Nellie McClung took on a variety of roles
throughout her lifetime. She was known as a teacher, temperance
leader, suffragist, lecturer, politician, historian, wife and mother.
A life-long activist, McClung was also a famous novelist, writing
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 her to the Women’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 her to write a short story
for a magazine context. This story was the basis for McClung's first
novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, which became a national best
seller. Mrs. McClung also pushed her daughter-in-law into her lecture career, by
helping to organize her first speaking engagement at a Winnipeg
church. It was at the WCTU that McClung first learned the art of public
speaking: "I saw faces brighten, glisten, and felt the atmosphere
crackle with a new power." As well, McClung encountered many of her
future novel plots at those meetings.
McClung's understanding of human nature affected her views on
temperance issues and feminism. Thus, when World War I 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 house and road
building and water conservation.
She was elected a Liberal member of the Alberta legislature in 1921
when the United Farmers swept to power. McClung served five years and
joined hands with United Farmers' cabinet minister Irene Parlby on
many pieces of social legislation. However, she was disappointed—even
though some progress was made getting hot lunches and medical care for
school children and a municipal hospital. 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
McClung was defeated when she sought re-election in 1926—but this
time in Calgary. She never returned to politics, but devoted the next
years to her family, community service, writing and traveling. In
1939, she was appointed to the Canadian delegation of the League of
By then, McClung was involved in another first—making “persons” out
of women. When Emily Murphy was appointed 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. 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—which declared that women were "persons" on
October 18, 1929. This decision affected all countries in the British
Empire and McClung and her friends rejoiced!
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. . . ."
This nation-builder died, at 78, in Victoria, B.C., on September 1,
1951. Her gravestone reads simply: "Loved & Remembered" and is shared
with her husband. On the 100th anniversary of McClung's birth, an
eight-cent stamp was issued in a belated tribute.
For more information on the life and accomplishments of Nellie
McClung follow this link: