Biography of Nellie McClung, Canadian Activist for Women's Rights

A Nellie McClung Sculpture in Ottawa, Ontario
Alan Marsh / Getty Images

Nellie McClung (October 20, 1873–September 1, 1951) was a Canadian women's suffragette and temperance advocate. She became famous as one of the "Famous Five" Alberta women who initiated and won the Persons Case to have women recognized as persons under the BNA Act. She was also a popular novelist and author.

Fast Facts: Nellie McClung

  • Known For: Canadian suffragette and author
  • Also Known As: Helen Letitia Mooney
  • Born: October 20, 1873 in Chatsworth, Ontario, Canada
  • Parents: John Mooney, Letitia McCurdy.
  • Died: September 1, 1951 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
  • Education: Teachers College in Winnipeg, Manitoba
  • Published WorksSowing Seeds in Danny, Flowers for the Living; A Book of Short Stories, Clearing in the West: My Own Story, The Stream Runs Fast: My Own Story
  • Awards and Honors: Named one of Canada's first "honorary senators"
  • Spouse: Robert Wesley McClung
  • Children: Florence, Paul, Jack, Horace, Mark
  • Notable Quote: "Why are pencils equipped with erasers if not to correct mistakes?"

Early Life

Nellie McClung was born Helen Letitia Mooney on October 20, 1873 and was raised on a homestead in Manitoba. She received very little formal education until the age of 10 but nevertheless received a teaching certificate at age 16. She married pharmacist Robert Wesley McClung at 23 and joined her mother-in-law as an active member of the Manitou Woman's Christian Temperance Union. As a young woman, she wrote her first novel, "Sowing Seeds in Danny," a humorous book about western country life that went on to become a best seller. She then went on to write stories and articles for various magazines.

Early Activism and Politics

In 1911, the McClungs moved to Winnipeg, and it was there that Nellie's powerful speaking skills became valuable in the political arena. From 1911–1914, Nellie McClung fought for women's suffrage. In the 1914 and 1915 Manitoba provincial elections, she campaigned for the Liberal Party on the issue of women voting.

Nellie McClung helped organize the Winnipeg Political Equality League, a group devoted to helping working women. A dynamic and witty public speaker, Nellie McClung lectured frequently on temperance and women's suffrage.

In 1914, Nellie McClung acted as the role of Manitoba Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin in the mock Women's Parliament intended to show the absurdity of denying women the vote.

In 1915, the McClung family moved to Edmonton Alberta; in 1921, Nellie McClung was elected to the Alberta legislative assembly as an opposition Liberal for the riding of Edmonton. She was defeated in 1926.

The Persons Case

Nellie McClung was one of the "Famous Five" in the Persons Case, which established the status of women as persons under the law. The Persons Case related to the British North America Act (BNA Act) which referred to "persons" as males. When Canada's first female police magistrate was appointed, challengers argued that the BNA Act did not consider women as "persons" and they could not, therefore, be appointed to official positions of power.

McClung was one of five Alberta women who fought against the wording of the BNA Act. After a series of defeats, the British Privy Council (Canada's highest court of appeals) ruled in favor of the women. This was a major victory for women's rights; the Privy Council stated that "the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word 'persons' should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?" Just a few months later, the first woman was appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Later Career

The McClung family moved to Vancouver Island in 1933. There, Nellie continued writing, focusing on her two-volume autobiography, short stories, and non-fiction. She served on the CBC's board of governors, became a delegate to the League of Nations, and continued her public speaking work. She wrote a total of 16 books, including the acclaimed In Times Like These.

Causes

Nellie McClung was a strong advocate for the rights of women. In addition, she worked on causes including temperance, factory safety, old age pensions, and public nursing services.

She was also, along with some of her Famous Five colleagues, a strong supporter of eugenics. She believed in involuntary sterilization of the disabled and played a major role in pushing through the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act passed in 1928. In her 1915 book, "In Times Like These," she wrote:

"[...] to bring children into the world, suffering from the handicaps caused by ignorance, poverty, or criminality of the parents, is an appalling crime against the innocent and hopeless, and yet one about which practically nothing is said. Marriage, homemaking, and the rearing of children are left entirely to chance, and so it is no wonder that humanity produces so many specimens who, if they were silk stockings or boots, would be marked “seconds.”

Death

McClung died of natural causes at her home in Saanich (Victoria), British Columbia, on September 1, 1951.

Legacy

McClung is a complex figure for feminists. On the one hand, she fought for and helped to achieve a major political and legal goal, formalizing the rights of women as persons under the law. On the other hand, she was also a strong advocate for traditional family structure and for eugenics—an extremely unpopular concept in today's world.

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