Nellie McClung was a political activist. She was also a charmer with a gift for oratory and a delightful sense of humour. Her spirited leadership rallied others to the cause of women’s suffrage in Manitoba in the early 20th century.
As a young girl, Nellie questioned traditional “women’s roles.” She recounts, for example, being an excited nine year old looking forward to her first small town public picnic. “I was hoping there would be a race for girls…. But the whole question of girls competing in races was frowned upon. Skirts would fly upward and legs would show! And it was not nice for little girls, or big ones either, to show their legs! I wanted to know why, but I was hushed up.” When she was sixteen, Nellie began teaching at a rural school. In a long skirt and starched blouse, she would play football with the students at recess. Some parents objected – Football was not a ladies’ game – but Nellie finally won the parents over with tact and good sense.
Nellie McClung’s personal commitment to women’s rights became her political cause as well. She began to speak out for female suffrage and to write fiction. Her novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, is a witty portrayal of a small western town. Published in 1908, it became a national best seller, the first of her many literary successes.
Marriage, five children, and a successful writing career did not stop Nellie McClung from campaigning for women’s rights. Her concern for less fortunate women grew out of deep religious beliefs and devotion to her family. She had seen firsthand the suffering of women and children caused by neglect, overwork, poverty and alcohol abuse. “The real spirit of the suffrage movement,” she once wrote, “is sympathy and interest in the other woman, and the desire to make the world a more homelike place to live in.” Manitoba Women Lead Canada
Women’s suffrage was not a popular cause in Canada. Men and women were frightened that women’s rights would lead to the breakdown of home and family. McClung calmed these fears with reasonable discussion, personal charm, irrepressible humour, and her fanciful hats.
In 1912, Manitoba women formed the Political Equality League to improve women’s working conditions. The League convinced Premier Roblin that factory conditions for women were indeed terrible, but in spite of McClung’s eloquence, the League did not convince him that female suffrage was the remedy for such abuses.
To rally public support, the League held a Mock Parliament on January 28, 1914. The subject of debate was whether or not men should have the vote. A male delegation presented its case for male suffrage, and then “Premier” Nellie McClung rose to speak. She complimented the men on their splendid gentlemanly appearance, then she launched into her satiric attack: “Oh no, man is made for something higher and better than voting…Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills ? broken furniture, broken vows, and ? divorce!” The resounding success of the Mock Parliament lent energy and support to the League’s campaign. The 1915 election saw the defeat of Roblin’s Conservative government, and on January 28, 1916, Manitoba became the first Canadian province to give women the vote. Nellie McClung continued to fight for women’s suffrage in other provinces, and saw, slowly but steadily, tradition giving way to equality.