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Career as a Politician

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Reading: "Woman Member of Government and Nellie McClung Engage in Bitter Debate in Legislature"


Nellie McClung was no stranger to election campaigning when she ran for election in 1921. She had long experience campaigning for the Liberal parties in both Manitoba and Alberta before she herself sought election.

In Manitoba she campaigned for the Liberals—because the Conservative party was openly hostile to the concerns of women, especially the idea of allowing them to vote. When the Manitoba Liberals formed the government, much of their success was due to McClung's speeches on the campaign trail.

Nellie Mcclung, 1940s. Image Courtesy of BC Archives - Call Number: B-06794Even though she claimed to have no party affiliation, McClung campaigned for Alberta's Liberal party in the 1917 election because the Liberal government had brought in female suffrage and prohibition. She felt that they had earned the women's votes by doing so.

In 1921, she finally threw in her lot with the Liberals, running as a candidate for the party. However, she made it clear that if elected she would use her own judgment regardless of party lines and her two priorities were women's rights and effective enforcement of liquor laws.

While McClung was successful in her bid for election, the Liberals were defeated—and the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) formed the new government, including Irene Parlby in its Cabinet as a Minister Without Portfolio.

McClung served as a member of the Legislative Assembly for five years and as she had warned in her election campaign, she voted as her conscience dictated, sometimes supporting UFA government measures that the rest of her party members opposed.

Since women's rights and enforcing the liquor laws were her priorities, McClung and Parlby often joined forces on such issues—though the women were known to disagree at times too. Both women promoted travelling libraries, travelling medical and dental clinics, and Public Health Nurses. Both also championed changes to the Dower Act.

Some issues Nellie McClung took an interest in include providing occupational training for female prisoners; directing male prisoners' wages to the support of their families; resisting government attempts to reduce allowances paid to needy widows and single mothers; equal wages for men and women—including magistrates; objections to the UFA's Minimum Wage Act, because it did not provide for women to be on the administrative board; objections to a plan to deprive widows who remarried of the pension benefits earned by their previous husbands.

One key issue for McClung was that of liquor laws and their enforcement. Although prohibition came into effect in Alberta on July 1, 1916, as a result of a plebiscite, they were difficult to enforce. As a result, the underground liquor trade was flourishing. By 1922, a newly elected official from Calgary told the government that prohibition needed to be repealed.

The UFA had a reputation for being strong supporters of prohibition, so McClung was not too worried by this development, but in 1923, the Legislature received a 51,000-name petition for a referendum on the licensed sale of beer in Alberta. Despite McClung's efforts to prove that the petition was flawed, as well as misleading, a referendum was held, and prohibition repealed.

Nevertheless, in the 1925 election, McClung again ran on a platform of women's rights and prohibition, this time in Calgary. Despite her best efforts, with public sentiment strongly against prohibition she suffered defeat.   

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