We may yet live to see the day when women will no longer be news! And it cannot come too soon. I want to be a peaceful, happy, normal human being, pursuing my unimpeded way through life, never having to explain, defend, or apologize for my sex. - Nellie McClung 1929
Throughout her life, Nellie McClung strove to improve the quality of life not just for women but for all Canadians. Her principle aim was to achieve recognition and acceptance of women who had traditionally been denied a role in the institutions and organizations which governed both Canadian politics and culture. An active suffragist, writer, prohibitionist, and political agitator, McClung's efforts brought about much change in Canadian society. While an examination of the reforms and movements she supported are obviously feminist in nature, it is difficult to determine the root of her feminist beliefs. Today's terms for first wave feminists were not used in Nellie McClung's era. Now, these activists are labeled as either maternal or equal rights feminists and such a label would seem to dictate a distinct philosophy and motives for reform. McClung is difficult to label since she seems to alternate between the two types of feminism. The discussion of first wave feminism is problematic as feminists are branded as maternal or equal rights feminists, terms which were not even applicable at the time. Maternal feminists, for example, sought the vote in order to reinforce the influence of women and the family in Canadian society, and to introduce "feminine morality" into Canadian politics. On the other hand, equal rights feminists fought for the vote based on the assumption that men and women are equal, and therefore everyone shares the right to participate in a liberal democracy. As Davis and Hallet point out, "while the arguments used by the women can be labeled, the women themselves cannot." Such a statement is definitely applicable to Nellie McClung who embraced a multitude of causes, and often took a different approach to each. Upon examining the causes she served and the roles she filled as a Canadian woman in the first half of the twentieth century, one discovers that Nellie McClung did not have a unified approach to reform of the life. Her involvement in the installation of women in the United Church, prohibition, the suffrage movement, her family, and her writing, defy any restricting and confining labels, while erasing the need to find one.
Religion played a prominent role in the life of Nellie McClung since childhood. Brought up by an Irish father and Scottish mother in a Methodist household, Nellie formulated a strong system of Christian beliefs. The ordination of women in the church began when women felt that they should have a voice in church administration. Nellie supported this movement declaring that
'God created man in his own image . . . male and female. He created them.' That is to say, He created male and female man. Further on in the story of creation it says: 'He gave them dominion etc.' It would seem from this, that men and women got away to a fair start. There was no inequality to begin with. God gave them dominion over everything; there were no favours, no special privileges. Whatever inequality has crept in since, has come without God's sanction.
Nellie often used Biblical references such as the one above to justify her cause.
Church boards delayed and attempted to avoid the question of female ordination altogether. This did not really matter since no female candidate for ordination had come forward. As well, further negotiations with the Presbyterian and Congregational churches regarding unification meant the Methodist Church was reluctant to take a potentially inflammatory stance. Nellie criticized both the church and her fellow women stating:
It (the church) preached resignation when it should have sounded rebellion. Many of the brightest women grew impatient and went out of church figuratively slamming the door behind them. Slamming an innocent door has always seemed to me a misdirection of energy. It is better to linger after the sermon to interview the minister.
It was not until 1926 that Lydia Gruchy, the first female candidate, came forward, and not until 1936 that she was actually ordained. In 1929, after Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, and three other feminists won the Persons Case, it was declared that, "Now only two great institutions wouldn't accept women on equal terms - the church and the beer parlour!" Arguments declaring that women would not be as capable counsellors as men, and that female priests would act as temptresses, slowed action from the church. Nellie's participation in the fight for the installation of women in the United Church was both extensive and influential. In this case, it is quite clear that her feminist arguments incorporated the ideals of equality and fairness rather than voicing the maternal arguments that focused on the role and significance of the mother and family in Canadian society.
Nellie McClung was an avid believer in the necessity of reform policy which would bring Prohibition into effect. McClung spoke frequently and adamantly of the evils of "demon liquor" and its effect on the family. Firstly, Nellie felt that alcohol primarily affected women and children as they suffered directly from excessive drinking on the part of males. Domestic violence, physical and emotional abuse, and profanity caused turmoil in family life when alcohol was not effectively controlled. It was also argued that women who abused alcohol may have done so as a result of being denied an active role in society. Frustrated and isolated, some women looked to alcohol as an escape from their boring, repetitive day to day lives. The stress of Nellie's argument for Prohibition was distinct from her approach to other issues. She would often take a humourous or sarcastic tone to make her point. On the subject of alcohol, she became very serious in order to emphasize the importance of her case, and to ensure that it would be taken seriously and not brushed off as "prudish or unimportant." In the case for Prohibition, an aspect of maternal feminism is evident in Nellie. She advocated that women "have a natural sphere to guide and sustain life, to care for the race." Although her argument is based on a stereotype which suggests that women are morally superior to men, Nellie felt that the role of females in Canadian society had to be extended in order to improve the living conditions of all.
When faced with the proposition of female suffrage in the first decades of the twentieth century, most male politicians claimed that they respected women, yet the political spectrum was too harsh and corrupt for them. Premier Rodmond Roblin of Manitoba proved to be a particularly resistant force on the question of female suffrage. He tried to manipulate maternal feminist rhetoric in order to establish his case:
My wife is bitterly opposed to women suffrage. I have respect for my wife; more than that, I love her: I am not ashamed to say so. Will anyone say that she would be better as a wife and mother because she could go and talk on the streets about local or dominion politics? I disagree. The mother that is worthy of the name and of the good affection of a good man has a hundredfold more influence in moulding and shaping public opinion around her dinner table than she would have in the marketplace, hurling her eloquent phrases to the multitude. It is in the home that her influence is exercised and felt.
