Nellie McClung was an orator and an entertainer; she was an author and an advocate; she was a teacher and a legislator. She was a prairie woman who used her talents, determination and energy to bring about change in society.
Nellie is best know for two major achievements: being one of the leading women who helped ‘get the vote’ for most of the women of Manitoba (1916); and as a member of the ‘famous five’ - a group of women who challenged the meaning of the British North American Act and worked to get women declared ‘Persons’ rather than property under the law (1929).
Later in life, she was appointed the first woman to the first board of the CBC in 1932, Nellie also remained a human rights advocate throughout her decades in public life: She urged the government of British Columbia to extend the vote to Japanese Canadians in the 1930’s; petitioned the Canadian Government to open its doors to Jewish refugees in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s; and often wrote about the need for equal pay for equal work. She promoted the ordination of women in the Methodist Church in the 1920’s and later in the United Church. Nellie was a driving force in Canadian Politics and the women’s movement till her death in 1951.
1873 – 1951
Nellie McClung was born Nellie Letitia Mooney in Ontario on October 20, 1873. At seven years old, she moved to Manitoba where she would grow up and begin to sow the seeds of many incredible political contributions later in life. At the age of just sixteen, she began teaching at a school near Manitou, Manitoba and through her connections there, became involved in several emerging social reform groups.
When Nellie was 23 years old, she married Wesley McClung, with whom she would raise five children. In 1911, the family moved out of rural Manitoba and into Winnipeg, where Nellie continued to fight for social change.
Nellie joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to help stop the problems associated with alcohol abuse, and this led to a passionate interest in the women’s suffrage movement as well. In addition to the WCTU, Nellie joined several other reform groups focused on the advancing women’s suffrage movement, and became a founding member of the Political Equality League.
Nellie is most remembered for her fight to get women the vote. In 1914, she and other members of the Political Equality League staged a mock parliament which turned the tables, satirizing the dangers of allowing men the right to vote. The play was entertaining and effective; it began a turn of the tide for the government of the day in the province. In 1916, Manitoba was the first province to grant women the right to vote, and the province of Saskatchewan quickly followed.
Even after that victory, and throughout her life, Nellie kept fighting for human rights and social reform. She campaigned for the rights of Aboriginal and Asian women. She pleaded with the Canadian government to accept European immigrants during World War II. Nellie remained a driving force in Canadian politics until her death on September 1, 1951.
Nellie McClung had many jobs over the course of her career, including teacher, writer, speaker, politician, and activist. Nellie was passionate about human rights.
As with most women of her time, she began working at a very young age. At only 16 she was already teaching in a rural school. It was around this time that Nellie started learning about the emerging social reform efforts in Manitoba and she quickly got involved.
Through her efforts with the Christian Women’s Temperance Union (CWTU), she started her career as an activist and a politician. She became involved in local efforts to campaign for women’s rights, and by 1911, had started actively fighting for women’s right to vote.
Not only was Nellie politically involved, she was also a published author. In 1908, she would publish her first book, going on to publish 15 more, as well as newspaper articles, speeches, and articles for several national magazines.
In addition to this busy workload, Nellie also found time to run for political office, serving as a member of the Legislative Assembly for five years. Considering that in her time, most women who were married with children were singularly focused on the family, she seemed to be always ready to take on a new challenge, and throughout her life, never stopped fighting for the things she believed in.
In 1921, Nellie was appointed Canada’s lone female delegate to the Ecumenical Conference in Britain.
From 1936-1942 she was the sole woman and first female appointed to the CBC’s Board of Governors.
In 1938, Nellie was a Canadian delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva.
Nellie wrote both fiction and non-fiction, with wide-ranging topics that included gambling, women’s suffrage, prohibition, marriage, balancing a career and family, women’s role in the church and justice.
Over the course of 37 years, Nellie wrote 16 books. Her first, Sowing Seeds in Danny, was published in 1908, and became the best seller of the year in Canada, eventually running into 17 editions. It sold 100,000 copies and earned her $25,000.
In addition to books, Nellie wrote numerous articles for newspapers and magazines such as Maclean’s, Canadian Home Journal, Country Guide, Chatelaine, and Onward. She also wrote a pamphlet on missionary work in Canada entitled Before They Call (1937).
She so loved writing that even near the end of her life she kept up her correspondence, writing letters and speeches to stay connected to the political movements in the country.
Outstanding Public Speaker
Nellie’s fame as an author led to another aspect of her career. After the success of her first book, she began to speak about her writing and included other topics such as such as prohibition, the suffrage movement and the war. Soon, she was in demand as an entertainer-recitalist in Manitoba. As her reputation as a brilliant orator spread, she was asked to tour other provinces and many areas of the United States.
She continued to be in demand as a speaker well into her late sixties.
Canadian Women's Press Club, 1906
Advocate for Women
Nellie wrote about Winnipeg, “The big city gathered us in … I enjoyed my association with the Canadian Women’s Press Club. There, great problems were discussed and the seed germ of the suffrage association was planted. We felt we should organize and create public sentiment in favour of women’s suffrage.” (The Stream Runs Fast, p. 101)
After the McClung family moved to Alberta, Nellie returned to Manitoba to campaign during the last week of the August 1915 election. At the Liberal rally at the Walker Theatre the night before the election, she received a huge welcoming from the crowd. Women in Manitoba gained the vote in January 1916. In Alberta, it did not take Nellie long to become involved with suffrage movement and women gained the vote later that year.
Member of the Political Equality League
Nellie recalled, “One night we organized the Political Equality League with a membership of about 15. We believed that 15 good women who were not afraid to challenge public opinion could lay the foundation better than a thousand. We wanted to get first hand information on the status of women in Manitoba, and of course, the whole Dominion”. (The Stream Runs Fast, p.106-7)
Nellie’s ability to captivate an audience, her commitment to causes, and her energetic enthusiasm made her the ideal political campaigner. The Political Equality League appeared before the Legislature in Manitoba on January 27, 1914, to request political rights for women. Their request was refused.
Manitoba Political Equality League Presentation of petition by the League in Winnipeg on 23 December 1915. Source.
Leader of the Women's Parliament
The day after the government refused the request to grant women the same rights as men, the members of the Political Equality League spoke back. On January 28, 1914, they staged what has come to be known as the Women’s Parliament (Mock Parliament) at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg.
According to reports, it was a brilliant satire. Nellie McClung had listened to and watched carefully as Roblin dismissed the women the day before. In front of a full house, she portrayed the premier, mocking him and showing how foolish his opposition to the suffrage movement was.
Member of the Alberta Legislature
In 1921, Nellie McClung was elected as a member of the Liberal Party in the Alberta Legislature. In 1923, the McClung family moved to Calgary. In the 1926 election, she was defeated.
Member of the Famous Five (The Person’s Case)
In 1927, Emily Murphy invited Nellie McClung and three other well known women together to discuss petitioning the Federal Government about the meaning of the word person in Section 24 of the BNA Act which stated that only ‘‘properly qualified persons might be called to the Senate.” The ruling came back; women were not included in the word “person”. Their petition to the Supreme Court of Canada failed. Next, they took the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England (Canada’s Highest Court of Appeal at the time). The ruling came back that the word “person” in the BNA Act did include women.