BORN: Chatsworth, Ontario • 20 October 1873
DIED: Victoria, British Columbia • 1 September 1951
She was born on a small Ontario farm and, as a child, Nellie Mooney moved west with the tide of settlers hoping to find prosperity on the Canadian prairie. It was a pioneering life in Manitoba in the closing years of the nineteenth century, and Nellie did not see the inside of a school until she was ten.
She married, becoming Mrs Wes McClung in 1896. There was not much in this typical Canadian upbringing to suggest that Nellie McClung would ever become one of the most influential social activists in Canadian history.
Her mother was the first to notice something unusual. She often rebuked her adolescent daughter for being a “show-off”; it seems Nellie loved to talk to anyone who would listen, she acted in school plays at every opportunity, and, most appalling, she played boys’ games. It was all too unladylike for proper Mrs Mooney.
Her mother’s anxiety caused Nellie’s first conflict with the social expectations she was not prepared to live up to.For McClung, a fight for women’s rights in society thus began as a practical rather than a theoret¬ ical matter. Forced to forego a teaching career after she married, she was nevertheless determined to maintain a life independent of home and family in Manitou, Manitoba.
She built a modest career as a writer and enjoyed her greatest success with the romantic rural novel Sowing Seeds in Danny. It was only after the family followed her husband’s job to Winnipeg in 1911 that McClung embarked on a truly public career.To promote her books, McClung had always done some public speaking.
Recitations, as they were known then, were a popular form of entertainment—especially in remote parts of the country. In Winnipeg, McClung began adding political commentary to her less serious themes. She had become a passionate advocate for temperance, since it was women, in her view, who usually paid the price for the widespread abuse of alcohol.
McClung was soon a leading representative of the burgeoning Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and her speeches were the reason: no one else could entertain and educate an audience as she could. She was funny, not preachy, and soon people actually paid to see McClung. When the WCTU decided that women needed the vote to achieve a booze-free society, McClung attacked that cause with a passion.
She was the ideal person to lead the fight. People enjoyed listening to McClung and, in a world where nobody knew what a feminist was, her demands for suffrage seemed like common sense. The family moved to Alberta in 1915, and McClung continued her campaign for the WCTU. Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia finally granted women the vote in 1916, and politicians and newspapers justly credited McClung with leading the successful fight.
Voters showed their approval by electing her to the Alberta legislature in 1921.By then Nellie McClung was a leading figure in the women’s rights movement around the English-speaking world, and she was often persuaded to give speeches in faraway places. Invariably, she was warmly received. Into the 1930s and 1940s, her place as Canada’s most famous feminist was assured.
In recent years historians often have drawn a distinction between the “maternal” feminism of reformers like McClung and more recent “equal rights” feminism. The argument goes something like this: because McClung did not directly challenge the traditional view of the family, she and others like her represented a more primitive, less progressive chal¬ lenge to thz status quo.
It was not until the 1960s, according to this view, when mainstream Canadian feminist organizations began a campaign for complete social and legal equality, that the women’s movement really arrived. But this analysis is either mistaken or irrelevant. The fact is that McClung frequently made very clear demands for complete equality of the sexes.
Even if Canada’s first feminist was a strong believer in the importance of home and family, this does not diminish her very tangible accomplishments. That more recent generations of women began their battle for equality from a point far beyond women’s status in 1900 was due in large part to Nellie McClung.