy, pe aceful homes – to wreck innocent lives. Surely you can see that such a thing must not be allowed to happen.” The delegation leaves, returning its wheelbarrow of petitions from whence it came. Parliament congratulates itself, and heads off for an evening of piquet and whiskey, confident that once again their firmness of purpose has saved Canada from an untimely demise.

Yes, this happened, but not as it first appears. The above scene did take place (although not exactly in the paraphrased and abridged version given above), but as a play, a mock Parliament entitled, How the Vote Was Not Won. Presented in Regina Walker Theatre, the premier was played by Nellie McClung, the Parliament was composed entirely of women and the petitioners were all men. The production was staged the day after Manitoba’s real Premier Roblin had refused a suffragette petition for the vote. McClung had listened very closely to what the premier had said to the women, and echoed his words in her refusal to the petitioning men in her play. The irony was not lost on the audience (composed of both men and women) and was enormously well received.

How the Vote Was Not Won was one of the many original ways Nellie McClung fought the battle for women in Canada.

What blows me away about Nellie was how much she managed to do. There are some days where doing my dishes seems like an amazing accomplishment. I don’t know where she got her energy. It would be one thing if she only had her writing to focus on, or maybe her political activities, or her family [ a husband who was a druggist and five kids] – but she juggled all of them. It’s almost discouraging in a way: the way I get discouraged when I see people younger than me producing films or writing novels or running their own businesses. It makes me wish I’d started to focus energy earlier, so that I’d have more to show for my 32 years on the planet. I keep holding on to the comfort of people who waited until they were in full bloom before they started whatever activity turned their crank, but I realize I’m just making excuses for myself.

In talking about what gave Nellie her energy, someone reminded me that she was a Methodist. Pursuing this unfamiliar territory, I found that religion played an enormous role in women’s lives back then. You have to try to imagine how isolated women were back then, and how few opportunities there were for socializing. Church organizations gave them friends, jobs (volunteer most of them, but some women got paying jobs), information and challenges. And Methodism, in particular, was stimulating, having a strong evangelical history of fiery preaching and energetic revivalism. You know what a crowd of fans at a rock concert is like; well, revivalist meetings weren’t that different. People were inflamed and inspired to accomplish great things. The more I read about the power present at Methodist meetings, the more I began to understand where Nellie might have derived some of her never-say-die energy.

Nellie was born in 1873 in Chatsworth, Ontario, but she and her family emigrated, along with many others in 1880, to the promising plains of the West. The Mooneys and Nellie went to a homestead in Souris Valley, Manitoba. Canada was in the midst of great turmoil and change; traditional farming was facing increased mechanization, cities were expanding at an incredible rate, immigrants of all nationalities were pouring onto the shores, and Canada’s political parties were fighting to define themselves and secure power. In the words of our Californian friends, Canada was on a journey of self-discovery with many Inner Children trying to have their voices heard and honoured.

Nellie had a particularly strong voice. She was acceptable to both men and women, partly because she wasn’t too “radical,” the way some suffragettes in Britain were (one martyr to the cause died when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse during a race). She believed that men and women were “different, but equal,” but also believed that motherhood was something that all “normal” women desired. She thought that the ability to bear children gave women a “moral superiority” that justified their inclusion in state and social affairs.

Whatever we might think of this “motherhood equals normal” reasoning today, it may have been more effective in reaching Canadian women in the early part of the century than a call for individualism would have been. That might have seemed too daring; childbearing was something everyone believed in.

But it was not simply her “non-radical” approach that appealed to people. Nellie sounds like she would have definitely been the proverbial life of the party. She was a vibrant speaker, a highly amusing writer, and always had a zinger to fire at any woman-oppressing politician (the fact that she was never at a loss for words earned her the nickname “Windy Nellie”). She wrote 16 books and many articles, was an effective organizer and she had an enthusiasm and conviction that galvanized others into action.

Nellie didn’t always toe the line if something that mattered to her was bring ignored. In 1912, she took on the cause of female factory workers in Winnipeg by dragging Premier Rodmond Roblin (and he had to be dragged) on a tour of the sweatshops. He contended that no “nice” woman would want to be a factory inspector, and used this brilliant reasoning to refuse to do anything about it. This prompted McClung to organize the Winnipeg Political Equality League. The League became a very powerful vehicle for advancing the suffragette cause in Canada, as well as in Manitoba, and won the enfranchisement (i.e. the vote) of women in Western Canada in 1916. Manitoba was the first province in Canada to do so (file that one away for Trivial Pursuit).

