MCCLUNG, NELLIE (1873-1951)
Nellie Letitia McClung was an internationally known writer, platform speaker, feminist, and social activist whose passion for social transformation in the service of justice was equaled only by the witty, engaging manner in which she delivered her message. A woman of humble beginnings, she went on to achieve tremendous social and political notoriety, and by the end of her life was one of Canada's bestknown personages, lovingly known as "Our Nell."
McClung was born Nellie Mooney to a poor farming family in Grey County, Ontario, on October 20, 1873. Lured by the promise of homesteading, her family relocated to Millford, a small settlement in southwestern Manitoba, when Nellie was seven. She became a country schoolteacher by sixteen and was dreaming of "telling the stories of the common people" as a writer when she met Annie McClung, the wife of the new Methodist minister. Annie combined religious conviction with a passion for women's suffrage and temperance activism in a powerful mix that was both compelling and inspiring to the young woman. First a role model for Nellie, Annie became Nellie's mother-in-law in 1896, when Nellie married her oldest son, Wes. Annie was responsible for Nellie's entry into the short story contest that began her formal writing career, and after the publication of Nellie's first novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908), she initiated McClung's speaking career by arranging a public reading of that Canadian best-seller in the service of the temperance cause.
McClung moved to Edmonton, Alberta, in 1914, then relocated to Calgary in 1923. She used her literature as a pulpit to preach a text of social change grounded in what she believed was God's intention for Creation, "the even chance for everyone." As the campaign for women's suffrage gathered momentum, she was increasingly in demand as a platform speaker, traveling throughout Canada, and in 1916 and 1917 throughout the United States as well, at the behest of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her oratory skills were superlative. Gifted with a devastating wit, she roundly trounced political enemies like the conservative premier of Manitoba, Sir Rodmond Roblin, in her speeches, culminating in the wildly successful "Woman's Parliament" of 1914. This play of role reversals, where men ask a government of women for men's suffrage, is fictionally rendered in McClung's social gospel novel, Purple Springs (1921).
McClung went on to write sixteen books (four novels, two novellas, several collections of short stories and newspaper columns, and a two-volume autobiography), as well as a syndicated newspaper column and innumerable magazine articles. Her status as a cultural figure was a key reason she was appointed the only female member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's first board of governors. She maintained her political profile after women's suffrage was achieved, serving as a Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Alberta from 1921 to 1926. She was also one of the "Famous Five" Alberta women who in 1929 petitioned the Privy Council in Great Britain in the "Persons Case" to have women declared full legal "persons" in Canada. A lifelong member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, she represented Canada at the League of Nations and was an outspoken opponent of the internment of the Japanese and an advocate for Jewish immigration to Canada during World War II. Finally, she was a religious activist, lobbying tirelessly for the ordination of women in the United Church of Canada, a goal achieved formally in 1934. While she is criticized by some contemporary scholars for her "naive liberalism" and Christian belief, her passionate conviction that the Prairie West should become a "Land of the Fair Deal," and her work toward achieving it, embodied the optimism and determination that mark Plains and Prairie culture, in her day as today. McClung moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 1935, and died there on September 1, 1951.
Randi R. Warne Mount St. Vincent University
McClung, Nellie L. In Times Like These. Toronto: McLeod and Allen, 1915.
Savage, Candace. Our Nell: A Scrapbook Biography of Nellie L. McClung. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979.
Warne, Randi R. Literature as Pulpit: The Christian Social Activism of Nellie L. McClung. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1993.