David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Remembering Nellie McClung

Brandon Sun, March 7, 2009 - David McConkey

International Women's Day is tomorrow, so this is an ideal time to review the new biography Nellie McClung. Written by Charlotte Gray, it reminds us again of the importance of McClung, whose roots were in Westman.
Nellie Mooney was born in Ontario in 1873. She came to Manitoba as a seven-year-old when her parents settled near Wawanesa. Nellie's family travelled by ox cart from Winnipeg, then the end of the rail line.

Her life was framed by her pioneer background, her ambition to be a writer, and her membership in the Methodist (which became part of the United) Church.

By the age of 16, Nellie was teaching school in the Manitou area. A few years later, she married Wes McClung, the son of the local Methodist preacher. The couple were married more than 50 years and had five children.

While a young mother, Nellie McClung started writing short stories for magazines. In 1908, her book Sowing Seeds in Danny became a bestseller. Her writing led to invitations to speak, for which she became well-known.

In 1911, Nellie and Wes McClung moved from Manitou to Winnipeg. They later moved to Alberta, and eventually to Victoria, where Nellie died in 1951.
Nellie McClung Author Charlotte Gray observes that Nellie McClung's sympathies were informed by the Manitoba of her time, including the concerns of aboriginals highlighted when the province was founded just a few years before her arrival; hardships faced by pioneering families; pervasive drunkenness in a rough and tumble society; and problems experienced by immigrants in Winnipeg, then Canada's most multicultural city.

A century ago, women had almost no legal rights, in their own homes or in the larger society. There was widespread excessive drinking among men, resulting in spousal neglect and abuse.

"It is easy to see why we concentrated on the liquor traffic," McClung later reflected. "It was corporeal and always present; it walked our streets; it threw its challenge in our faces!"

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was central. The WCTU was much more than a force for "temperance," or abstinence from alcohol. The WCTU also advocated for social reforms concerning domestic violence, workers' rights, and women's right to vote.

The WCTU was an international network that nurtured the women involved. Every Saturday afternoon in Manitou, young Nellie honed her speaking skills at a WCTU discussion group.

"We felt that we were living in the best tradition of the coffee houses of London," McClung reminisced.

McClung was part of many historic milestones. She was one of the leaders in the campaign that led to the vote for women and alcohol prohibition in Manitoba in 1916; one of the first female members in the Alberta legislature in the 1920s; one of the "Famous Five" who won the right for Canadian women to be "persons" and so sit in the Senate in 1929; and part of the effort that resulted in women becoming eligible to be ministers in the United Church in 1936.

McClung brought radical ideas into the mainstream. "Nellie achieved with wit and irony what feminist leaders elsewhere achieved only with harsh rhetoric and demonstrations," Gray writes. "She did this both as a bestselling author, threading feminist messages into her lively prose, and as a brilliant public speaker."

Humour was vital. "The audiences who flocked to hear her speak absorbed her messages as they roared with laughter." 

The issues McClung raised are still very much concerns today. The early victories for women's rights were not an end, but part of an ongoing struggle. Still current as well is the vexing problem of the abuse of alcohol, plus now of course, drugs.

McClung was a longtime campaigner for abstinence. As a young teacher, she described the effect of her lessons on her students: "I think the pictures of inflamed membranes and hob-nailed livers fascinated them."

Yet, all four of McClung's sons experienced problems with alcohol. One even committed suicide.

Charlotte Gray has written a fine, succinct, readable biography. This book should rekindle interest in the life of this remarkable woman. (Unfortunately, there are some errors in the book; notably, the WCTU is not the "Women's" but the "Woman's" Christian Temperance Union.)

Nellie McClung is one of a series of Extraordinary Canadians now being published by Penguin. Twenty profiles – including Big Bear, Stephen Leacock, and Lester Pearson – are planned.

Series editor John Ralston Saul hails Nellie McClung as "the great strategist of the first wave of the women's movement and one of the most successful early feminists in the world." 

"When I read her story I discover a woman who today is still ahead of her time," editor Saul muses. "I can imagine her speaking out right now . . ."
"I know she would make me laugh and make me want to help her change things for the better."

* * * *
See also:  

Nellie McClung on Amazon.ca        (on Amazon.com)

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Brandon's Messenger of Peace: J.S. Woodsworth

Reflections on the Great War

Can We Nurture and Retain Famous People in Westman?

Reflections on the War on Drugs

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

Other Reviews



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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