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Electoral Insight – Review of Electoral Systems

Electoral Insight – June 1999

Photo credit: Glenbow Museum, Calgary (NA-1514-3)
Photo credit: Glenbow Museum, Calgary (NA-1514-3)

Right-To-Vote Activist Still Stands Tall

But Who Was Nellie McClung?

Wayne Brown
Elections Canada

On October 18, 2000, the "Famous Five" will become the first Canadian women to be honoured with a statue on Parliament Hill. They are the five Alberta women who, 70 years ago, fought Canadian lawmakers all the way to the Privy Council in Britain in their determination to have women recognized as persons and, therefore, eligible to serve as senators. The "Famous Five" are Judge Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards.

The sizable statue of the "Famous Five" will be located beside that of Queen Elizabeth, to the east of the Centre Block. Until now, sites on Parliament Hill have been reserved for statues of Fathers of Confederation, monarchs of Canada and deceased prime ministers. The bronze sculptures will be a little larger than life size. The design of the five standing and sitting figures suggests that the one who will figure most prominently will be Nellie McClung. The sculpture will show McClung standing and holding a newspaper heralding the women's milestone victory. It was, in fact, McClung who led the Canadian movement to obtain the right for women to vote and run for office, and who was subsequently hailed as Canada's most formidable women's rights activist.

A computer simulation shows where the Famous Five statue will stand on Parliament Hill.
A computer simulation shows where the Famous Five statue will
stand on Parliament Hill.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Digital Simulation Laboratory, Public
Works and Government Services Canada

Last year, in its July 1 edition, Maclean's magazine ranked the 100 most important Canadians in history. Nellie McClung, the only woman in the top ten, ranked seventh, in the company of explorer Samuel de Champlain, former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and New Brunswick industrialist K. C. Irving, among other notables.

McClung was born in 1873, in Grey County, near Owen Sound in rural Ontario. Her family name was Mooney. She went west as a child, when her family started a homestead southwest of Brandon, Manitoba. Starting school at the age of ten, she had earned a teaching certificate by age fifteen.

She taught briefly in rural schools before marrying Wesley McClung, the son of temperance worker and suffragist Mrs. J. W. McClung. Her mother-in-law encouraged her to write Sowing Seeds in Danny, the first of her sixteen novels. It was published in 1908 and sold over 100 000 copies.

In 1911, McClung became active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Canadian Women's Press Club in Winnipeg. She helped found the Manitoba Political Equality League in 1912. Its major concern was women's suffrage, but it had other goals too, including the prohibition of the sale of alcohol and the reform of labour laws. Some women argued that, since they were required to pay taxes on the property they owned, they also had every right to be represented in the legislatures. By 1900, most women property owners across the country could vote in municipal elections, but none had the right to cast ballots in provincial or federal elections or to run for election. Bills recognizing the right of women to vote had been introduced in at least half of the provinces, but none of them were passed into law. Many suffragists also saw obtaining the vote as a means of ensuring that prohibition laws were passed.

The Manitoba Political Equality League shunned the violent methods of its British counterparts. Instead, it distributed pamphlets and campaigned by sending speakers across the province with petitions. In 1914, the League sponsored a witty satirical play, The Parliament of Women, which reversed roles and cast women as legislators, making bombastic speeches and listening to a group of men petitioning for the vote. Nellie McClung played the role of Conservative Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin, who opposed female enfranchisement. (More recently, this event has been portrayed on television. In one of the CRB Foundation's most powerful Heritage Minutes, Nellie (actress Sharman Sturges) humourously turns around the premier's statement, "Nice women don't want the vote.")

Less than two years later, in 1916, Manitoba women became the first in Canada to win the right to vote and run for office in provincial elections. By then, a provincial Liberal government was willing to introduce suffrage legislation, which it passed into law after receiving a petition bearing over 40 000 names. One by one, most of the provinces removed their barriers against voting by women and, in 1920, federal legislation finally recognized the right of women 21 years of age or older to vote in federal elections.

Meanwhile, McClung moved to Edmonton, where she was elected to the Alberta legislature (as a Liberal), but served only one term. She was busy fighting for another, related cause. The British North America Act of 1867, which set out the powers and responsibilities of the provincial and federal governments, used the word "persons" when it referred to more than one person and the word "he" when it referred to a single person. The traditional interpretation was that this wording meant that only a man could be a person. And if, as the Act said, only "qualified persons" could be appointed to the Canadian Senate, then only men could be appointed as senators. Despite pressure from women's groups, several consecutive prime ministers refused to appoint a female senator.

The "Famous Five" appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. When that Court decided, on April 24, 1928, that the word "person" did not include women, they did not give up. They persuaded Prime Minister Mackenzie King to appeal the "Persons Case" to Britain's Privy Council, Canada's highest court in those days. On October 18, 1929, the British Privy Council concluded that Canadian women were indeed "persons" and eligible to participate in the final stages of enacting federal laws in Canada. The decision paved the way for Canadian women to enter the Senate and, the next year, Cairine Reay Wilson was appointed Canada's first female senator.

The Persons Case was undoubtedly one of Nellie McClung's greatest victories, but she achieved many. She was the first woman to serve on the Board of Governors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the first female elder of the United Church of Canada, and the first and only woman on the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations in 1938. In addition, she was regarded by many as the most successful Canadian novelist and writer of her time.

Nellie McClung died in 1951, at the age of 78, and was buried in Saanich, British Columbia. Several schools, libraries and a park in western Canada bear McClung's name. A sculpture similar to the one to be placed on Parliament Hill next year will be unveiled in Calgary's Olympic Plaza on October 18 of this year, the 70th anniversary of the day on which it became possible for Canadian women to fully participate in public life.

Since 1979, the Governor General has presented an annual award to commemorate the Persons Case. At several of these presentations, Governor General Roméo LeBlanc has quoted McClung's better-known maxims, such as: "Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known," and "Never retreat, never explain, never apologize. Get the thing done and let them howl."


Note: The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.