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The Early Life of Nellie McClung, Notable Feminist, Advocate and Author

Nellie McClung, as Painted by Mandy van Leeuwen

Nellie McClung (1873-1951) was a suffragist, political and social activist, feminist, author, and, on a personal note, she means a lot to Resa and me (Resa wrote about Canadian women’s right to vote in her #GreenWhiteViolet guest post, which included mention of Nellie).

Nellie worked tirelessly toward securing women’s rights in Canada, and for that we commend her. To celebrate Nellie, Resa and I have created “Nellie week,” of which this is the first of three posts. We will unveil the collaboration in three parts at each of our blogs to fully give this amazing lady the spotlight she deserves. Today is post number one.

As for why we are doing this project now, a major source of inspiration was the mural display that Resa attended in Winnipeg that honored Nellie and her Suffragettes, with a focus on an important play they produced in Manitoba. Also, we wish to celebrate 2016 marking the 100-year anniversary of Manitoba securing the right for women to vote and 2017 being Canada’s 150th birthday.

Now, let’s begin, shall we? Here is a look at the early part of Nellie’s life.

Nellie McClung’s Childhood & Young Adulthood

On October 20, 1873, Nellie Letitia Mooney (her maiden name) McClung was born in Chatsworth, Ontario. She was the sixth and final child of farmers John Mooney and Letitia McCurdy. Nellie grew up in Souris Valley, Manitoba, where she did not attend school until age 10. By the age of 16, she had obtained her teaching certificate and soon after taught school.

Shortly thereafter, she moved to Manitou, Manitoba to teach at Hazel School. It was while teaching there that Nellie met Annie McClung and became involved in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), where Annie was the provincial president. Nellie soon met Annie’s eldest son Robert Wesley McClung, and the two were married when Nellie was 23 years old.

Nellie and Robert McClung would go on to raise five children. The family moved to Winnipeg in 1911 and Nellie continued her activism efforts there.

The Books of Author Nellie McClung

Artist Rendering of a Canadian Female Icon
Nellie: Activist, Suffragette, and Author. Photo via ClipShine, Public Domain.

Around this same time, Nellie began publishing novels. Yes, she was a best-selling author in addition to being a reformer and suffragist. As you will see throughout this week of posts, Nellie was a multi-talented person. While she is perhaps best known for her social activism, her “day job” was as an author.

Her first book was released in 1908; it was titled Sowing Seeds in Danny. It has been likened to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables for the similar plot lines of young girls who had huge imaginations and overcame horrific circumstances. Both books were best-sellers in Canada right away too. Sowing Seeds in Danny sold 100,000 copies.

As for McClung’s start at writing, it was at the suggestion of her mother-in-law. Aha, it seems there was some family influence in both her literary and political careers! When her husband’s mom suggested she enter a Collier’s Weekly short story contest, Nellie did so and, while she didn’t win, she had caught the “writer’s bug” and continued to craft stories, which turned into books.

Her second book The Second Chance released in 1910. At the surface level, these first two books were romantic, but a deeper analysis of them revealed that they were criticisms of the social environment of the time and called out for equality for everyone.

Her third book was a short story collection called The Black Creek Stopping-House and Other Stories (published 1912). In total, over a span of 37 years, Nellie wrote 16 books. Now THAT alone is quite the accomplishment, aside from all of her other achievements! The books were fiction (full-length and short stories) and non-fiction.

She also wrote for some of Canada’s top magazines and newspapers that still exist today, including Chatelaine and Maclean’s AND completed two autobiographical works. Her writing covered many topics, from prohibition to women’s roles in charge and suffrage.

Nellie McClung was arguably one of the most popular Canadian authors of her time. She was part of the Canadian Authors Association and served on the governing board of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Nellie McClung: Early Social & Political Activism

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was in favor of prohibiting alcohol under the belief that it was the cause of violence against women and children, poverty, unemployment, and more. The huge union also pushed for the right of women to vote in political elections as a way to gain support toward the prohibition goal.

In 1912, as part of the Winnipeg Women’s Press Club, Nellie and her fellow members formed the Political Equality League. The goal of this organization was to achieve women’s suffrage. It was successful in this regard and also became involved over time with other causes, including alcohol prohibition and labor law transformation. The activists in the group, including Nellie, were of the educated middle class. The majority of the members were women.

