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Nellie McClung and the WCTU

Life in Edmonton


Nellie McClungIn Canada we are developing a pattern of life and I know something about one block of that pattern . . . I helped make it.

                     —Nellie McClung

Even from a young age Nellie McClung was destined for great things, what with her flair for impersonation, her fascination with learning, and her independent nature. Although she decided early on that she would like a career, and feared that such a choice would require her to give up any hope of marriage, she managed to combine a full family life with a variety of career roles. 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 who authored 15 books. An active journalist and founder of several clubs, she was the Liberal member of the Alberta Legislature for Edmonton from 1921 to 1926.

At age 16, McClung earned her teaching certificate, and began her seven-year career as a teacher. This brought her into contact with the McClung family, and her admiration for Mrs. Annie E. McClung was a powerful force in shaping Nellie's direction in life.

Mrs. McClung first introduced Nellie to the cause of female suffrage when she canvassed, unsuccessfully, for signatures for a suffrage petition. Nellie threw in her lot with the minister's wife when she signed Mrs. McClung's petition—and was the sole woman at the quilting bee to do so.

Mrs. Nellie McClung, c. 1910-1918Shortly thereafter, Nellie attended her first political meeting in the town of Manitou. She accompanied Mrs. Brown, one of the district's most zealous suffragists to hear the premier of Manitoba speak. Although he professed himself glad to see the two women in the audience, since "Politics concerned women as much as men....he did not think women would ever need to actually partake in politics." His dismissal of women's participation in politics was evident to McClung when he silently read, and then refrained from commenting on whether women should have access to the franchise and homesteading rights.

The hostility and condescension McClung experienced at the meeting caused her "enthusiasm for political life to wane." She dismissed politics as, "a sordid, grubby business," and, inspired by the novels of Charles Dickens, began to dream of making her mark on the world by writing: "And I wanted to write; to do for the people around me what Dickens had done for his people. I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless as he had been a defender of the weak, a flaming fire that would consume the dross that encrusts human souls, a spring of sweet water beating up through all this bitter world to refresh and nourish souls that were ready to faint...."

McClung's dream of writing came true. She was one of the most popular writers of her day—one who addressed social issues, and helped mould public opinion. Her disillusionment with politics was not permanent, as her career as an activist for temperance and suffrage attest—as does her eventual election to the Alberta Legislature as the Liberal member for Edmonton.  

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