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Manitoba History: Can a Woman Raise a Family and Have a Career?

by Nellie McClung

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Many interesting and valuable documents are located in repositories in rural Manitoban communities. Printed below is an excerpt from a document located in the Boyne Regional Library in Carman; it comes to us courtesy of the Library. It is the text of a speech that was evidently given frequently by Nellie McClung, the Manitoba leader of the woman’s suffrage movement. In 1927 Mrs. McClung received a request for debating material from a young teacher named Hilda Wake (at Pomeroy School; now Mrs. Hilda Brown of Carman). Mrs. McClung replied enclosing a text entitled “Can a Woman Raise a Family and Have a Career?”

Nellie McClung
Source: Archives of Manitoba

When the question of a married woman’s having a career is mentioned, one thought rises up like a gray ghost from the welter of opinions and has to be laid, before the discussion can go on:

What does her husband think of it?

When I first began to give public addresses, I saw this question standing in front of me at every meeting. A man may make an address, sing a song or paint a picture, and go on his way, leaving behind him an impression of what he has done, and that only, but a woman has to be explained, endorsed and vouched for. Who is she? Where is her home? Does she wash on Monday? Does she have meals on time? Are her children well-trained?—and above all, what does her husband think of her activities?

Now I readily admit that the matter of the husband’s attitude is all important. Not many women are strong enough and aggressive enough to face the world without the husband’s moral support. I have come through many strenuous fights myself, and must confess that I had much delight therein, and hope to fight again with equal joyousness, but none of them have been domestic quarrels. I would be a sorry fighter with my own folks. Home, for men and women must be a place of restfulness and peace, where harmony abounds and the soul is refreshed with comradeship.

So the critics of any woman’s public activities are right in the first round. It does matter what her husband thinks! ...

In reply to the question “Can a Woman raise a Family and have a Career?”, ... I say wholeheartedly, YES!

A woman can do other things while raising her family, and the family need not suffer, but she must have harmony at home. A woman can do many things if she has love and loyalty, and I have had these in abundant measure in my own home and in my own family in all its branches, mother, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, (my father died when I was eighteen). When I came home, after a campaign, whether I came “with my shield or on it,” I have been received joyously, and we have had great fun over it. No woman could grow bitter, even though defeated, when she has a family like mine!

I remember when the big political fight of 1914 was raging, and the Telegram, now defunct, was running cartoons of me every day, my youngest boy—three years old, ran away one morning and we were alarmed over his disappearance. But before we had time to be greatly disturbed, his brother, aged eight, delivered him at the back door, breathless with joy at being safe home with the young deserter,—“I got him, mother”, he shouted, “It’s all right, the Telegram didn’t see him, I sneaked him up the lane”.

He would have made a more interesting picture for the Telegram than the weird things they were running too, with his grimy little face, and one stocking at half mast.

We had the baby trained to say he was a Suffragette’s child, anticipating and incidentally answering the wise old cracks about neglected children. He was a red-cheeked little chap, with a fine head of yellow hair, and in his white suits was very good to look at when we went to Edmonton to live. My brother Will, who lived beside me, quite enjoyed the shock of surprise some of his friends received when they asked “Who is this fine child you have, Mr. Mooney?” to hear the fine child reply with profound gravity and a fine air of detachment, “I am a Suffragette’s child—and never knew a mothers’ love!”

There is one difficulty in the way of a woman’s having a public career, one real sore spot, and on it I am not going to dwell, for I cannot think of it without bitterness, and that is the fact that there are people mean enough to show hostility and spite to the children, when they differ from the mother politically. I could tell some tales in this regard, but I have never talked about it. It is all rather pitiful to know that people can be so cruel. That is the one part of my public life that has really hurt:—You know the old saying: “He who brings children into the world gives hostages to fortune.”

The world cannot ever think of a woman as a human being, and with merely one person’s responsibility. When Miss McPhail addressed a letter to the school children of Ontario last year, a storm of abuse broke out. It was not argument, or criticism of what she had written, it was abuse. Women’s organizations were quick to repudiate her. Now they had every right to criticize her utterances; she would expect that; but Miss McPhail or any other woman, is under no compulsion to please all other women. That is too large an order. Neither should they taunt her with “being a member of our sex.”—That was their bitterest complaint—that “a member of our own sex” should have uttered such heresy.

But it is so;—Women find it hard to grant to another woman the right to differ from them.

In the election last summer, a woman called me on the phone one day and asked me if I believed every word in the Old Testament was the directly inspired Word of God, and she explained that the women of her Ladies Aid would like to vote for me, but they had heard me say in a Bible Society Address that I thought some of the characters in the Old Testament could not be defended, and I had said Elisha had shown a nasty bit of temper when he cursed the children who had annoyed him, and they feared I was tinted with modernism.

I asked her if they had ascertained the religious views of my opponent, and she said “Oh No! it was entirely different with men, the world expects more of women.” And then she told me a woman without religion was a bird without song or a flower without perfume!

The standards of the world regarding women are pretty tightly set. The decree is that she must either stay at home, or at least do nothing serious. No one has much to say about the woman who stays away from home for frivolous purposes: and now while we are speaking about it, I wish to say that I believe I have spent more hours in my own home than the average woman, for I do not play bridge, I am not a habitual attender of teas or dances, and I rarely go out in the evening. But still I get phone calls like this:—“Is that W. 4717, is Mrs. McClung home, by any chance?,” to which I reply,—“she is at home, though it is not by chance, it is by deliberate design, and what can I do for you?” It’s good fun to hear the sudden scamper to cover, they seem to think I come home only when every place else is closed.

Children are not a handicap to any woman. They open up a new world to their mother, the rainbow hued world of childhood, with its delightful confidences and the unforgettable times when, all the world shut out, we wandered together through the world of story books. I remember reading David Copperfield to my two eldest children, (softening that dreadful scene where David was whipped for biting his step-father) while they sat, scarcely breathing in their anxiety for their little friend.

Some time after, when their father was in bed with a cold, my eldest boy, then about seven, drew me hastily from the room, with a directness of manner that brooked no delay or evasion, and asked me, all out of breath, “Is my daddy very sick? Is he sick enough to die? If he died, would you marry again?” Before I could frame a denial of any of these, he burst into tears, and cried, “I’ve had enough of this step-father business.” I was able to give him the assurance he wanted. I reasoned it out with him that he was as safe as any little boy could be from the possibility of a step-father. And our faith has been justified.

I cannot lay claim to any great wisdom in bringing up children, neither do I presume to tell how it should be done. I leave that to the qualified people. Five children are a complete disqualification. But I have one strong conviction, and that is this—I have always allowed my children, and encouraged them to talk back. The “Not a word, sir! I’m your mother” type of parent is an abomination. None of my children have ever suffered from in growing eloquence, and I am glad of it. I believe that a woman who has done some-thing outside her home, acquires a wider view-point, which in turn is passed on to her children. Trifles will not irritate her. If the baker forgets to call, she will not think he has planned this neglect deliberately. If some one fails to invite her to their luncheon, she will understand that no unkindness is meant.

Life is a winding road, we never know what is around the corner, and the secret of happiness is, I believe, never to lose one’s sense of wonder and delight in simple things. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who said that “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” I am not at all sure that I have been successful, but I do know that I have been happy.

Page revised: 5 July 2014

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