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Reading: Choosing a Mother-in-law


Nellie McClung with her child. Image Courtesy of BC Archives - Call Number: G-04011The daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian mother, characterized by her stern seriousness, and a good-natured Irish Methodist father, Nellie Letitia Mooney was born in Chatsworth, Ontario, on October 20, 1873. Even at a young age, her independent spirit set her apart, and her gift for dramatic impersonation was getting her into trouble. One of the earliest uses to which she put this talent, was impersonating her mother's two aunts—much to her mother's displeasure.

In 1880, Nellie moved with her family to Manitoba. Although initially they had no neighbors, within three years they had a "real neighborhood." One summer, a community picnic was arranged, with games and sports, and special treats. The next summer, another such social event was arranged, but this time, the gathering was disrupted by alcohol—an event that made a lasting impression on young Nellie, who included the incident in her autobiography.

Nellie did not attend school until she was 10, but when, at last, she was able to attend, she thirstily drank in the knowledge, and learning fired her with reforming zeal. "The fires of rebellion in my heart were fanned by the agitation going on now about the railways, and the men at Ottawa giving away our railway rights without consulting the people of Manitoba.....It was our country! We were doing the work, but we were powerless! We were the common people! I grew indignant as I read the history and saw how little the people ever counted, and longed for the time when I would be old enough to say something. But my business was to acquire knowledge. Knowledge unlocked doors and gave liberty. I had to plug at these books, snatch every minute I could and let nothing divert me."

Despite her young age, Nellie had a keen interest in the social and political events of the day, and when it came to an after-Christmas-dinner discussion about Louis Riel, she piped up before family and neighbors to express her opinion.

She excelled in her schoolwork, and by the age of 16 she had earned a teaching certificate. She taught for seven years, during which time she met one of the most important influences in her life—the wife of the local Methodist minister who later became Nellie's mother-in-law: Mrs. Annie E. McClung. Mrs. McClung introduced Nellie to the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) and the cause of temperance, as well as encouraging Nellie to write, and later, to begin her public speaking career.

Nellie and Robert Wesley McClung. Image Courtesy of BC Archives - Call Number: D-09034As Nellie relates in the featured reading for this page, she chose her husband because she fell in love with her mother-in-law. But she also fell in love with Wesley McClung, because, as his mother's son, he was raised in a household in which women's work was not confined to the home. As Nellie relates in Clearing in the West: "I felt sure Mrs. McClung's son must be the sort of man I would like. She had all the sweetness, charm and beauty of the old-fashioned woman, and in addition to this had a fearless, and even radical, mind. I had been to the parsonage quite a few times before I came to board there; and I saw the methods of training her children. Her one girl, Nellie, who was my age, did no more than one share of the work: being a girl did not sentence her to all the dishwashing and bedmaking. The two younger boys took their turn and there were no complaints from them....On the other hand, Nellie had no special favors because she was a girl."

Although Nellie had struggled with whether it would be possible to have the career that she desperately wanted, as well as a marriage, she decided that with Wesley McClung she would be able to have both. The two were married in 1896. Together, they raised five children—which gave Nellie ample opportunity to learn the finer points of balancing family life with her high-profile career. 

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