Helen “Nellie” Laetitia Mooney was born October 20, 1873 in a log cabin on Garafraxa Road, two kilometers from Chatsworth, Ontario. She and her family moved to Manitoba when she was six years old.
One of Nellie’s best influences was her mother. Her family’s influence was no doubt the reason she became an activist. Her mother thought that every child had the right to an education, and her whole family encouraged her to learn all she could. (9, Wright) Nellie at age ten, went to school at Northfield School. This is where her education started.
Nellie’s dream was to be a teacher like her sister Hannah. Teaching was one of the few jobs open to women. She started her ‘voyage’ at age fifteen by passing the Second Class Teachers’ Examination. She went on to earn a higher teaching certificate at Winnipeg Collegiate in 1893. She went on to teach at Hazel Public School near Manitou, Manitoba.
We study Nellie McClung because she was an internationally celebrated feminist and social activist. Her success as a platform speaker was legendary. Her earliest success was achieved as a writer, and during her lengthy career she authored four novels, two novellas, three collections of short stories, a two-volume autobiography and various collections of speeches, articles and wartime writing, to a total of sixteen volumes. Two of her most famous books are: Clearing In The West and The Stream Runs Fast. All this served as a “pulpit” from which McClung could preach her gospel of feminist activism and social transformation. She was convinced that God’s intention for creation was a “Fair Deal” for everyone; and that Canada, particularly the prairie West, was a perfect place to begin to bring that about. Women’s suffrage, temperance and the ordination of women were keystones in the battle – engaged. In contrast to contemporary stereotypes, with a wit and compelling humor that won over enemies as it delighted her allies.
Nellie was a curious girl, she was always asking questions. This was not commonly seen among girls in her time. As a small child she would want to participate in sports with the boys, although she was always told she wasn’t allowed. “I was hoping there would be a race for girls under ten, or that girls might enter with the boys. But the whole question of girls competing in races was frowned on. Skirts would fly upward and legs would show! And it was not nice for little girls, or big ones either, to show their legs.”(2, Wright)
As many great philosophers do, Nellie would always ask: Why? It seemed as though she always had to get an answer. She loved to think, dream about one day seeing men and women as equals. Nellie was always trying to make everybody equal. During her teaching days, she would organize football (as well as other sports) and let the girls participate along side with the boys.
Nellie was first introduced to the feminist movement by a woman named Annie McClung. It was Annie who first inspired Nellie to take a stand for women’s rights. (16, Wright) Annie’s son (Wesley) was also the man who Nellie married. She married at the age of 23 in a Presbyterian Church in Wawanesa, Manitoba.
Nellie shortly after her marriage, devoted her life to helping women fight for a better world. She saw too many women being mistreated by their drunken husbands. She saw alcohol as a major problem, husbands would get drunk and then assault the women. Nellie though that if women obtained the right to vote, they could succeed in changing the liquor laws. Nellie was not alone in this view. In Britain and the United States, as well as in Canada, the demand for women’s suffrage was closely linked with the demand for prohibition. (24, Benham) One of the reasons why prohibition was linked to the struggle for women’s rights in the early 1900s was that a wife had almost no legal control then over how a husband spent his pay. Tragically, some husbands spent it on liquor rather than on food and clothing for their family. Nellie later joined the W.C.T.U. (Women’s Christian Temperance Union). The purpose of the W.C.T.U. was to fight the abuse of alcohol.
Nellie’s intelligence and wit helped her greatly throughout her long political career. Her favorite reading was a set of books by the great English novelist, Charles Dickens. Nellie’s brother Will had given her Dickens’ novels. She admired Dickens as a writer and she dreamed of doing for the people around her what Dickens had done for his people. She wanted to open the eyes of Canadians to the sad situation of those among them who were being taken advantage of and unfairly treated.
Most people thought that a woman’s place was in the home and that a woman’s role was to attract a husband. But in marriage a wife had no legal rights.
It was not just Nellie that was fighting for women’s rights, many people in other countries were as well. One of the other major countries was Britain, which started the most important organization to fight for women’s suffrage: Women’s Social and Political Union. It was formed in 1903 by Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst. The struggle for women’s suffrage became more militant after 1905.(37, Benham) Some women were allowed in Britain to vote in 1918. Ten years later all female British citizens finally received the same right to vote as men. (40, Benham) By the same year American women had obtained equal voting rights with men in fifteen of the United Sates.
Nellie worked hard to get the vote for women. The Premier of Manitoba disagreed with Nellie’s views. He stated that ‘nice women’ did not want the vote. In response to this she was quoted saying to the premier (Rodmond Roblin) “By nice women … you probably mean selfish women who have no more thought for the underprivileged overworked women than a pussycat in a sunny window for the starving kitten in the street. Now in that sense I am not a nice woman for I do care.” ( 50, Wright) Finally on January 10, 1916 a bill to give the vote to the women of Manitoba was introduced into the provincial legislature. Manitoba had become the first province to enact a bill for women’s suffrage.(57, Wright) This was largely due to Nellie’s efforts, as well as many petitions. She was not content with this major achievement but wanted to help all the women of Canada. Four years later Nellie McClung captivated an audience in Montreal with a well-argued and witty speech. Eventually, in 1918 the federal government gave to most women of Quebec, the right to vote in federal elections. (58, Wright) Another quote of Nellie’s was … “Another trouble is that if men start to vote they will vote too much. Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills – broken furniture, broken vows, and – divorce …” (54, Wright)
After women obtained more rights, over time, it paved the way to the acceptance of women in political jobs. Nellie McClung had been elected a Liberal member of the Alberta provincial legislature in 1921. Unfortunately in 1926 she was defeated in an election.
In 1936 she became the only woman member appointed to the Board of Governors of the CBC. Also, in 1938 at the age of 65, she was the only Canadian woman delegate to the League of Nations. Sir Robert Borden, Canadian prime minister, recognized Nellie’s contributions to Canada when he appointed her the only woman member of the Dominion War Council.
Nellie did many things as a feminist, and in addition to her impressive resume she also raised five children. All her life Nellie took a strong interest in the welfare of human beings. This interest was reflected in her love of peace and fear of war.
As she entered old age, Nellie suffered a series of heart attacks. She unfortunately passed away in 1951, at age 78. Right up until the end of her life Nellie remained interested in women’s rights. Shortly before her death she said confidently: “I believe the day is coming when all bars will be let down and all opportunities thrown open to women.” (68, Wright)
Nellie McClung proved women were capable of being responsible, useful members of society while still remaining loving mother and wives at the same time. She is a shining example of the determination, strength and courage which our Canadian women possess. (29, McCarthy) One woman can make a difference!
McClung, Nellie In Times Like These University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 1972.
Warne, Randi R. Literature as Pulpit: the Christian social activism of Nellie L. McClung, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Toronto: 1993. ISBN 0-88920-235-4
Wright, Helen K. Nellie McClung and Women’s Rights, The Book Society of Canada Ltd., 1980. ISBN 0-7725-5290-8
McCarthy, Tom Nellie McClung, The Girl Who Liked To Ask Questions,
Benham, Mary Lile The Canadians: Nellie McClung, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd. , Don Mills, Ontario, 1975. ISBN 0-88902-219-4