Nellie McClung – A pioneer of women’s rights
Oct. 20, 1873
If you are from the female gender and sit have sat or are planning to sit in the Canadian Senate, then you should thank Nellie McClung for helping you get there.
In 1927, McClung and four other women: Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby, who together came to be known as “The Famous Five” (also called “The Valiant Five”), launched the “Persons Case,” contending that women could be “qualified persons” eligible to sit in the Senate.
This section had served to exclude women from political office. The petition was successful, clearing the way for women to enter politics in Canada. Between 1904 and 1911, Nellie McClung, her husband Wesley (a druggist) and their five children resided in Manitou, Man.
The women’s rights movement in Winnipeg embraced her. An effective speaker with a sense of humour, she played a leading role in the successful Liberal campaign in 1914. She lived in the West for the rest of her life in Manitou, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Victoria. McClung was the grandmother of outspoken Alberta judge John McClung.
The Manitou house in which McClung and her family lived has been re-located to the Archibald Historical Museum in La Riviere, Man. where it has been restored.
When arguing for the support of equitable divorce laws, of which she was a long time supporter, McClung once said “Why are pencils equipped with erasers if not to correct mistakes?”
Her great causes were women's suffrage and the temperance. She understood that the First World War had played an important role in broadening the appeal of women's suffrage because the manpower shortages required widespread female employment, making the image of the sheltered female more obviously inapplicable to Canadian circumstances.
It was largely through her efforts that in 1916 Manitoba became the first province to give women the right to vote and to run for public office. The Government of Canada followed suit that same year. After moving to Edmonton, Alb, she continued the campaign for suffrage.
She championed dental and medical care for school children, property rights for married women, mothers' allowances, factory safety legislation and many other reforms. McClung was a supporter of the then popular social philosophy of eugenics and campaigned for the sterilization of those considered “simple-minded”. Her promotion of the benefits of sterilization contributed to the passage of eugenics legislation in Alberta.
She published her first novel Sowing Seeds in Danny in 1908. A national bestseller, it was succeeded by short stories and articles in several Canadian and American magazines. She served as a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta from 1921 to 1926. As an opposition member, her opportunity to press for women's rights was limited, because women were not taken seriously.
During the last 10 years of her life poor health severely limited her activities, but she still welcomed many visitors and kept in close touch with world affairs through radio, books, and magazines. She is still a frequently quoted feminist writer because her pithy and witty comments on the role of women are as timely today as when they were written.
Women still share her hope that “we may yet live to see the day when women will no longer be news…. I want to be a peaceful, happy, normal, human being, pursuing my unimpeded way through life, never having to explain, defend, or apologize for my sex.”
On Sept. 1, 1951 McClung passed away at the age of 77.