A girl raised in the wheat belt of frontier Manitoba became Canada's leading suffragist, the first woman to sit in the Alberta legislature, and author of sixteen volumes of fiction and non-fiction. She remains controversial, but her role in the achievement of women’s suffrage in Canada is unquestionable.
She was born in Ontario in 1873, the youngest of seven children of Irish Methodist farmer John Mooney and Scottish Presbyterian Letitia McCurdy. From an early age, she was passionate about women’s rights, objecting to male privilege, domestic abuse, and alcohol. As a teacher, she became a leader in local affairs and a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the leading women’s organization of the day.
In 1896, she was obliged to retire from teaching when she married pharmacist and fellow WCTU member, Robert Wesley McClung. Robert shared Nellie’s views, but it was only thanks to hired domestic servants that she managed to juggle a busy activist life with domestic responsibilities and the care of four children; that help is acknowledged in her autobiography, The Stream Runs Fast (1945).
When the family moved to Winnipeg in 1911, Nellie found herself at the forefront of Manitoba’s suffrage and temperance movements. She founded the Political Equality League, 'barnstormed’ Canada and the USA as one of the most popular suffrage speakers, and hosted British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst at her home in 1911.
In 1921, McClung became the first woman MLA in Alberta, campaigning for a minimum wage for women, mothers' pensions, and equality in divorce.
In January 1914, McClung and other Winnipeg suffragists attracted much publicity by holding a ‘Women’s Parliament’ in a city theatre. Women held the seats, and men had to petition for the vote.
McClung played an important role in the achievement, in 1916, of provincial suffrage in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is important to note that when Ottawa completed the process of federal franchise in 1919, First Nations, Inuit and other ethnic minorities were excluded.
In 1921, McClung became the first woman MLA in Alberta, campaigning for a minimum wage for women, mothers’ pensions, and equality in divorce. However, she also supported the Alberta Sexual Sterilisation Act, that permitted the forced sterilisation of some 2,800 so-called ‘mental defectives’ up to 1972. First Nations and métis people, who made up a large proportion of the province’s population, suffered the greatest degree of harm under this law.
When McClung moved to Calgary in 1926, she lost her seat in the Alberta legislature. She remained active, however, and was part of a successful ten-year campaign for women to be recognised as ‘persons’ for the purpose of eligibility for the Canadian Senate. In 1936, she was appointed to the board of governors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and in 1938, joined the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations.
McClung left a complex legacy. She did not tolerate fascism, National Socialism or xenophobia. This, and her lifelong support for women’s rights – including day-care, contraception, and equal wages – sits in sharp contrast to her willingness to overlook the rights of First Nations, Inuit, and métis women, and women with disabilities.
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by Dr Angela Byrne for the Irish Embassy exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade