150+ Canadians Day 104: Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung, feminist, author, politician and social activist, contributed to peace by obtaining the vote for settler women.

Born in 1873 in Chatsworth, Ontario, Nellie McClung was a feminist, author, politician and political activist. Her leadership rallied others to the cause of women’s suffrage in Manitoba. Women’s suffrage was not a popular cause in Canada. Men and women were frightened that women’s rights would lead to the breakdown of home and family. McClung calmed these fears with intelligence, reasonable discussion, personal charm, and irrepressible humour.

“The real spirit of the suffrage movement,” McClung wrote, “is sympathy and interest in the other woman, and the desire to make the world a more homelike place to live in.”

Her concern for less fortunate women grew out of deep religious beliefs and devotion to her family. She had seen firsthand the suffering of women and children caused by neglect, overwork, poverty and alcohol abuse. Marriage, five children, and a successful writing career did not stop McClung from campaigning for women’s rights. Her novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, is a witty portrayal of a small western town. Published in 1908, it became a national best seller.

In 1912, Manitoba women formed the Political Equality League to improve women’s working conditions. The League convinced Premier Roblin that factory conditions for women were indeed terrible, but despite McClung’s eloquence, the League did not convince him that female suffrage was the remedy for such abuses.

To rally public support, the League held a Mock Parliament on January 28, 1914. The subject of debate was whether or not men should have the vote. A male delegation presented its case for male suffrage, and then “Premier” Nellie McClung rose to speak. She complimented the men on their splendid gentlemanly appearance, then she launched into her satiric attack: Oh no, man is made for something higher and better than voting…Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills …  broken furniture, broken vows, and … divorce!” The resounding success of the Mock Parliament lent energy and support to the League’s campaign. The 1915 election saw the defeat of Roblin’s Conservative government, and on January 28, 1916, Manitoba became the first Canadian province to give settler women the vote.

Nellie McClung continued to fight for women’s suffrage in other provinces, and saw, slowly but steadily, tradition giving way to equality.

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