Nellie McLung

By Margaret Blair in Community, People


Like Agnes Macphail, Nellie McClung was born in Grey County (Chatsworth) to a farming family, in 1873, seventeen years earlier than Agnes. When Nellie was seven, they moved west to what was then the more fertile soil of Manitoba. Also like Agnes, Nellie was a ‘handful’ for her family to manage, always ready with a joke or to mimic older people – and desperate to obtain an education, which she started at the late age of ten. Her excellent teacher, Mr Schulz, taught her to read in a few months and also to question the status quo. From then on, there was no stopping Nellie who became a teacher in rural schools where she started writing articles for local papers, and where Nellie met her future mother-in-law and mentor, Annie McClung, and then Wes McClung, Annie’s son, a successful pharmacist who soon married Nellie.
A year later the first of their five children was born. Nellie had live-in help and continued to write, bringing out a best-selling book Sewing Seeds in Denny, with its feisty heroine Pearlie Watson. This led to many lucrative speaking engagements and like Agnes Macphail after her, Nellie proved to be an engaging and witty public speaker, which brought her contact with leading women such as Cora E. Hind of Winnipeg, accurate forecaster of the wheat yield, and a member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.
Also like Agnes, Nellie paid careful attention to her appearance and always had a fashionable outfit for speaking engagements. However, with the support of Wes, and help in the house, in addition, Nellie was able to keep her hand very much on the pulse of the family and to guide her children in their concerns. Throughout her life Nellie’s door was always open to them, and to others seeking advice,
Nellie had become concerned about the condition of farm women, worn out by long hours of work and little money due to their husbands drinking it away, and joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Through the influence of her mother-in-law, Nellie also began to support women’s suffrage. She ended all her speeches with a plea for suffrage from the mouth of Pearlie Watson.
Wes’s new position in Insurance took the family to Winnipeg where Nellie thrived, joining many women’s organisations and renewing her friendship with Cora Hind. There, Nellie not only enjoyed the larger opportunities for reading and attendance at plays and recitals, but actually went to see the terrible conditions of working immigrant women in sweatshops, their children left to fend for themselves in hovels. She and her friend Mrs Claude Nash persuaded the premier Sir Rodmond Roblin to go and see for himself. His reaction was to express the view that these women lived at home and worked for pin money, something to do.
After seeing the actual sweatshops, Roblin said he could not understand “why two women like you should ferret out such utterly disgusting things.” Premier Roblin had similarly old-fashioned views on women’s suffrage which he said was supported by “short-haired women and long-haired men”, and was of the opinion that, “nice women do not want the vote.”
Nellie McClung decided to fight for her causes, not by indignation and violence as had the British suffragettes, but through building contacts with women’s organisations, and trying to change public opinion by publicity and using humour. The women held mock parliaments in theatres, with Nellie mimicking Premier Roblin. The audiences not only had a rollicking good time, but came away converted. In 1915 the new Liberal government of Manitoba took up the causes and brought in both Prohibition and the franchise for women by early 1916.
Soon, Wes’s job transferred the family to Edmonton where Nellie again took up the cudgels, and with the help of other women, notably Emily Murphy and Alice Jamieson, the first two female magistrates in the British Empire, successfully lobbied the legislature to bring in Prohibition and female suffrage for Alberta. The first month after Prohibition, drunkenness convictions fell by 80% and household savings rose by 100%. Votes for women soon followed in the other provinces.
After going to Edmonton, Nellie McClung wrote In Times Like These, now recognised as a key Canadian statement of first wave feminism.
The period after the First World War, saw Nellie disappointed that there had been a loss of momentum in the progress for women. Far from encouraging women to accomplish more with their expanded spare time, the new labour saving devices had ushered in the era of the bored, neurotic housewife.
Nellie propelled herself forward, and in 1921, the same year as Agnes Macphail became the first woman MP, entered politics as a Liberal MLA. Although she believed in working through established parties rather than the newer “fringe” ones, like Agnes Macphail, Nellie could not confine herself to the ideas of one party and joined the only other female MLA, Conservative Irene Parlby, in supporting equal treatment for women in divorce, and opposing the idea that women married to a wage earner should not earn a wage themselves.
After her defeat in the 1926 election, Nellie McClung confined herself to her writing, and felt better able to lobby for her views from outside any legislature. With like-minded women, Nellie continued to advocate equal treatment for all people in Canada, especially the Métis, First Nations and immigrant groups subjected to discrimination, such as the Chinese and Japanese Canadians. When, during the Second World War, the latter were interned, she made sure education continued for the children through the provincial education services. As we all know, the women’s pleas for sanctuary in Canada for Jewish people or at the very least for their children, were unsuccessful,
However, many things did change, notably the climate of opinion in Canada. This brought in mother’s allowances, school nurses, traveling libraries, help for immigrants to learn English and later the establishment of a national health service and the 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.
As she aged, Nellie McClung’s health deteriorated and she was struck by arthritis and heart disease. With one shining exception, after 1926, her days of achievement in the public sphere were over, and Nellie was not sorry to take a peaceful and happy retirement with Wes on the West coast in the house they christened Lantern Lane. A lantern was always lit to guide people to it, and many still came to see Nellie who died there in September of 1951 aged 78.
The exception was the famous Person’s Case, taken by five women (a minimum of five people was required) to change the British North America (BNA) Act. To allow women to take their place in Canada’s Senate, they had to be recognised as “persons” along with men. The five women, funded by Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe, were Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney (president of the WCTU), Nellie McClung and Henrietta Muir Edwards, co-founder of the National Council of Women. They are now known as The Famous Five. The case failed in Canada’s Supreme Court, but succeeded on appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain, where in 1929 Lord Sankey declared that, “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours.” He said that the BNA Act was, “a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.”
The achievement of The Famous Five is commemorated by a plaque in the Parliament Buildings and by a statue of the women on Parliament Hill. The fashionably clad woman waving a copy of the decision is Nellie McClung.
Google the CBC archives to hear a clip of Nellie McClung’s voice at the ceremony unveiling the plaque commemorating The Famous Five.