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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 I (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 Women’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
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 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 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.
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 as 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!