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Nellie McClung: A Feminist Icon

For the week of Monday October 17, 2011

On October 20, 1873, Nellie Mooney was born in Chatsworth, Ontario, to parents John and Letitia. Few would have imagined she would grow to become one of Canada’s fiercest advocates for the rights of women.

Nellie Mooney lived her early years on a farm in southern Ontario, and later in Manitoba when her family moved there in pursuit of better prospects. Though close to her father, the outspoken and spirited young girl felt constrained by her mother’s restrictive views on the place of women in society. At age 15, Nellie left home for teacher’s college, and afterwards taught at rural schools around Manitoba. After marrying Wesley McClung in 1896, she had five children.

Mrs. Nellie McClung. ca. 1905-22
© Cyril Jessop / Library and Archives Canada / PA-030212

In 1908, Nellie McClung, as she was now known, published her first novel, which became a national bestseller, and while on reading tours she discovered her talent for public speaking. Nellie turned her attention to reform, and as member of socially- and politically-minded groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Political Equality League, delivered speeches in support of the prohibitionist and suffragist causes.

In the Manitoba elections of 1914, McClung campaigned in support of the Liberals, who favoured extending the vote to women. The party assumed power the following year, and Manitoba became the first Canadian province where women could vote and stand for public office. It was not long before most other provinces followed suit.

Inspired by this victory, McClung chose to remain politically active. In 1921, she was elected a member of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, an office she held for five years. But her most famous accomplishment still lay ahead of her, in the fight to have women recognized in law as “persons,” a requirement for appointment to the Senate. In 1927, together with four other prominent feminists, she petitioned to have the legal definition of “persons” clarified. Two years later, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, then Canada’s top court, found that women were indeed “persons,” equal to men, and thus eligible to sit in the Upper House.

Nellie McClung, a tireless fighter for women’s rights, died in 1951, and was designated a person of national historic significance in 1954. Her fellow petitioners in the Persons Case, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Irene Parlby, and Louise McKinney, were also accorded this honour. Today, they are collectively known as the “Famous Five.” The Persons Case was itself designated a national historic event in 1997.

Interested in further information on the fight for gender equality in Canada? Visit the This Week in History archives, see related stories Birthday of Activist Emily Murphy, One Of Five But Not The Least!, A Person of Principle, Women Are Persons ... Aren't They?, and The Woman's Minister. Also, discover how Nellie McClung drew an overflow crowd to Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre on the night of January 28, 1914.

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