Hellen Nellie McClung: A Canadian FeministHelen “Nellie” Laetitia Mooney was born October 20, 1873 in a log cabinon Garafraxa Road, two kilometers from Chatsworth, Ontario. She and her familymoved to Manitoba when she was six years old.One of Nellie’s best influences was her mother. Her family’s influencewas no doubt the reason she became an activist. Her mother thought that everychild had the right to an education, and her whole family encouraged her tolearn all she could. (9, Wright) Nellie at age ten, went to school atNorthfield School.
This is where her education started.Nellie’s dream was to be a teacher like her sister Hannah. Teaching wasone of the few jobs open to women. She started her ‘voyage’ at age fifteen bypassing the Second Class Teachers’ Examination. She went on to earn a higherteaching certificate at Winnipeg Collegiate in 1893. She went on to teach atHazel Public School near Manitou, Manitoba.
We study Nellie McClung because she was an internationally celebratedfeminist and social activist. Her success as a platform speaker was legendary.Her earliest success was achieved as a writer, and during her lengthy career sheauthored four novels, two novellas, three collections of short stories, a two-volume autobiography and various collections of speeches, articles and wartimewriting, to a total of sixteen volumes. Two of her most famous books are:Clearing In The West and The Stream Runs Fast. All this served as a “pulpit”from which McClung could preach her gospel of feminist activism and socialtransformation.
She was convinced that God’s intention for creation was a “FairDeal” for everyone; and that Canada, particularly the prairie West, was aperfect place to begin to bring that about. Women’s suffrage, temperance andthe ordination of women were keystones in the battle – engaged. In contrast tocontemporary stereotypes, with a wit and compelling humor that won over enemiesas it delighted her allies.Nellie was a curious girl, she was always asking questions. This wasnot commonly seen among girls in her time.
As a small child she would want toparticipate in sports with the boys, although she was always told she wasn’tallowed. “I was hoping there would be a race for girls under ten, or that girlsmight enter with the boys. But the whole question of girls competing in raceswas frowned on. Skirts would fly upward and legs would show! And it was notnice for little girls, or big ones either, to show their legs.”(2, Wright)As many great philosophers do, Nellie would always ask: Why? It seemedas though she always had to get an answer. She loved to think, dream about oneday seeing men and women as equals.
Nellie was always trying to make everybodyequal. During her teaching days, she would organize football (as well as othersports) and let the girls participate along side with the boys.Nellie was first introduced to the feminist movement by a woman namedAnnie McClung. It was Annie who first inspired Nellie to take a stand forwomen’s rights. (16, Wright) Annie’s son (Wesley) was also the man who Nelliemarried. She married at the age of 23 in a Presbyterian Church in Wawanesa,Manitoba.Nellie shortly after her marriage, devoted her life to helping womenfight for a better world.
She saw too many women being mistreated by theirdrunken husbands. She saw alcohol as a major problem, husbands would get drunkand then assault the women. Nellie though that if women obtained the right tovote, they could succeed in changing the liquor laws. Nellie was not alone inthis view. In Britain and the United States, as well as in Canada, the demandfor women’s suffrage was closely linked with the demand for prohibition.
(24,Benham) One of the reasons why prohibition was linked to the struggle forwomen’s rights in the early 1900s was that a wife had almost no legal controlthen over how a husband spent his pay. Tragically, some husbands spent it onliquor rather than on food and clothing for their family. Nellie later joinedthe W.
C.T.U. (Women’s Christian Temperance Union). The purpose of the W.C.T.
U.was to fight the abuse of alcohol.Nellie’s intelligence and wit helped her greatly throughout her longpolitical career. Her favorite reading was a set of books by the great Englishnovelist, Charles Dickens. Nellie’s brother Will had given her Dickens’ novels.
She admired Dickens as a writer and she dreamed of doing for the people aroundher what Dickens had done for his people. She wanted to open the eyes ofCanadians to the sad situation of those among them who were being takenadvantage of and unfairly treated.Most people thought that a woman’s place was in the home and that awoman’s role was to attract a husband. But in marriage a wife had no legalrights.It was not just Nellie that was fighting for women’s rights, many peoplein other countries were as well. One of the other major countries was Britain,which started the most important organization to fight for women’s suffrage:Women’s Social and Political Union.
It was formed in 1903 by Mrs. EmmelinePankhurst. The struggle for women’s suffrage became more militant after1905.(37, Benham) Some women were allowed in Britain to vote in 1918. Tenyears later all female British citizens finally received the same right to voteas men. (40, Benham) By the same year American women had obtained equal votingrights with men in fifteen of the United Sates.
Nellie worked hard to get the vote for women. The Premier of Manitobadisagreed with Nellie’s views. He stated that ‘nice women’ did not want thevote. In response to this she was quoted saying to the premier (Rodmond Roblin)”By nice women …
you probably mean selfish women who have no more thought forthe underprivileged overworked women than a pussycat in a sunny window for thestarving kitten in the street. Now in that sense I am not a nice woman for I docare.” ( 50, Wright) Finally on January 10, 1916 a bill to give the vote to thewomen of Manitoba was introduced into the provincial legislature. Manitoba hadbecome the first province to enact a bill for women’s suffrage.(57, Wright)This was largely due to Nellie’s efforts, as well as many petitions. She wasnot content with this major achievement but wanted to help all the women ofCanada. Four years later Nellie McClung captivated an audience in Montreal witha well-argued and witty speech.
Eventually, in 1918 the federal government gaveto most women of Quebec, the right to vote in federal elections. (58, Wright)Another quote of Nellie’s was … “Another trouble is that if men start to votethey will vote too much. Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men meanunsettled bills – broken furniture, broken vows, and – divorce .
..” (54, Wright)After women obtained more rights, over time, it paved the way to theacceptance of women in political jobs. Nellie McClung had been elected aLiberal member of the Alberta provincial legislature in 1921. Unfortunately in1926 she was defeated in an election.In 1936 she became the only woman member appointed to the Board ofGovernors of the CBC. Also, in 1938 at the age of 65, she was the only Canadianwoman delegate to the League of Nations.
Sir Robert Borden, Canadian primeminister, recognized Nellie’s contributions to Canada when he appointed her theonly woman member of the Dominion War Council.Nellie did many things as a feminist, and in addition to her impressiveresume she also raised five children. All her life Nellie took a stronginterest in the welfare of human beings. This interest was reflected in herlove of peace and fear of war.
As she entered old age, Nellie suffered a series of heart attacks. Sheunfortunately passed away in 1951, at age 78. Right up until the end of herlife Nellie remained interested in women’s rights. Shortly before her death shesaid confidently: “I believe the day is coming when all bars will be let downand all opportunities thrown open to women.” (68, Wright)Nellie McClung proved women were capable of being responsible, usefulmembers of society while still remaining loving mother and wives at the sametime.
She is a shining example of the determination, strength and courage whichour Canadian women possess. (29, McCarthy) One woman can make a difference!Works CitedMcClung, Nellie In Times Like These University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 1972.ISBN 0-8020-1823-8Warne, Randi R. Literature as Pulpit: the Christian social activism of Nellie L.
McClung, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Toronto: 1993. ISBN 0-88920-235-4Wright, Helen K. Nellie McClung and Women’s Rights, The Book Society of CanadaLtd.
, 1980.ISBN 0-7725-5290-8McCarthy, Tom Nellie McClung, The Girl Who Liked To Ask Questions,Benham, Mary Lile The Canadians: Nellie McClung, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd. ,Don Mills, Ontario, 1975. ISBN 0-88902-219-4