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Nellie McClung

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Nellie McClung

I want to leave something behind when I go; some small legacy of truth, some word that will shine in a dark place.

                         —Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung took on numerous roles throughout her lifetime. Known as a teacher, temperance leader, suffragist, lecturer, politician, historian, wife, mother, and activist. McClung was also a famous writer, authoring numerous essays, articles and fifteen books. An active journalist and founder of several clubs, she was the Liberal member of the Alberta Legislature for Edmonton from 1921 to 1926.

Her mother-in-law introduced McClung to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and stimulated her interest in women's rights when she canvassed unsuccessfully in the 1890s for suffrage petition signatures. Mrs. McClung also encouraged Nellie to write a short story for a magazine contest. The story became the basis for McClung's first novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, which in turn became a national bestseller. Mrs. McClung also pushed Nellie into her lecture career, by helping to organize her first speaking engagement at a Winnipeg church. It was at the WCTU that Nellie first learned the art of public speaking: "I saw faces brighten, glisten, and felt the atmosphere crackle with a new power."

McClung's understanding of human nature affected her views on temperance issues and feminism. Thus, when the First World War ended and the Great Depression deepened, McClung's concern for people and her inability to keep quiet propelled her into political activism. As she watched the Depression deepen with its "destruction of youth....sadder than the war," she publicly criticized the government for not rushing in with employment relief projects like home-and road-building and water conservation.

In 1921, when the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) comprised the majority government, McClung was elected as a Liberal. She served five years and joined hands with United Farmers' cabinet minister Irene Parlby on many pieces of social legislation. However, she was profoundly disappointed when her pleas for temperance legislation were ignored. "We believed we could shape the world nearer to our heart's desire if we had a dry Canada," she wrote later.

McClung was defeated when she sought re-election in Calgary in 1926. She never returned to politics, but devoted the next years to her family, community service, writing, and travelling. In 1939, she was appointed to the Canadian delegation of the League of Nations.

By then, she was involved in another first—making "persons" out of women. When Emily Murphy was appointed the first female judge in Edmonton in 1916, she was told on her first day in court that she had no right to be on the Bench—because women were not "persons" under the British North America Act of 1867. As the law stood, women could vote and run for office, but they were ineligible for the Senate because the word "persons" in the British North America Act was interpreted to refer only to men. During the following decade Judge Emily Murphy, with McClung and three other prominent prairie women, fought battles through the Canadian Supreme Court right up to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain. On October 18, 1929, they won their battle and women received the right to sit in the Senate.

McClung's life of achievement was impressive: first female member of the CBC Board of Governors (1936), Canadian delegate to the League of Nations (1938), public lecturer, and proponent of the Canadian Authors' Association. At the close of her eventful life she wrote: "In Canada we are developing a pattern of life and I know something about one block of that pattern....I helped make it...." Nellie McClung died, at 78, in Victoria, British Columbia on September 1, 1951. Her gravestone reads simply: "Loved & Remembered" and is shared with her husband. On the 100th anniversary of her birth, an eight-cent stamp was issued in a belated tribute.

 
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