|Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta|
18 July 1921 - 28 June 1926
|John Lymburn, Charles Weaver, Charles Gibbs, Warren Prevey and David Duggan|
Helen Letitia Mooney
20 October 1873
|Died||1 September 1951 (aged 77)|
Victoria, British Columbia
|Spouse(s)||Robert Wesley McClung|
|Known for||Women's rights activist|
Nellie Letitia McClung (born Helen Letitia Mooney; 20 October 1873 – 1 September 1951), was a Canadian author, social activist, suffragette, and politician. She was a part of the social and moral reform movements prevalent in Western Canada in the early 1900s. Her great causes were women's suffrage and the temperance. It was largely through her efforts that in 1916 Manitoba became the first province to give women the right to vote and to run for public office.
In 1927, McClung and four other women: Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby who together came to be known as The Famous Five (also called "The Valiant Five") launched "the Persons Case," contending that women could be "qualified persons," therefore eligible to sit in the Senate. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the current law did not recognize women as such. However, the case was won upon appeal to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council--the court of last resort for Canada at that time.
Nellie McClung Mooney was born at Chatsworth, Ontario in 1873, the youngest daughter of John Mooney, an Irish immigrant farmer and a Methodist, and his Scottish-born wife, Letitia McCurdy. Her father's farm failed and the family moved to Manitoba in 1880. She received six years of formal education and did not learn to read until she was nine. She later moved with her family to a homestead in the Souris Valley of Manitoba.
Between 1904 and 1915, Nellie McClung, her husband Robert McClung, a pharmacist, and their five children - four boys and one girl resided in Winnipeg, Manitoba where, from 1911 until 1915, McClung fought for women's suffrage.
In both the 1914 and 1915 Manitoba provincial elections, she campaigned for the Liberal party on the issue of the vote for women. She helped organize the Women's Political Equality League, a group devoted to women's suffrage. A public speaker known for her sense of humour, she played a leading role in the successful Liberal campaign in 1914. She also played the role of the Conservative Premier of Manitoba, Rodmond Roblin, in a mock Women's Parliament staged in Winnipeg in 1914 under the auspices of the Canadian Women's Press Club. The theatrical effort was designed to expose the absurdity of the arguments of those opposed to women's suffrage by pretending to debate whether the franchise should be granted to men. Nellie and her colleagues celebrated the defeat of the Roblin government in August, 1915 but by the time Manitoba became the first province in Canada to grant women the vote on 28 January 1916, under the new Liberal government, she had already moved to Edmonton, Alberta.
In Edmonton, McClung continued her career as an orator, author, and reformer. In 1921, she was elected to the Alberta Legislative Assembly as a Liberal. She then moved to Calgary, Alberta in 1923, and dedicated herself to writing. She had already written her first novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, published in 1908. A national bestseller, the book was succeeded by short stories and articles, McClung wrote in several Canadian and American magazines.
After moving to Edmonton, she continued the campaign for suffrage. She understood that the First World War had played an important role in broadening the appeal of women's suffrage. The manpower shortages during this time required widespread female employment, making the image of the sheltered female not applicable to Canadian circumstances. She championed dental and medical care for school children, property rights for married women, mothers' allowances, factory safety legislation and many other reforms. While arguing for equitable divorce laws, of which she was a longtime supporter, McClung once asked, "Why are pencils equipped with erasers if not to correct mistakes?"
McClung was active in many organizations. She founded the Winnipeg Political Equality League and the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada--"the largest adult education movement in Canada"--and the Women's Institute of Edmonton, of which she was the first president. She was active in the Canadian Authors' Association, the Canadian Women's Press Club, the Methodist Church of Canada, the Calgary Women's Literary Club, among others.
She sat as a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta from 1921 to 1926, in opposition to the government of the United Farmers of Alberta. Her opportunity to press for women's rights was limited because women were not taken seriously.
She was one of The Famous Five (also called The Valiant Five), with Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy and Louise McKinney. The five put forward a petition, in 1927, to clarify the term "Persons" in Section 24 of the British North America Act 1867. This section had served to exclude women from political office. The petition was successful, clearing the way for women to enter politics in Canada.
McClung was a supporter of the then popular social philosophy of eugenics and campaigned for the sterilization of those considered "simple-minded". Her promotion of the benefits of sterilization contributed to the passage of eugenics legislation in Alberta.
As a maternal feminist, McClung believed that women should be involved in politics due to their natural maternal instincts and interests which included the interests of the health of mothers and children. At the time this was important to maternal feminists, who positioned women as both the mothers and guardians of their race. They therefore championed legislation aimed against alcoholism, "mental defectiveness," and prostitution. McClung voiced her views in her 1915 book, In Times Like These:
[...]to bring children into the world, suffering from the handicaps caused by ignorance, poverty, or criminality of the parents, is an appalling crime against the innocent and hopeless, and yet one about which practically nothing is said. Marriage, homemaking, and the rearing of children are left entirely to chance, and so it is no wonder that humanity produces so many specimens who, if they were silk stockings or boots, would be marked "seconds".
McClung and others believed the sterilization procedures would prevent further problems. Nellie McClung and her close friend, Emily Murphy, are regarded as two of the most prominent and influential supporters of Alberta's Sexual Sterilization Act, which organized the involuntary sterilization of people considered "mentally deficient." The law was enacted in 1928 and repealed in 1972. During that time, thousands of people who were considered "psychotic" or "mentally defective" underwent eugenic sterilization.
In 1954, Nellie McClung was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the government of Canada. A plaque commemorating McClung is located on the west side of Hwy 6, 1 km south of Hwy 40, Chatsworth, Ontario.
On August 29, 1973, Nellie McClung and the other five women who were involved in the "Persons Case" were honored with an 8 cent stamp. In addition, the "Persons Case" was recognized as a Historic Event in 1997.
McClung's house is in Calgary, Alberta, her residence from 1923 to the mid-1930s, still stands and is designated a heritage site. Two other houses in which McClung lived were re-located to the Archibald Museum near La Rivière, Manitoba in the Rural Municipality of Pembina where they have been restored. In 2017 the two houses were moved to Manitou, Manitoba. The houses are open to the public. The McClung family residence in Winnipeg is also a historic site.