A Moment in the Canadian Suffragette Movement.
Suffragist Nellie. Photo © Resa McConaghy – Artist: Mandy van Leeuwen.

Rather than using violent means to pursue their goals, the members of the Political Equality League utilized petitions, pamphlets, and demonstrations to share their messages. McClung was one of the people who traveled across Winnipeg to spread messages of suffrage, maternal feminism, and more.

Public Speaking & Nellie McClung

In regards to the first speech Nellie gave at a WCTU Convention in Manitou, she explains in her book The Steam Runs Fast. My Own Story (1945), “I remember the effect it had on me. For the first time, I knew I had the power of speech. I saw faces brighten; eyes glisten, and felt the atmosphere crackle with a new power.” This event took place in 1901, and Nellie McClung had found a passion for public speaking.

In addition to talking about social and political change, Nellie also did dramatic readings of her books. She did so after 1908 when Sowing Seeds in Danny became such a popular read among Canadians. Here came Annie McClung again to encourage Nellie; this time Annie arranged for Nellie’s very first public reading, which was a part of a campaign to raise funds for Winnipeg’s WCTU Home for Friendless Girls.

From there, Nellie continued to give literary readings, in addition to speaking on behalf of political campaigns in favor of women’s rights. She traveled across North America for speaking engagements. The topics she spoke of ranged from women’s suffrage to prohibition.

Nellie McClung was recognized in many passages I read online for being an excellent and witty speaker, both when she spoke about social and political causes as well as her literary presentations. Her public speaking trips continued even after she retired.

She became a notable public speaker who had the confidence to share important messages for women. She spoke of the rights of women, in particular advocating their right to vote, women’s property rights, safety regulations in factories, and temperance. From a political standpoint, Nellie was a Liberal.

More to Come: The Women’s Right to Vote in Canada

Going back to 1913…

In 1913, the Political Equality League presented a petition to the Liberal Party’s leader T.C. Norris that bore 20,000 men’s signatures on it endorsing women’s right to vote. As for what happened next, my Nellie project partner Resa will tell you soon. Stay tuned for Resa’s post at Graffiti Lux and Murals on Wednesday!

76 thoughts on “The Early Life of Nellie McClung, Notable Feminist, Advocate and Author”

    1. I’m so glad you appreciated the post, Robert. Resa and I did a lot of research with enthusiasm for this series! You’re right that it was a unique quality of the Canadian suffragette movement that it had overlays with the temperance movement.

  1. This series of yours was my introduction to Nellie McClung. These women who fought so hard for equality left us a tremendous heritage. But we retain our freedoms only so long as we cherish them. I think Nellie would be very proud of you. <3

  2. Thank you for this illuminating article. I had never heard of her. I love stories like these where I’m introduced to someone who had an impact, but isn’t fully recognized the way they should be. They deserve to not be forgotten, They took risks, and faced obstacles we take for granted now. They are true heroes. I’m afraid a lot that has been won, will be lost, we must keep the fight going.

    1. Thanks for taking time for Nellie here, Louise! Resa and I had a blast writing the posts and you’ll see the fantastic mural that Resa photographed too in Winnipeg. Nice to see you!

  3. Christy and Resa — what a great post!! Until I read your essay, I only associated Temperance Movements with religious conservatives that saw alcohol as sin. I like your expanded perspective that some of these movements connected alcohol to violence against women and other serious social concerns — “The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was in favor of prohibiting alcohol under the belief that it was the cause of violence against women and children, poverty, unemployment, and more.”

    1. Indeed, the union was one of the first in women’s rights movements and it certainly had an impact. Thanks Dave for the thoughtful comment. Resa and I worked hard on the series, so it’s great to receive these words!

  4. Thanks, Christy, for sharing the inspirational story of the talented Canadian feminist, Nellie McClung. It is interesting to see how women’s suffrage in Canada. Have a great week!