Like many people of that time, Nellie’s idea of equality didn’t stretch to include all colours and races, so she might not be perceived as much of a hero to women of colour. The fact that a lot of people discounted blacks and other races doesn’t justify her attitude, but it does put it in a context.

It would take a lot of room to do justice to everything she accomplished. A sampling: After her marriage in 1896 she was prominent in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1918, she was the only woman delegate at the Canadian War Conference (appointed by Prime Minister Robert Borden). In 1921, she was appointed a Methodist delegate to the World Ecumenical Congress. She took advantage of her recognition by writing and advocating passionately for the admission of women into the clergy [which happened in the United Church of Canada in 1929, one year after the Person’s Case]. In her spare time in 1921, she managed to run for, and win, the Liberal Edmonton seat in the Alberta legislature, a seat she held for 5 years. Nellie worked for female suffrage, prohibition, dower rights for women, factory safety and other reforms. In 1936, she was the first woman to be a member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Board of Governors. In 1938, she was Canada’s delegate to the League of Nations (now the United Nations). She continued to write books throughout this period, and was a strong and vocal advocate for prison reform and liberalized divorce legislation for women. And let’s not forget that she raised five children, none of whom turned out to be axe murderers. You can see why I’m impressed.

I spoke to Nellie McClung’s granddaughter, Marcia McClung, a successful communications consultant. I couldn’t help it; the first question I had was, “Isn’t it completely intimidating having a grandmother who accomplished so much?” Marcia said, not at all, that Nellie “was a source of inspiration and joy” to her, and who helped her develop her own personal drive. This, frankly, is a much more intelligent and useful attitude than mine. Let this be a lesson to you.

She told me that she remembered Nellie (who died in Victoria, B.C. in 1951, when Marcia was eight) as a “small, chatty, sparkly-eyed woman” who was an enthusiastic gardener and family woman. Marcia then admitted that she had found her slightly intimidating when she was younger, but that she soon realized that comparisons are only helpful when they inspire. So, Marcia felt that she should continue the tradition of “social crusader” started by her grandmother, and is active in many women’s issues, but has specialized in women’s health. She’s on the Board of The Women’s College Hospital, and takes an active interest in all aspects of women’s health.

One of the lessons she learned from Nellie was the advantage of combined resources. Marcia believes that Nellie and other Methodist women were as effective as they were because of teamwork and united effort. Rather than putting personal ambition above collective ambition, Marcia likes to balance the two, an approach she says is most effective in creating change.

I don’t know very much about my own ancestors and, to be honest, I haven’t been that interested in seeking them out. But listening to Marcia talk about her grandmother and seeing how much her legacy has meant to her, I thought how nice that would be – to have a blood tie to someone wonderful and inspirational. And I’m curious to see whether unconsciously I’ve been following in anyone’s footsteps. I found out my grandmother was twice awarded the Governor General’s Award for fiction, and here I am, trying to make a living writing. I also found out we have the same birthday. My middle name – Gwethalyn – is the same as hers (that, I admit, I already knew). I think I’m going to adopt Marcia’s approach, and start thinking of my grandmother as an inspiration, rather than an unscalable height.

more to consider

Nellie’s racism was undoubtedly typical of her time and place. Each of us needs to think about how much we share or reflect the prejudices of the time and place we live in, and how that influences our own actions day to day and our public values and choices.

further reading

  • ‘Ever a Crusader’: Nellie McClung, First-Wave Feminist, by VERONICA STRONG-BOAG, in the book Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women’s History, Veronica Strong-Boag and Anita Clair Fellman, eds., Copp Clark Pitman, Toronto | 1986
  • Firing the Heather – The Life and Times of Nellie McClung, by MARY HALLETT and MARILYN DAVIS, Fifth House Ltd., Saskatoon | 1993
  • Our Nell: A Scrapbook Biography of Nellie McClung, by CANDACE SAVAGE, Western producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon | 1979
  • Nellie McClung and Peace, by R.R. WARNE, in the book Up and Doing: Canadian Women and Peace, Janice Williamson and Deborah Gorham, eds., Women’s Press , Toronto: | 1976
  • Canadian Women: A History, A. PRENTICE, P. BOURNE et al, eds. (contains an excellent, exhaustive bibliography of sources), Harcourt Brace and Company, Toronto | 1996
  • Leading Ladies Canada, by JEAN BANNERMAN, Mika Publishing Co., Belleville, Ontario | 1977
  • Her Story – Women from Canada’s Past, by SUSAN E. MERRITT, Vanwell Publishing Inc., St. Catharines Ontario | 1993
  • The Canadian and World Encyclopedia CD Rom, McCelland and Stewart | 1998

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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