Nellie Letitia McClung

Nellie Letitia McClung (1873-1951) was a Canadian suffragist, social reformer, legislator, and author. She is probably the most frequently quoted feminist writer in Canada.

Nellie Letitia (Mooney) McClung was born on October 20, 1873, near Chatsworth, Ontario. In 1880 the Mooneys, lured by reports of fertile soil and free land, left their marginally profitable farm to homestead in southern Manitoba. Nellie was ten before this pioneer district had a school, but at 16 she received a teaching certificate. She was an innovative teacher in Hazel, Manitou, and Treherne before marrying Robert Wesley McClung in 1896. In Manitou, where Wesley was a druggist, Nellie became active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, a progressive organization which in western Canada supported votes for women as well as prohibition. In 1908 Doubleday published the first of her five novels, Sowing Seeds in Danny, a witty portrayal of a small western town also serialized in the Woman's Home Companion. In Canada it quickly became a best seller. McClung was soon well known as an author of short stories and articles in Canadian and American magazines and was a popular speaker in demand throughout the West.

In 1911 the McClungs moved to Winnipeg, the booming provincial capital. Here a vigorous women's rights and reform movement appreciated Nellie's capacity to win audiences with humorous arguments and to debate effectively with hecklers. The Conservative government of Manitoba under Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin repeatedly refused to consider women's suffrage or prohibition; therefore, McClung took a leading role in the 1914 political campaign in which the Liberal Party advocated these and many other reforms. In a hilarious stage presentation of a women's parliament approached by a delegation of men seeking the vote, McClung's devastating mimicry of the pompous Roblin was credited with opening the eyes of many to the absurdity of the arguments against women's suffrage. During the campaign her much-quoted speeches made her the target of bitter attack in the Conservative press.

With their five children the McClungs moved, in 1914, to Edmonton, Alberta, where Nellie also fought for prohibition and suffrage—achieved in western Canada during World War I. Subsequently she continued to fight for factory safety legislation, better rural health care, minimum wage laws, dower rights, equality under the Divorce Act, and equal opportunities for women in education and the work force. McClung was one of five Alberta women who, under the leadership of Judge Emily Murphy, won "The Persons' Case": the judicial decision that women as "persons" had the right to be appointed to the non-elected Canadian Senate.

By this time McClung's speaking tours had covered most of Canada, and in 1917 and 1918 she had also toured extensively in the United States for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her popular appeal was as strong in the United States as it was at home. In 1921 she was a delegate and challenging speaker to the Methodist Ecumenical Conference in London, England, and made a speaking tour through England and Scotland. The same year McClung won election as a Liberal member of the Provincial Legislature of Alberta. Although sitting as an opposition (minority party) member, she staunchly supported any reform legislation introduced by the government. Defeated in 1926, she did not run again for political office.

In 1933 the McClungs moved to Lantern Lane, a country home near Victoria, British Columbia. Here Nellie completed a two-volume autobiography: Clearing in the West (1935), a graphic portrayal of Manitoba pioneer life, and The Stream Runs Fast (1945), a less effective account of her political activities and writing career. She continued to write short stories and a popular syndicated column. Many of her shorter works were published as collections. In all she published 16 books. In addition to her writing she continued an active life in the Canadian Authors' Association, as the only woman on the first board of governors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as a delegate to the League of Nations in 1938, and as a public lecturer. During the last ten years of her life poor health severely limited her activities, but she still welcomed many visitors and kept in close touch with world affairs through radio, books, and magazines. She died on September 1, 1951.

Forgotten for a decade, McClung was re-discovered by feminists of the 1960s. Some criticized her support of the traditional family structure, but most credited her advancement of the feminist cause in her day and her recognition of the need for further progress: particularly economic independence of women. She is still a frequently quoted feminist writer because her pithy and witty comments on the role of women are as timely today as when they were written. Women still share her hope that "we may yet live to see the day when women will no longer be news…. I want to be a peaceful, happy, normal, human being, pursuing my unimpeded way through life, never having to explain, defend, or apologize for my sex."

Further Reading on Nellie Letitia McClung

McClung's In Times Like These (1915, reprinted 1972) is a book of essays on her feminist ideas, and Painted Fires (1925) is a novel about a Finnish immigrant girl. Candace Savage, Our Nell: A Scrapbook Biography (1979) combines quotations by and about McClung with connecting narrative-analysis.

Additional Biography Sources

Benham, Mary Lile, Nellie McClung, Don Mills, Ont.: Fitzhenry& Whiteside, 1975.

Hancock, Carol L. (Carol Lula), No small legacy: a study guide, Winfield, BC: Wood Lake Books, 1986.

McClung, Mark, Text of talk entitled "Portrait of my mother," Canada: M. McClung, 1975.

McClung, Nellie, Tea with the Queen, Vancouver: Intermedia Press, 1980.

Warne, R. R. (Randi Ruth), Literature as pulpit: the Christian social activism of Nellie L. McClung, Waterloo, Ont.: Published for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion, 1993.

Wright, Helen K., Nellie McClung and women's rights, Agincourt, Ont.: Book Society of Canada, 1980.