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Nellie McClung was born in 1873 in Ontario, but her family moved to Manitoba in 1880 as pioneer homesteaders. She was a pioneer teacher, author, suffragist, social reformer, lecturer and legislator who lived in the West (Manitou, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Victoria) until her death in 1951.
A well-rounded and capable woman, her various careers cannot be described separately, as her teaching, writing and public speaking abilities all fueled her desire to improve the rights of Canadian women. This desire, combined with her true activist nature, Christian faith and sense of duty, meshed perfectly with the social and moral reform movements arising in the West in the early 1900s and produced one of Canada's great social activists. 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 for Nellie, both as a writer and a social reformer. Although some call her a crusader, it is said that she was a practical and realistic leader who put words into political action.
While a young mother in Manitou, she started working with the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). 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. She was also active in, among others, the Canadian Authors Association, the Canadian Women's Press Club, the Methodist Church of Canada and the Calgary Women's Literary Club.
Although she was an advocate of a broad range of issues, her successful leadership was applied to her constant causes: women's suffrage and prohibition. She started public speaking by giving readings (called recitals), 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 campaign for suffrage in Alberta. In 1916, the fight was won at the federal level. She was one of "Famous Five" (Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy and Louise McKinney) who, in 1927, submitted a petition for an interpretation of the word "Person" in section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867. The decision on October 18, 1929, (Persons Case) found that "Person" includes female persons, thereby making women eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada.
She was elected as a Liberal (Opposition) member of the Alberta legislature 1921 to 1926 but was not re-elected in 1926. "...She sponsored such social legislation as dental and medical care for school children, married women's property rights, and mothers' allowances" (Matheson and Lang p. 15). An independently-minded member, she spoke out about her own party's measures or supported government initiatives to improve the rights of women and children such as old age pensions, amendments to the Dower Act, public health nursing services and better conditions in factories.
Some precedent setting positions Nellie McClung attained were: delegate to the Women's War Conference in Ottawa, 1918; sole woman delegate of the Methodist Church of Canada to the Eucumenical Conference in London, England, 1921; only woman member 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 of Canada, the United States and England either as an author or activist.
An eight cent postage stamp was issued in honour of Nellie McClung on August 29, 1973 and her name appears on a plaque outside the Senate chamber placed in honour of the five women who initiated the "Person's Case".
Hallett, Mary E. "Un combat que ne finit jamais". Horizon Canada. Vol. 1, no. 10 (1984). P. 230-35
Hallett, Mary E. "The fight that never ends". Horizon Canada. Vol. 1, no. 10 (1984). P. 230-35
Hallett, Mary E.; Davis, Marilyn. Firing the heather : the life and times of Nellie McClung. Saskatoon : Fifth House, c1994. 336 p.
Legault, Suzanne; Silver, Marie-France. "Nellie McClung 1873-1951". Vierges folles, vierges sages : kaléidoscope de femmes canadiennes dans l'univers du légendaire. Saint-Boniface, Man. : Éditions des Plaines, c1995. P. 135-139
McClung, Nellie L. Clearing in the west : my own story. Toronto : Thomas Allen Limited, c1935. 378 p.
McClung, Nellie L. In times like these. Introduction by Veronica Strong-Boag. [Toronto] : University of Toronto Press, . 129 p. (The Social history of Canada series).
McClung, Nellie L. The stream runs fast : my own story. Toronto : Thomas Allen, 1945. 316 p.
Nellie McClung, 1873-1951 : western whirlwind [kit]. [Montreal] : National Film Board of Canada, . 1 filmstrip, 1 sound cassette. (Heroes and heroines of Canada series).
Savage, Candace. Our Nell : a scrapbook biography of Nellie L. McClung. Saskatoon : Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979. 253 p.
Warne, R. R. (Randi Ruth). Literature as pulpit : the Christian social activism of Nellie L. McClung. Waterloo, Ont. : Published for Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion = Corporation canadienne des sciences religieuses by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1993. 236 p. (Dissertations SR v. 2 series).