Nellie McClung  


Born: October 20, 1873, Chatsworth, Ontario

Died: September 1, 1951, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada


Biographical Note:

Nellie (Mooney) McClung was an adult educator for women's rights, one of "The Famous Five," author of 15 books, suffragist, social reformer, lecturer, and legislator.

Nellie's teaching, writing, and public speaking abilities were all utilized to improve the rights of Canadian women. Her passion for women's rights, activist nature, Christian faith, and sense of duty, blended well with the social and moral reform movements arising in the West. Rural life, the plight of immigrants, conditions in cities and factories, the movements for prohibition and women's suffrage, World War I, the Depression, and World War II, provided the historical context.

Nellie was born in 1873 in Ontario, before her family moved to Manitoba in 1880 as pioneer homesteaders. In 1896 she married Wes McClung and they had five children. After she gave birth to her first child in 1897, Nellie's new motherhood increased her passion for the rights of those who had no political voice, the children whose fathers squandered their paychecks on alcohol. Nellie's immediate response to this feeling was to join the local branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

She founded many organizations: the Winnipeg Political Equality League, the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada, and the Women's Institute of Edmonton, for which she was also the first president [Bruce Spencer (1998) acknowledges that "the Women's Institute became the largest adult education movement in Canada"]. She was also active in the Canadian Authors' Association, the Canadian Women's Press Club, the Methodist Church of Canada, the Calgary Women's Literary Club, and others.

As a mother of five, the encouragement and assistance of Nellie's mother-in-law enabled Nellie to write, lecture, and be actively involved in social issues. Warne's (1998) sketch of Nellie McClung declares that she "used her literature as a pulpit to preach her gospel of feminist activism and social transformation." Although she was an advocate of a broad range of issues, her successful leadership was applied to her consistent causes: women's suffrage and prohibition. She started public speaking by giving readings as an author. However, she soon developed into a lecturer, accepting speaking engagements on suffrage and temperance. She was a prominent speaker for the Liberal Party in the Manitoba provincial elections of 1914 and 1915. Her effort was rewarded in 1916 when Manitoba became the first province to give women the right to vote and to run for public office. After moving to Edmonton, she continued the suffrage battle. The federal vote in 1918 came before both Great Britain and the United States granted this right to women (MacLellan, 1971).

Nellie was a Liberal (Opposition) member of the Alberta legislature from 1921 to 1926. Sworn in on July 18, 1921, she was only the third woman ever elected to a provincial government in Canada. Nellie sponsored dental and medical care for school children, married women's property rights, and mothers' allowances. An independently-minded member, she spoke out about her own party's measures or supported government initiatives such as old age pensions, amendments to the Dower Act, public health nursing services, and better conditions in factories.

Some precedent-setting positions Nellie attained were: delegate to the Women's War Conference in Ottawa, 1918; sole woman delegate of the Methodist Church of Canada to the Ecumenical Conference in London, England, 1921; only female representative of the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 1938; and first woman member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Board of Broadcast Governors in 1936, serving until 1942. She made extensive speaking tours in Canada, the United States, and England, either as an author or activist.

Half way through Nellie's term in the legislature, her husband had been transferred again, this time from Edmonton to Calgary, and once again Nellie followed. In June of 1926, she was defeated in her bid for re-election to the Alberta legislature, but she was not finished with politics.

In 1927 Emily Murphy enlisted the help of Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards, to have women legally recognized as "persons." The British North America Act of 1867"the Act that created the government of Canada"used the word "persons" when it referred to more than one person and the word "he" when it referred to one person. Therefore, many argued, the Act was really saying that only a man could be a person. This prevented women from participating fully in politics and certain professions and universities.

The five Alberta women (later known as "The Famous Five") took the Persons Case all the way to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council in London, England, which was Canada's highest level of appeals. On October 18, 1929, the Judicial Committee unanimously reversed the Supreme Court decision: " . . . the word persons in section 24 of the British North America Act includes members both of the male and female sex, . . . and that women are eligible to . . . become members of the Senate of Canada . . ." It was a great victory for equal rights. Canadian women owe a great deal to Nellie McClung, a passionate adult educator who challenged conventional views and changed Canadian history.

Selected Publications:

MacLellan, M. E. (1971). History of women's rights in Canada. In Cultural tradition

          and political history of women in Canada (sec. 3, p. 17). Ottawa: Studies of the

          Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.

Matheson, G., & Lang, V. E. (1974). No "nice Nellie" was Nellie. In S. Fraser (Ed.),

         A woman's place: Seventy years in the lives of Canadian women (p. 249).

         Toronto: Maclean Hunter Publishing.

McKeown, T., & Thompson, B. (Producers). McKeown, T., & Thompson, J. (Directors).

        (2000). Nellie McClung: The sculpting of angels [videotape]. Canada: Canadian

         Broadcasting Corporation.

Spencer, B. (1998). The purposes of adult education: A guide for students (p. 36).

        Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Warne, R. (1998). Using literature as a pulpit: Nellie McClung. In M. Clarke (Ed.),

        Canada: Portraits of faith (p. 94). Chilliwack, B.C.: Reel to Real Ministries.

Web Links:

The famous five. National Archives of Canada.

Famous Five Foundation.

Hughes, V. International implications of the "persons" case.



Posted February 2004 - Janie Stuart





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