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Nellie McClung Facts

Updated on May 12, 2013

The History of this Amazing Woman, Nellie McClung

Three months ago in January 2011, I was challenged in the Jenga Game to make a lens about Canadian women's history.

So I created this lens about the Womens Suffragette movement focusing on Nellie McClung, one of its earliest and most vocal leaders. She and a group of women requested that women be considered legal persons in the eyes of the Canadian government and fought hard for the vote. They finally won their case in 1929. That court case is now called the Persons Case and the women are called the Famous Five.

I have read a copy of her autobiography - called The Stream Runs Fast (first published in 1945) - and am now inspired to create this lens about this fascinating woman.


Photo - Nellie McClung - Wikimedia Commons

Nellie McClung - the Early Years

Nellie Letitia Mooney was born in Chatsworth, Ontario, Canada in 1873 to John and Letitia Mooney. Chatsworth is just a few miles from Owen Sound at the eastern end of Georgian Bay - which is part of Lake Huron. When Nellie was 6 years old, her family moved from Ontario to Manitoba. They settled in the Souris Valley. Because there was no school house in the area, Nellie was unable to receive any education until a school was built 4 years later. At age 10 Nellie finally started school. She still could not read and write but she was eager to learn. She did so well in her classes that she was able to leave school at age 16 and travel to Winnipeg to train and qualify to become a teacher herself.

By age 17, Nellie was a registered teacher and was sent to Manitou, (100 miles south west of Winnipeg) to be the school teacher. She boarded with the Reverend James McClung and his wife Annie and their children. James was the Methodist pastor for Manitou. Annie McClung supported woman's rights and she passed her beliefs onto her children - most noteably her eldest son Robert Wesley McClung (always called Wesley). Nellie was a teacher in Manitou for 7 years (1890 - 1896).

At the age of 23 Nellie stopped teaching when she married Wesley McClung in 1896. He was a druggist and owned a drug store (what today we call a pharmacy). They had 5 children - 4 of whom were born in Manitou, and the last was born in Winnipeg. Nellie's children were John Wesley (AKA Jack), Florence, Paul, Horace and Mark. The first 3 were all born between 1897 and 1901. Horace was born in 1906.

Around the same time, Nellie's desire to write became stronger, Her mother in law offered to help look after the children so that Nellie could spend a day writing. Nellie did so and this story became the basis for her first novel - Sowing Seeds in Danny - which was eventually published in 1908.

Wesley grew tired of being a druggist and sold his store. He tried being a farmer and also became an insurance agent. In 1911 the family moved to Winnipeg. The youngest son Mark, was born in Winnipeg in 1912.

Photo source - Newspaper photo upon release Nellie's first novel - Sowing Seeds in Danny.

Books by Nellie McClung, including her Autobiography

The Stream Runs Fast
The Stream Runs Fast

The second of Nellie McClung's amazing autobiographies, this book covers her years from 1896 to 1945. An amazing time in world history that covered the Depression, two World Wars, the Suffrage movement and more.

 

Nellie McClung with Son and Dog - 1910

This is a Wikimedia Commons Photo.

It says the following.

Label: Nellie_McClung_w_son_and_dog_1910.

Description: Nellie L. McClung, her son Mark and dog Philip in the front yard of her house at 11229 - 100 Avenue

The above address is from Edmonton Alberta. The family only lived in Winnipeg for 3 years - from 1911 until 1914. Since Mark was not born until 1912, it is more likely that this photo was taken in 1916 when Mark was 4 years old, rather than in 1910. It is not uncommon to get a 6 and a 0 mixed up - I do it frequently.

Never retract, never explain, never apologize.

Get things done and let them howl

Nellie McClung - Activist

Once Nellie arrived in Winnipeg, she became active in a number of women's groups. The main one was the WCTU - Women's Christian Temperance Union The WCTU was originally founded to combat the power of men drinking alcohol and the problems it was causing for families and for society. This drive to combat alcohol later changed into giving women the vote, because only when a women has the power to change things in government, can things also change in society. Nellie also continued writing as well.

Nellie McClung was involved in 2 great political battles. One was giving women the vote and the other was making all women legal and qualified in the eyes of the government. This second battle is now called the Persons case.

Another group that Nellie joined was the Canadian Women's Press Club. They met once a week for tea and a chat - usually about the deplorable conditions of women working in small factories. These women were upset over the long hours, small wages and distressing conditions that the female employees were forced to work under.

