Posts Tagged ‘Nellie McClung’

Nellie McClung (left) and Irene Parlby

Although women in Canada achieved the right to vote in 1917, many of the improvements to the status of women that first-wave feminists no doubt hoped would follow were slow in arriving. Indeed, achieving equal rights to those of men has been a tedious journey and has required the ongoing persistent effort of countless women over the past century.

When I began work in a large Toronto office in 1970, the young man seated at the desk next to mine, who was hired after I was, and was performing exactly the same chores, was rewarded with a bigger paycheque at the end of the week, simply because he was male. Things have changed since then, but women are still under-represented in highly-paid positions.

One of the steps along the road came when women fought to be recognized as persons. You’d think this was self-evident, but Prime Minister Robert Borden, and then Prime Minister Arthur Meighen and their governments maintained otherwise. They argued that the 1867 British North America Act prevented women from holding seats in the federal Senate because Section 24 of the act stated that only “qualified persons” might be called to the Senate, and a British court had ruled that women were “persons in matters of pains and penalties, but not persons in matters of rights and privileges.”

Emily Murphy, an Edmonton magistrate, had campaigned for years for government institutions to open their doors to women. A clause in the Supreme Court Act stated that five citizens could petition for an interpretation of a part of the BNA Act if the minister of justice supported the request for a ruling. In 1927, Murphy was joined by Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, all active participants in women’s organizations, in petitioning the Supreme Court.

Henrietta Muir Edwards (left) and Louise McKinney

On April 24th, 1928, Chief Justice Anglin handed down an opinion. He held that since women did not hold public office in 1867, the BNA authors could not have intended that women would be eligible to sit in the Senate. Therefore, women were barred from sitting in the Senate. In short, women were not to be allowed to sit in the Senate because they never had.

Murphy and her companions appealed the matter to a higher court: the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Westminster, England. In October of 1929, British lord chancellor Lord Sankey stated that the BNA Act was capable of growth. A liberal interpretaion of the act was espoused and he concluded that the word “persons” includes members of both the male and female sex. Therefore, women were eligible to be summoned to the Senate of Canada. This year, 2009, marks the 80th anniversary of the decision.

A commemorative statue remembers this important moment in the history of the Canadian women’s movement. Unveiled in October of 2000, the monument is situated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The larger-than-life sculptures were completed by Edmonton artist Barbara Paterson and were donated to the Government of Canada by the Famous 5 Foundation. The Famous Five are portrayed as they might have been as they celebrate their victory. Nellie McClung holds up a headline announcing Women are Persons! At her side, Irene Parlby looks on. Emily Murphy stands by her chair, while Louise McKinney clasps her hands and Henrietta Muir Edwards raises her cup in acknowledgment of the victory.

Unlike most of the monuments on Parliament Hill, which are formal and conventional, the Women are Persons tribute invites visitors to join the women, even sit down with them and celebrate their achievement. It’s a lovely remembrance of five important persons.

Emily Murphy

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »