TimeLinks: Nellie McClung

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Portrait of Nellie McClung

Helen Mooney was born in 1873 near Owen Sound, Ontario. In 1880, she moved with her family to farm near Millford southeast of Brandon. At the age of sixteen, with only five years of formal education, she moved to Winnipeg where she attended Normal School and qualified as a teacher. In 1890, she went to teach at Manitou, where she boarded with the family of the Rev. James and Annie McClung. She was profoundly influenced by Annie McClung, who was an ardent champion of women’s rights, suffrage, and president of the Manitou chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

In the years before the First World War, McClung established herself as a popular author. Her books celebrated the rural and western ideal and the superiority of country over city. In one novel, for example, she compares the country life to a diet of “good brown bread” in contrast to the “popcorn and chocolate” fare of the cities of the East. The bright and heroic tone of these books captured the optimism and the idealism of the Canadian Prairies. They won a large readership.

These books also capture the kernel of McClung’s feminism. As a “pioneer” writer, McClung was aware of the extent of women’s labour and sensitive to the fact that it was not always recognized or rewarded. She had a sharp eye for the realities of the prairie experience, and her sympathetic renderings of the struggles of farm families struck a chord with many westerners.

While a celebrated novelist, it is as an essayist and political activist that McClung is most often remembered. She and her husband, Wes McClung, son of the family she had boarded with in Manitou, moved to Winnipeg in 1911, where she became involved with the Canadian Women’s Press Club and where her fervent Methodism and belief in the Social Gospel found release in the suffrage movement.

McClung, together with other middle class reformers like Lillian Beynon Thomas, E. Cora Hind, Winona Flett (Mrs. F.J. Dixon), Dr. Amelia Yeomans and Francis Marion Beynon, was a founding member of the Political Equality League and a tireless speaker for its speakers bureau. She crossed the province dozens of times, using her wit and humour to drive home at every theatre and community hall her message of justice for women.

McClung enjoyed a long and often bitter rivalry with Manitoba’s premier, Sir Rodmond Roblin, having encountered him early in her political career when she and an accomplice tricked him into a tour of some of Winnipeg’s dirtiest sweat shops, forcing him to come face to face with the reality of women’s labour. McClung loved to imitate the premier’s self-important manner, and fittingly had the privilege of playing Roblin in the Women’s Parliament in 1914.

In 1915, McClung penned In Times Like These, a collection of anecdotes and speeches based on the speaking tours she had done for the Political Equality League. This book remains today one of the most articulate expressions of the ideology and arguments of maternal feminism. In it, the reader can see evidence of McClung’s fervent Methodism, her adherence to the Social Gospel, and also the elitism and persistent nativism that would later mar her relationship with some of her more progressive allies like Francis Beynon.

McClung did not stay in Manitoba long enough to see women win the vote, but rather followed her husband’s pharmacy business to Alberta. There she remained very much in public life. She was to serve as a Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly in Alberta in the early 1920s, and was to reach thousands with her syndicated newspaper column “Nellie McClung Says.”

McClung remained allied with the cause of women’s rights all her life, and in 1929, she was one of the “famous five” who battled in the courts and at parliament to have women declared “persons” under the law.

Page revised: 15 January 2015