The 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
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.
As 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.