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Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray. Penguin Canada, 2008.

Charlotte Gray’s biography of Nellie McClung belongs to the Extraordinary Canadians series. Edited by John Ralston Saul, the series of more than a dozen titles covers a wide range of Canadians, from politicians such as Trudeau and Tommy Douglas to artists such as Emily Carr and writer L. M. Montgomery. Each title is written by an accomplished Canadian writer.

Rather than just reciting the details of McClung’s life, Gray does a good job of putting her achievements into the context of her era. Truly, Nellie McClung led an extraordinary life for a woman of her time, and indeed, any time. Born in Ontario in 1873, she moved to Manitoba with her family at the age of seven. In a day far removed from our modern world of convenient travel, they carried their entire household of belongings with them, using two slow-moving oxen carts to complete the final 200 kilometres of their journey. The family, with their five children, arrived just in time to settle into a remote, small, drafty cabin before the onslaught of the prairie winter. It was a few years before a school was built close enough to allow Nellie to begin her education and she learned to read at the age of ten.

From these difficult circumstances, Nellie went on to become a teacher herself and married a young pharmacist. Together, they raised a family of five children, first in a small Manitoba town, and later in Winnipeg and Edmonton. Nellie’s mother-in-law, who with her “fearless, radical” mind was so very different from Nellie’s own conservative, conventional mother, no doubt played an important role in helping Nellie to find her voice.

As a young woman, Nellie joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. First established in the United States in 1874, it spread rapidly through Canada because drunkenness was a serious problem everywhere. We tend to dismiss the notion of prohibition now as the ideal of over-zealous religious types. But in 19th-century North America, a time when people lived hard, difficult lives and men often drank freely in public, alcohol presented a threat to wives and children, who had no protection from abusive husbands and fathers under the law. Prohibition ultimately changed societal mores before it was repealed.

It is hard to even imagine now the complete lack of status women held a century ago. An unmarried woman remained with her father or brother. If a woman was trapped in an unhappy marriage, she was a failure. If she left her husband, she had no right to her children or a share in their joint estate. Sons inherited land. Daughters did not. The temperance movement offered women a vehicle for change in a time when much of society could not even imagine women voting.

Nellie became an inspiring speaker and through her writing and speaking engagements, played a significant role in the first wave of Canadian feminism. The three prairie provinces were the first to grant women the vote in 1916. Ontario and British Columbia, and the federal government followed a year later, with the remaining provinces gradually following their lead. However, even after the vote was won, women were barred from the Senate because they were not “persons” under the law. Nellie and the Famous Five succeeded in their quest to change that in 1929.

Charlotte Gray’s biography is a lively presentation of Nellie’s life and accomplishments, and well worth reading. Gray wonders how Nellie came to be so different from her more conventional family, what drove her, what made her the determined campaigner she was. Gray offers no clear answer, but makes Nellie come alive for a new generation who enjoy the fruit of her achievements.

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