Nellie McClung was an active member of the Political Equality League which strove to counter this type of attitude. P.E.L. Workers spoke and circulated petitions at many public events including stampedes and church bazaars. In January 1914, a delegation from the P.E.L. approached the Manitoba legislature to present its case. The delegation included women of various ethnic backgrounds and classes. Nellie explained to the legislature: "We are not here to ask for a reform, or a gift, or a favour, but for a right - not for mercy but for justice." Roblin acknowledged that these women were in "deadly earnest," but insisted that their logic was "decidedly ineffective." The Premier's speech was so harsh and lacking in logic, that Nellie was delighted. The following evening, the suffragists had planned a mock parliament in the Walker Theater in which all the politicians were to be female, and a delegation of males would approach the female legislature and petition for suffrage. The first petition protested against men's clothing. Collars should be at least six inches and scarlet ties were to be outlawed. The second demanded labour saving devices for men. The audience was overcome with the humour of the presentation and cheered in support. The climax arrived when Nellie took the stage as Premier Roblin and made a mockery of the speech he gave the previous day in the Manitoba legislature. She said that, "if men were all so intelligent as these representatives of the downtrodden sex seem to be, it might not do any harm to give them the vote. But all men are not intelligent." The staged protest won enormous support and furthered the cause of the P.E.L.
It was not until 1916 that women's suffrage came into being in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Nellie eventually sat in the Alberta Legislature as a Liberal in Edmonton from 1921 until 1926. Her feminist stance on the issue of suffrage was decidedly egalitarian. Although she used arguments from time to time which may have leaned toward maternal feminism and supported the need for women to be politically active in order to bring a female perspective into Canadian politics, she emphasized that suffrage was a woman's right as a human being. It has even been argued that Nellie's platform was potentially radical as it posed a threat to male supremacy. Nellie, however, remained highly spirited and confident throughout the struggle declaring that
Without any noise or fuss of trouble, woman's suffrage is arriving! And it is going to happen just as naturally and quietly as Monday becomes Tuesday. . . and we didn't have to knock anybody down and take it away from them! It's going to be handed to us, with kindest regards and best wishes, hoping that we are enjoying the same. . . We are so glad that we do not have to fight anymore - we are tired of war - tired of campaigns and petitions, and signatures and interviews!
Considering Nellie McClung's activism and her views about the role of women in Canadian society, it is important to investigate her personal life and the roles she fulfilled as a wife and mother. While she supported those women who chose to work outside the home out of desire rather than need , it is surprising how defensive she was about her ability to raise a family as well as pursuing her interests outside of the home. Nellie always attempted to portray the image that hers was a "normal" family life, and that her children were being raised in a "normal" family environment, although they were not. Nellie's "not exactly traditional lifestyle. . . frequently took her away from home," and brought forth accusations that Nellie was "neglecting her own home and family." Nellie's insecurity about her image as a parent arises in this account:
I remember when the political fight in 1913 was raging and the Telegram, now defunct, was running cartoons of me every day, my youngest boy, three years old ran away one morning and we were alarmed over his disappearance. But before we had time to be greatly disturbed, his brother, aged eight, delivered him at the back door, breathless with joy at being safe home with the young deserter. "I got him, mother,' he shouted; its all right, the Telegram didn't see him; I sneaked him right up the lane.' He would have made a more interesting picture for the Telegram than the weird things they were running, too, with his grimy little face, and one stocking at half mast.
Nellie effectively fulfilled her duties at home and had nothing to worry about, yet in her writings and even autobiographies, she refused to discuss romance, a normal part of any individual's life. So while Nellie placed much value on motherhood, she also encouraged women to pursue other interests. Her fear of being perceived as an unfit mother while involving herself in countless social issues seems unnecessary as she herself was confident that she was good to both her children and her husband. This demonstrates the influence of antifeminist rhetoric of the day, as it was even able to penetrate Nellie McClung.
Nellie McClung's writings attempt to provide a voice for Canadian women. In her efforts of creating a "voice for the voiceless" she also tried to elevate the position of women in society. She effectively challenged traditionally male oriented literature in order to advance the status of women. Throughout Nellie's writings, she challenged social and economic restraints which continue to suppress women, and at times argued support in favour of both maternal and equal rights feminism. She also fought so that women's talents and contributions could be felt in society. Nellie's efforts for change and reform are obvious.
In her autobiography, Nellie McClung wrote:
In Canada we are developing a pattern of life and I know something about one block of that pattern. I know it because I helped make it, and I can say that now without any pretense of modesty, or danger of arrogance, for I know that we who make the patterns are not important, but the pattern is.
By lessening the role of the individual to the actual reforms at hand, Nellie herself minimizes the need to label the individual. The importance of activism and reform is measured in their ability to exact change, not in the attitudes and personalities of their supporters. It would be extremely difficult to categorize Nellie McClung as either a maternal or equal rights feminist given the range of her platforms and methods of protest. Nellie sought to realize change so she applied the argument which best fit the situation at hand. In attempting to place Nellie in one of these two feminist camps, many historians fail to present a clear and complete account of her life and work. Furthermore, they attempt to classify these feminists according to criteria which did not exist in their era. Therefore, in refraining from branding the feminist activist, a better understanding of each activist as an individual entity, as well as the motivation behind their work can be gained. As Nellie McClung explained above, the pattern as a whole and its effects on society are more significant that the individuals who contributed to it.