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Nellie McClung (1873 to 1951)

Nellie McClung photo

Nellie McClung is one of the most famous women’s rights activists in Canadian history. Known for her dynamic and engaging public speeches and numerous books, she disarmed most audiences with her quick wit and her genuine interest in people and their problems. In particular, she fought that women should be able to vote and be recognized as “persons” under the law.

Nellie Letitia Mooney was born in 1873 in Chatsworth, Ontario. In 1880, the family moved to a homestead in western Manitoba, an area too far from a school until Nellie was 10 years old. However, it didn’t take her long to catch up. She earned her teaching certificate by the time she was 16 years old.

While working as a teacher in 1896, she met and married pharmacist, Robert McClung and they had five children. Her mother-in-law encouraged her to write her first novel “Sowing Seeds in Danny.” It was a best seller that launched Nellie into the larger world.

In 1911, the McClungs moved to Winnipeg where Nellie became more and more politically active, immersing herself in such current issues as prohibition, votes and legal rights for women, as well as working conditions in factories.

A pivotal moment in the suffrage campaign came in 1914 when McClung and others, fed up with the arrogant attitude of some politicians, organized a “Mock Parliament.” They rented a theatre and put on a mock trial to debate the question, “Should men have the right to vote?” It was a highly successful event, thanks to the marvelous impersonations made by McClung, using some of the arguments put forward earlier by men who felt women could not handle voting. She brought down the house and it was no wonder that two years later in 1916, Manitoba became the first province in Canada to grant women the vote.

Later in 1914, the McClung family moved to Edmonton where Nellie continued to be involved with her feminist causes. She was there in 1916 when women got the right to vote in provincial elections. In 1921, she was elected as a Liberal MLA for Edmonton during which time she worked on issues of health care, education, matrimonial property rights and child protection.

To her chagrin she was narrowly defeated in the 1926 election. So she went back to her writing, authoring 16 novels as well as numerous short stories and speeches and a syndicated news column.

Then in 1927, Emily Murphy asked Nellie to sign a petition asking that Canadian women be recognized legally as persons under the British North America Act. Imagine telling Nellie that she had not been a “person” all those years that she had fought for equality. So, of course, Nellie signed the petition. So did Louise McKinney from Claresholm, a leader in the influential Women’s Christian Temperance Union as well as Irene Parlby from Alix, a Minister in the Alberta legislature and Henrietta Muir Edwards, the national convenor of laws for the National Council of Women.

The petition was considered by various government departments and legal experts and finally ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada. There, the decision came down that Canadian women were not persons, according to the law. “The Famous Five” then forwarded their petition to the Privy Counsel in England which was still the highest court of Canada. In 1929 the Privy Counsel ruled that of course, Canadian women are persons. Success at last!

In 1932, the family moved to Victoria where she became the first female member of the CBC Board of Governors in 1936. She continued to write and make speeches until her death in 1951.

Her achievements are remarkable and perhaps her success can be partially explained by her favorite motto, “Never retract, never explain, never apologize. Get the thing done and let them howl.”

It is indisputable that Nellie has done great things for women in her lifetime. That being said, it is also undeniable that she had some radical views on other issues. She was a supporter of eugenics and was apparently prejudiced against people of colour and Jewish individuals. Eugenics is a movement that selects humans with the best traits to reproduce with each other to improve the future generations and advocates that humans who are “deficient” have their right to reproduction taken away. Adolf Hitler infamously used both sterilization and eugenics in his pursuit of a pure Germanic Aryan Race. Her association with this leads to her image today, a controversial hero for suffragettes. Instead of condemning her, we can take Nellie McClung’s mistakes, and learn from them; as it is how we grow as people.” (Phuc (Bernard) Le- essay contest 2022)

Biographical resources

Alberta Heritage
University of Calgary
Alberta Assembly
The Estate of Nellie McClung, The Stream Runs Fast, My Own Story, Thomas Allen Publishers, 2007
Millar, Nancy, The Famous Five, Emily Murphy and the Case of the Missing Persons, The Western Heritage Centre, 1999
Nellie McClung School (CBE)

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