    1. It was certainly a journey for the Famous Five, wasn’t it, Linnea? I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to share more about the suffragists in Canada with Resa. We appreciate your visit! Enjoy the weekend xx

  5. What an interesting post and what an amazing woman Nellie was. I’d never heard her story before, despite knowing about the Suffragist and Suffragette movements in Britain very well. Nellie achieved so much in her life and is an inspiration to us all. I’m looking forward to reading more… 😀

    1. Hi Millie, Thank you for your visit here and reading the first part of the series from Resa and I. We have become quite taken with Nellie and are pleased to spotlight her ~ It is wonderful that you know about the movements in Britain as we know about the activities here in Canada. Hopefully one day all of these fabulous women will get the attention they so deserve xx

  6. Well researched and wonderful story about such an empowering Canadian woman. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Nellie and look forward to the next installments. Yay Nellie! <3

  7. Thanks Christy for an informative feature on a womens’ rights activist of whom not much is known outside Canada. Or so I feel. It is important that today’s generation is informed of the sacrifices and pioneering work of women such as Nellie Mcclung, more so now at a time when societies worldwide are seen to be trending towards anti-liberal attitudes bordering on racial and regional xenophobia.

    1. Hi Raj, yes, there was so much to touch on with Nellie that Resa and I decided to devote an entire week to her (3 posts). We appreciate your encouragement of our quest to share information about women. Sadly your words about society today are all too accurate.. Thank you for your visit

    1. Resa and I hadn’t realized it either until we started researching her! She’s amazing just in that regard, right?! Thanks C :)

  8. Fascinating to read about her and as I wrote a thesis on Suffragettes in the UK I am particularly interested to see how they developed in Canada. What a woman and a writer to boot!

  9. Great post and it is very interesting to learn about this woman as she clearly made a difference when it comes to women’s achievements… I liked the way you two tells us about her life, with its struggles and goals, both with individual and social effects, as she herself stood up for women’s right and consequently for a better world …
    Thanks so much for sharing Christy and Resa. Sending Love ☀️✨☀️

    1. Nellie was a great woman! I am very excited for you to see the next 2 posts.
      Sending love back! Yahoo… okay I was at a Christmas party drinking wine, and I am happy.
      Yahoo! I’ve painted many yards of Armetis fabric, Still a yard to go. Of course only you and Christy know what I’m talking about, Oh, gee,did I spell the goddesses name right?
      Whatever, I’m working on the gown, & I love her! Hugs to both of you!

    2. Resa and Aquileana, I adore you both! Nellie would champion your fabric project, Resa, and I hope we are doing her proud with our 3 posts. Hugs

    3. Thank you for appreciating our first of three posts, Aqui! Resa and I are hoping we honour Nellie with our tribute. Yes, she was so important in the Canadian struggles of women for equal rights.. and sadly this one still continues today.. xx

    1. Exactly!! Thanks for appreciating Resa’s photos, the street art, and also the first post of our blog series! :)

  10. This is an excellent article!! Looking forward to your next posts. “Never retract, never explain, never apologize; get things done and let them howl.” Nellie L McClung

    1. Ohhh thank you, R, thank you! Resa and I are humbled by the response to the first post so far and really are proud of the series. It’s so nice you’re coming for the ride ~ AND the quote you added is totally Nellie #witty #wonderful

    2. I love that you, Rebecca, quoted Nellie.I have always been intrigued by that quote. I have always been intrigued by you. I am so loving “Nellie week”

    1. I’m so pleased you came by for this one, Teagan. I hope the words about Nellie are motivating.. Resa and I have been looking forward to this week for a while and we’re both happy it’s arrived xx Hugging back <3

    1. Ohhhhh I’m barely able to contain myself.. HUGS! It’s finally live.. ohhhh! Thanks Resa for everything xx

    2. Yay!!! HUGS! I don’t what I’m going to do for excitement when “Nellie week” is over. We’ve put a lot into this collaboration! xo

    3. I’m feeling the same way ~ Nellie’s been our focus for several weeks now.. oh I like to think Nellie would be proud of us <3 Really still so thankful you asked me to partner with you on this xx

    4. How wonderful Resa. This was a fabulous read and I didn’t know anything about this incredible woman. Thank you so much for making me aware of this terrific project. <3

    5. I knew you would like it! We must keep her memory, and the memory of all inspirational women alive! I loved this blog of Christy’s at first sight.

    6. Resa, your photographs really are sensational and artist Mandy van Leeuwen is to be commended too of course <3

  11. What a wonderful woman and I had never heard of her! Donald Dump I am afraid will take women’s right back to the bad old days in order to ‘Make America Great Again’ for him and his white good old boys. We need Nellie now!

    1. YES! We can never have too much Nellie spirit in the world! Your comment is truth indeed, Cindy ~ Thank you

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