The incredible, irrepressible and witty Nellie McClung

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January 28, 2016 was the 100th anniversary of women's right to vote in Manitoba. That date was a day to celebrate the sheer determination of women's suffrage to gain for Canadian women -- for the first time -- equality with men to cast votes and hold provincial office.

In particular, one woman's political contributions were instrumental in bringing about this triumph: the woman was Nellie McClung and she is remembered for her role in helping to bring about Manitoba women's enfranchisement.

Nellie McClung was born in Ontario as Nellie Mooney and her family moved to Manitoba when she was seven years old. Nellie trained as a teacher, and by the age of 16 she was teaching in a rural school. While she was teaching, and because she questioned traditional women's roles, she became involved in several social reform groups. Although very young, Nellie was charming and a gifted speaker with an irrepressible sense of humour; as a result, she was able to win others to her causes.

At the age of 23, Nellie married Wesley McClung, who supported her and her social reform efforts. During their marriage the couple raised five children. Nellie was later to admit, "I am glad ... that I kept alive my own ambitions even when it would have been much easier to become a home-loving heart who had no thought beyond her children."

In addition to her social reform advocacy, Nellie was a fiction writer: her first novel, published in 1908, Sowing Seeds in Danny, became a national bestseller and many other literary successes followed.

Nellie's strong religious beliefs and devotion to her family increased her awareness and concern for the unfortunate conditions of women and children, so when the family moved to Winnipeg in 1911, Nellie joined the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a group which recognized the problems associated with alcohol abuse. Her experience with abused and neglected women led Nellie to recognize the importance of having a woman's viewpoint expressed on the political front. This led Nellie to form a passionate interest in the women's suffrage movement and to focus on the advancement of the movement: as a result, in 1912, she became a founding member of the Political Equality League.

Not only was the purpose of the Political Equality League to gain the vote for women, it was also to improve working conditions for both genders. Nellie's spirited leadership and articulate, reasoned and witty arguments convinced Manitoba's Premier Rodmond Roblin that factory conditions, for example, were indeed appalling. Roblin agreed to look into poor working conditions for women; however, the premier wasn't convinced that giving women the right to vote was the remedy to improving those conditions. He refused to give women's suffrage any consideration.    

In 1914, Nellie and other like-minded women took a leading role in the Manitoba election in the hopes of unseating Premier Roblin's Conservative government. Nellie and her fellow members of the Political Equality League staged a mock parliament, "A Woman's Parliament," in the form of a play which satirized the dangers of allowing men the right to vote. This had an impact on the way the current parliament and its policies regarding women were viewed by the people of Manitoba, and lent energy and support to the League's campaign. The play was a factor in turning public sentiment in favour of the enfranchisement of women. Indeed, it was such a success that enough money was made to continue the financing of the League's campaign. Unfortunately, despite the campaign against Roblin, his party returned to power.

In 1915, Roblin's Conservative government fell because of scandals and an election was called in August of that year.

Nellie and her family had moved to Edmonton, but since Tobias Norris, leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party had promised women the right to vote, Nellie was persuaded to return to Manitoba for the last week of the election to fight for Norris's campaign. Nellie spoke passionately at several venues and at a large Liberal meeting at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg on the eve of the election.

Nellie's entrance into the theatre was met with such cheering and applause that it was obvious she had reached the pinnacle of her career. In spite of her wicked sense of humour, her speech for women's rights that night held no levity. "I am not here to beg a favour," she stated, "but to obtain simple justice." She went on to say, "Have we not brains to think? Hands to work? Hearts to feel? And lives to live? Do we not bear our part in citizenship? Do we not help build the Empire? Give us our due!"

Norris and the Liberal Party were elected and on January 28, 1916, Norris's government granted the women of Manitoba full suffrage. Manitoba was the first province to grant women this right. Women had taken another step in the march towards equality.

As we go marching, marching,

We stand together tall


The rising of the women

Means the rising of us all


No more the drudge and idler,

Ten that work where one reposes


But a sharing of life's glories --

Bread and roses, bread and roses

Nellie returned to Alberta where women were granted suffrage in April 1916 and where she was elected as a member of parliament. She would go on to be part of "The Famous Five" women who asked the Supreme Court of Canada to have females legally considered persons... but that's another story for another day.

March 8 is International Women's Day. Please celebrate with us.

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

Photo: By Cyril Jessop - National Archives of Canada / PA-030212/Wikimedia Commons

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