In 1914 the Premier of Manitoba was a man named Sir Rodmond Roblin. He was notoriously conservative on social issues. He was anti-suffragette and believed that women should remain "barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen". He also resisted passing labour laws to improve working conditions. And despite Prohibition laws being passed by the federal government in 1900, Roblin refused to enforce them in Manitoba, because the Manitoba government received a large amount of its revenue from alcohol duties and taxes.

So in 1914 Nellie McClung and another women persuaded Roblin to visit some businesses in Winnipeg so that he could see the deplorable conditions for himself. Roblin made comments about how women really didn't need to be working and if they were, well, it was just for PIN money ( to pay for small family expenses). And working shouldn't hurt them anyway being as how it would keep them off the streets.

Roblin was taken down some stars to a basement sweatshop where a large number of women were sitting at long tables covered with sewing machines. There was one toilet for both men and women and the plumbing obviously was not working. The floor was a mess - with material scraps and rotting food strewn about. The women did not bother to sweep the floor as they were only paid for each garment they completed. They ate at their machines and the only time they got up was to go to the toilet. Roblin's nose was assaulted by the smell and he cried to leave the place within minutes of arriving. He was also very surprised that genteel women such as Nellie even knew about places like this.

Nellie pressed Roblin to appoint a female factory inspector - one who was a qualified social worker. Roblin promised to speak to his (male) factory inspector about the deplorable conditions - the man's name was Fletcher. Nothing ever happened. Some time later Nellie called Roblin on the telephone at his office and spoke to him about giving women the vote.

The following is an excerpt from Nellie's autobiography - The Stream Runs Fast - first published 1945

Roblin's reply was typical for him and most men of that time.

What in the world do women want to vote for? Why do women want to mix in the hurly-burly of politics? My mother was the best woman in the world, and she certainly never wanted to vote. I respect women, I honour and reverence women. I lift my hat when I meet a woman.

"That's all very nice to hear", Nellie replied, "but unfortunately that's not enough. The laws are very unfair to women and I would like to talk to you and your cabinet. It wouldn't take me long. I think 15 minutes would be enough. Call them, Sir Rodmond, There's plenty of room in your office."

Roblin refused.

It would never do to let you speak to the cabinet. Even if they listened to you, which I doubt, you would only upset them and I don't want that to happen. They are good fellows - they do what they are told to now. I believe in leaving well enough alone.

No. You can't come in here and make trouble with my boys, not when I have them trotting easy and eating out of my hand. Now you forget all this nonsense of women voting. You're a fine smart young woman, Take it from me, nice women don't want the vote

Photo source - Women's Participation in Electoral Politics. Scroll down about halfway.

Left to right: Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy and Laura Jamieson, prominent suffragists and leaders of the women's movement in western Canada, pictured in March 1916.

Books about Nellie L. McClung

The Women's Parliament

Things moved fast after Roblin's comments to Nellie. The enlightened women of Winnipeg organised a mock women's parliament in which women were in power and men were refused their rights. Nellie had an excellent speaking style and knew how to make her audience laugh. She had also studied Roblin's mannerisms and in this mock parliament, she played the premier to the hilt, especially in copying his mannerisms - putting her hands in her lapels, rocking back and forth on her feet, using his facial expressions and repeating his words exactly.

While unfortunately there was no film made of this play, Nellie did write up the play as part of a novel called The Purple Spring.

The Play Part 1

The Play Part 2

And below is a video interview with Beatrice Bridgen who was in the audience of this play in 1914 and recalls what she can remember. This interview took place in 1974 - some 60 years later.

This play was a major factor in the defeat of Roblin's government in the next election in 1915, The very first bill the new Liberal government passed in 1916 was to enfranchise women. So it came to pass that in 1916 Manitoba became the very first Canadian province to give women the vote. Saskatchewan and Alberta also passed laws to enfranchise their women in that same year as well.

The Women's Parliament of Manitoba 1914

Broadcast Date: CBC Dec. 9, 1974

"It was uproariously funny," says Manitoban Beatrice Brigden, recalling Nellie McClung's famous 'mock parliament' of 1914. McClung was an instrumental figure in the fight for women's votes in Canada. In her groundbreaking mock parliament speech, McClung portrayed a world in which gender roles were reversed. She speculated on all the horrible things that would happen if men were to get the vote.

Television clip, Brigden remembers McClung's important performance.

