In 1873, when the united Canada was only six years old, a baby of particular interest was born near Owen Sound, Ontario. The baby was Nellie Letitia Mooney. The Province of Manitoba - where Nellie's parents were soon to be pioneer farmers, and which would be the schoolroom of Nellie's political education - had joined the country a mere three years previously. The Province of Alberta, where she would have some of her greatest successes, was a dream decades in the future. This baby went on to help set the course of Canada's political agenda over the course of the first half of the 20th Century, and by the end of that century lasting memorials had been dedicated to her and her associates across the country.
Early Life in Ontario and Manitoba
Nellie was born into the well-established world of an old Upper Canada town. Society was structured according to a plan that had been brought from England in previous centuries: for individuals there was a certainty and security in one's role in the family, the church, and the social order. Owen Sound was no longer the frontier it had been; the frontier had moved further west.
In 1880, Nellie's family moved to the Tiger Hills, near Millford, Manitoba, as homesteaders. A childhood spent homesteading in the Canadian west - where the labour of every able body, regardless of sex, was required to supply the needs of the family - gave Nellie her first lesson in the actual capabilities of women. The rest of her life was devoted to wiping away societal limitations on those abilities.
Aged 16, after just five years of school, Nellie moved to Winnipeg in 1890, to take training as a school teacher. In 1890 she moved to the small Manitoba town of Manitou, where she taught school and boarded in the house of her future parents-in-law. Annie McClung was an early and devoted activist for women's rights and became a profound influence on Nellie. Nellie eventually married Annie's son, Wes, and together they had five children.
While raising the family, Nellie also began to write, and it was from her home in Manitoba that she began to establish herself as a writer of some note. She also became active in politics, first with the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Manitou, and in 1912, a year after moving to Winnipeg, she founded the Winnipeg Political Equality League. The League was instrumental in the campaign to win women the vote in Manitoba - a campaign that eventually saw success in 1916. Although she had been unable to vote or run for office, Nellie had been a prominent speaker during political campaigns in the previous two years.
Middle Life in Alberta
Nellie left Manitoba just before women were granted the vote. She and Wes moved with his pharmacy business to Edmonton, Alberta, and she plunged right back into her political work. Manitoba's decision to grant the vote to women came a few months ahead of the rest of the Canadian provinces following suit. The situation at the Federal level, however, was more complicated. In 1917, certain war-time emergency legislation granted some women the temporary right to vote in Federal elections, but it was not until 1918 that a more general, permanent right was granted, and only in 1919 were women allowed to run for Parliament themselves. In 1920, uniform rules were established for Federal voting rights across the country.
The Election of Nellie McClung
As a fitting follow-up to the arrival of complete suffrage rights to women in Canada, Nellie McClung ran for political office as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in 1921. She won the seat and held it until 1926. As a member of the Loyal Opposition she sponsored a number of bills concerned with medical and dental care for children, provincial allowances for mothers, and property rights for married women. One might be forgiven for thinking that there were few targets left that were high enough for her aim.
The 'Persons' Case
Although Nellie McClung had personally demonstrated the capability of women as elected representatives and legislators, the Upper House of the Canadian Parliament, the Senate, remained closed to women. In 1927, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Nellie McClung - collectively known as the 'Famous Five' - presented a petition to the British Parliament demanding clarification of the term 'persons' in the section of the British North America Act which defines the Canadian Senate. To that point 'persons' had always been legally understood to exclude female people. On 18 October, 1929, the British Parliament handed down its decision in the 'persons case': women are indeed persons in Canadian law.
This decision is the achievement for which Nellie McClung and the others of the Famous Five are most remembered. The decision removed the final barrier to women in Canadian law and had implications throughout the British Empire and subsequent Commonwealth.
Later Life in British Columbia
In 1934, Nellie moved to Gordon Head, a suburb of Victoria, British Columbia, where she lived until her death in 1951. During her time on Vancouver Island, she continued to write and campaign. In 1939 she was the only Canadian woman delegate to the League of Nations. She also made on-going speaking tours of Canada, Britain and the United States.
Nellie McClung was one of a generation of remarkable women who achieved unbelievable breakthroughs for the society around her. Nellie McClung was instrumental in wining the vote for women and for having women recognised as persons under the law throughout the British Empire. She spearheaded campaigns to protect the property rights of divorced women, to provide medical care to children in need, and to bring peace to the world. While she reached out in such a dramatic way to the larger world, she was also raising a family, carrying on a career as a novelist, and, in her early life, teaching children in a one room schoolhouse.
There have been questions about some aspects of Nellie McClung's legacy, particularly concerning her support for eugenics policies in the period between the wars. No defence can really be made for such support, but it is possible to make an explanation. Nellie McClung and the other members of the Famous Five, like so many of their contemporaries, saw horrors around them. They saw children suffering because of disabilities, both mental and physical, and, like so many even today who do not have the experience of parenting a child with a disability, they asked 'wouldn't it be better if that poor child had never been born?'
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be painful looking back to the rosy eugenic hope of the 1930s when we consider where it led us - especially in Germany during the following decades. It's unsettling that the eugenics policies directed against the mentally disabled were only lifted in many jurisdictions, including Alberta, in the 1970s. And, of course, the 20th Century ended with eugenics replaced by genocide and genocide replaced by 'ethnic cleansing'. Though Nellie McClung certainly helped make the world a better place, she also made mistakes along the way, as do so many.
Memorials to Nellie McClung and the Famous Five range from simple plaques in public buildings to long range programmes for encouraging young women to continue the types of political efforts they spearheaded.
In 1938 a plaque was placed outside the Senate Chamber in Ottawa to commemorate the Famous Five and the 'Persons Case'.
In the town of Chatsworth, Ontario, south of Owen Sound, there is a Provincial Heritage Plaque on the United Church commemorating Nellie McClung's nearby birthplace. As well, there is a roadside monument to Nellie to the south of Chatsworth.
The Nellie McClung Junior High School is a Programme for young women offered by the Edmonton Public School Board. The programme is designed to foster the skills of leadership and desire for public service that Nellie McClung demonstrated in her life.
In its River Valley Parks System, the City of Edmonton has parks named in honour of each of the Famous Five.
The City of Calgary, Alberta has named an elementary school in honour of Nellie McClung.
In 1976, twenty-five years after Nellie McClung's death, the Greater Victoria Public Library opened its Nellie McClung Branch
In 2000 a monument to the Famous Five was unveiled in Ottawa. It is the first statue of Canadian women on Parliament Hill.
In October 2009, the Senate of Canada voted to make Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby honorary senators.
A Select Bibliography of Nellie McClung's books
Nellie McClung's books are no longer much read: her fiction is largely out of print and her non-fiction is of interest mainly as historical documents rather than as relevant social commentary. The world has moved on, or believes that it has, from many of the issues of her day. Below is a selection of her work most of which will be available in larger public libraries in Canada. Many of these titles will also be available from used book sellers, both online and on the High Street.
- Sowing Seeds in Danny, 1908
- The Second Chance, 1910
- The Black Creek Stopping House and Other Stories, 1912
- The Next of Kin, 1917
- Purple Springs, 1921
- When Christmas Crossed 'The Peace', 1923
- Painted Fires, 1925
- All We Like Sheep, 1926
- Be Good to Yourself, 1930
- Flowers for the Living, 1931
- In Times Like These, 1915
- Three Times and Out, 1918
- Leaves from Lantern Lane, 1936
- More Leaves from Lantern Lane, 1937
Nellie McClung's autobiography in two volumes
- Clearing in the West, 1935
- The stream runs fast, 1945