Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

“Never explain, never retract, never apologize, just get the thing done and let them howl.”

– Nellie McClung, suffragist, writer and activist

When I think of the suffragist movement in Canada, one woman’s shadow looms large: Nellie McClung. Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the movement’s first big accomplishments: voting rights for women in Manitoba. McClung was at the forefront of that fight.

McClung was a feminist crusader, a powerful and witty orator and a prolific writer. In the broader Canadian consciousness McClung is a hero. Her statue stands with the other women of the famous five on Parliament Hill as a beacon of female strength and power in Canadian politics. It is an especially poignant to look at that moment and think about the Persons case during this new era of gender parity in cabinet.

But there’s more to McClung’s story than that one statue, one singular moment in history.

She left behind a complicated legacy, one that scholars still disagree about today. One can look at McClung’s fight for suffrage and equality, declare her a Canadian hero and stop there. One can also look at her involvement with the philosophies of eugenics and see a more sinister racialized element in her brand of maternal feminism.

In the words of Canadian studies scholar Janice Fiamengo “studies of McClung that neither celebrate her glorious resistance nor exaggerate her failure and complicity can lead us to the kinds of complex analyses that seem most useful at the present time.”

McClung doesn’t deserve a hagiography or an attack piece. Instead, we’re giving her a listicle: here are seven things to remember about Nellie McClung as you celebrate her accomplishments and ponder her choices.


1. She was a popular and accomplished novelist.

Nellie McClung wrote nine works of fiction, eight pieces of non-fiction, as well as countless other articles and speeches. Her 1908 novel Sowing Seeds in Danny, features an outspoken girl heroine named Pearlie Watson who draws comparisons to L.M Montgomery’s Anne Shirley. Watson is a poor pioneer girl in rural Manitoba who rises to prominence despite her lack of education. She becomes an activist and political figure much like McClung herself.

The novel, while very popular in its time has now fallen out of favour: it is a didactic piece of work that hasn’t aged as gracefully as Anne of Green Gables. McClung herself said that Sowing Seeds in Danny was meant to be a sermon against the destructive possibilities of alcohol consumption disguised as a novel. “My earnest hope is that the disguise did not obscure the sermon,” she wrote slyly in her autobiography. 


2. She raged against institutional sexism and gender-based double standards.  

In 1925 McClung published her sixth work of fiction, Painted Fires. The novel, which tells the story of 13 year old Finnish girl who immigrates to Canada, is a departure from her earlier fiction, which focussed more on small communities. Painted Fires is broader in scope and more bold in it’s critiques of institutionalized sexism, attacking power structure which worked against immigrant women in particular.

McClung addresses issues of domestic abuse and gender-based double standards. She writes about vulnerable immigrant girls who were labelled as fallen women after being led against their will into a life of prostitution: slut-shaming in the 1920’s. McClung speaks through a character named Matron who runs a home for “fallen women.” Matron lectures a board of men about the term “fallen women” and gives the board members “positive chills by the things she [says] about the double standard of morals … made by men to shield men.”


3. Far from being satisfied with a woman’s right to vote, Nellie McClung also fought for women’s ordination in the Methodist and United Church of Canada.

Nellie McClung was a religious activist as well as a political activist. She believed that women needed to be considered for the most powerful roles in religious spheres as well as political ones. She began her fight for women’s ordination at the Fifth Ecumenical Methodist Conference in 1921 but encountered opposition from both male ministers and the Women’s Missionary Society. In 1936 women were finally able to become ministers in the methodist church.


4. She was a eugenicist who considered her role in the sterilization act to be a great accomplishment.

Nellie McClung the feminist is easy to embrace from a modern perspective as is Nellie McClung the novelist. But Nellie McClung the eugenicist is harder to accept and understand. McClung supported Alberta’s 1928 Sterilization act, which allowed for the sterilization of those deemed mentally deficient. A 1937 amendment to the act eliminated the need for consent, effectively allowing forced sterilization. Those sterilized disproportionately included minorities such as Aboriginal people and immigrants, as well as the poor and the institutionalized. The act wasn’t repealed until 1972. The story of what happened wasn’t truly brought to light until Leilani Muir sued the Albertan government in 1995, for her wrongful sterilization and institutionalization. 

McClung’s maternalist feminist ideology dictated that women “unfit” to mother should be rendered sterile. Many other suffragists also supported the sterilization of those considered “slow.” When a mother brought her mentally disabled 18 year old daughter Katie to McClung’s attention with fears of pregnancy McClung says she arranged for Katie’s sterilization. Emily Murphy, another member of the famous five said that the insane were not “entitled to progeny.” While these feminist-eugenicist arguments were very much based in the popular discourse of the time it’s important to acknowledge that the women we uphold as Canadian heroes can be implicated in such injustice. 


5. She used the language of maternal feminism.

Scholars have much to say about the particular brand of “maternal” feminism Nellie McClung championed in her writing. Maternal feminism is the idea that the woman, specifically as a mother and a caregiver, should have a more significant role in the societal and political sphere. Some say that McClung’s championing of the mother role was a calculated rhetorical move. Her ideal of women as the bearer of “the race, pledged to its protection and continuance,” was really just a clever strategy that made female involvement in politics more acceptable in a hostile male-dominated environment. Others, like literary critic Helen Buss, call this “compromised feminism.”  


6. She fought for some women to be declared persons.

Nellie McClung is perhaps most famous for being a part of the Famous Five along with Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. These women realized that women could not be appointed to the Canadian Senate because Canadian women were not considered “persons” under the law and they fought to change this. They were finally victorious in 1929.

But not all women were considered persons in 1929. It must be remembered that the Canadian suffragist fight excluded specific women with a specific social status. Indigenous women under the Indian act were not considered persons, and were unable to vote until 1951. First Nations people in general could not vote in elections without giving up their Indian status. Other minorities, such as Japanese Canadians were also denied the right to vote until decades after women’s suffrage and the Persons case. 


7. She was outspoken about her opinions (this meant good and bad things for the people she spoke about.)

Nellie McClung is remembered as a talented and gripping public speaker. In her memoir The Stream Runs Fast she members the first time she spoke in front of a crowd. “I saw faces brighten; eyes glisten, and felt the atmosphere crackle with a new power. I saw what could be done with words, for I had the vision of a new world as I talked.”

She used this talent in a variety of ways. When Jewish refugees begged for sanctuary in Canada in 1939 McClung spoke in favour of the admittance, if not of all then at least of Jewish children. When she saw “simple-minded” girls in danger of pregnancy she spoke in favour of ensuring their safety through sterilization. When Japanese Canadians fought for the right to the vote McClung fought with them.

McClung’s ideas seem rife with contradiction and inconsistency to us in 2016. The causes she spoke so powerfully had significant consequences for the rights of Canadian citizens — some positive and some negative. As a woman of her time she was radical, courageous, and powerful. As a Canadian icon she invites measured and careful contemplation.

Clarissa Fortin is rabble’s current book intern.

Additional sources: 

Literature as pulpit: the Christian social activism of Nellie L. McClung by R.R Warne