Nellie McClung's 'mock parliament'

Medium: Television

Program: Oldtimers

Broadcast Date: Dec. 9, 1974

Guest(s): Beatrice Brigden

Duration: 4:22

Source: National Archives of Canada and CBC

Click the tab - Did You Know - for more information on the enfranchisement of women.

Should women have been given the vote?

Think about how you answer this question.

How have women changed things by giving them the vote?

Have women changed things at all?

Why are women still being sexually harassed in the workplace?

Do men still perceive that women cannot do things right?

Please add a comment to your answer and say how you voted, thanks.

Do you think it was right to have given women the vote?

See results

Nellie McClung - Extraordinary Canadian

Nellie McClung - the Later Years

Nellie McClung and her family moved to Edmonton, Alberta in late 1914 and thus were not in Manitoba when the election happened. Wesley's insurance company had transferred him to that city.

In 1915 Nellie's eldest son Jack turned 18. He enlisted and was sent off to war and later won his commission to Lieutenant in the field. In 1919 after the Armstice was signed, he finally returned home. Jack went to university in Edmonton where he studied law. He then won a scholarship to Oxford University (in England). Upon graduation from Oxford, Jack was appointed to be a Prosecuting Attorney in the City Police Court. I think this may have been an early version of what is now the District Attorney's Office. Some years later Jack was appointed to a position in the Alberta Attorney General's Office. Jack died in 1944.

Nellie eventually became a provincial representative and sat in the Alberta parliament from 1921 to 1926. During this time she became friends with another writer named Emily Murphy. Emily was appointed as the first women judge in Alberta, but was told by a male lawyer on her first day on the job, that her position and therefore her sentence (of his client) was illegal because as a female, she was not considered to be a person. Emily, Nellie and 3 other women got together and began a petition to have women claimed as Persons so that they could stand for the Federal Senate in Ottawa. They were finally successful in 1929. See my featured lens below - Women are Persons Too.

In 1936 Nellie was appointed to be a member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporations Board of Governors. She was the first women to be appointed to that Board of Directors.

In 1938 as the world was inevitably being drawn into yet another major conflict, Nellie was appointed as Canadian representative to the League of Nations - the forerunner of today's United Nations. In all this time, Nellie never stopped writing.

Nellie and Wesley finally retired to Victoria, British Columbia. Nellie died in Victoria in 1951. Wesley died in 1958.

Jack's son John Wesley McClung (1935 - 2004) grew up to become a lawyer like his father, and eventually became an outspoken judge in the Alberta Court of Appeals

Photo Source - Royal Oak cemetery, Victoria, BC

The Women Are Persons Monument - Parliament Hill, Ottawa

The Famous Five monument on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. This is Nellie McClung holding a newspaper dated October 1929 and entitled Women are Persons - in both English and French. Photo source - Wikimedia Commons

So what do you think of Nellie McClung?

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    • grandma deal profile image

      grandma deal 6 years ago

      Nellie McClung has Hero status as far as I'm concerned. Good job, Serenia. Never retract, never explain, never apologize - I love it.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      Wow! Very fascinating. I was not aware of Nellie McClung until this lens. Nicely done!

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 6 years ago

      An amazing woman indeed. Blessed by a Squid Angel today.

    • caffimages profile image

      caffimages 6 years ago

      Fascinating lens about women's freedom. I know our own history here in the UK but was unaware of the fight Canadian women had...until now. Thank you.

    • profile image

      GrowWear 6 years ago

      That's a beautiful monument. Really expresses the powerfulness of the work Nellie and others did. ...That we ever were thought of as non-persons is such an outrageous thought! Raises my hackles!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I really liked this page. I really thought that it was interesting and we can all move on and do and just do some necessary plumbing in some of these areas and clean out the unneeded problems that we all have today in society.

    • profile image

      RobGrawberger 5 years ago

      This page definitely caught my eye as my wife was raised in Manitou, Manitoba and attended and graduated from the 7-12 school named after this astounding lady. Nellie McClung school is to this day still and active education facility in this small agriculture orientated community. Great Lens!!!

    • profile image

      WinnipegWoman 20 months ago

      Manitoba will be have many celebrations in 2016 for the Centennial of the vote for women.

      We also have a beautiful statue of the Famous Five on the grounds of

      our Legislature.

      http://www.ournellie.com/the-monument/

    • profile image

      Sullivan Heights Department of Social Studies 9 months ago

      This article was very helpful for understanding McClung's history and movements. Great for students. The very minor spelling and punctuation mistakes can also make for a small assignment.

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