When you ask anyone who is a great Canadian, Manitoba’s Nellie McClung often makes that list.
McClung was an outspoken women, writer, and later, a politician. As a suffragist, she made it her mission to join the fight for women’s rights more than a hundred years ago.
But what would Nellie McClung think of women’s lives today?
“Farm wives at the time…that was a hard, hard, hard, hard life. Many of them were isolated. They wouldn’t have a lot of contact with other women,” said Doris Moulton, chair of the Nellie McClung Foundation.
“She wanted women to be able to be involved. I think, more than anything, she wanted women to be free of violence, and she thought the way to get that was: A) Let the men off the drinking; and B) let the women get the vote.”
In 1914, McClung and her fellow suffragists famously staged a mock parliament at the Walker Theatre. At the time, Premier Rodmond Roblin was vehemently opposed to women in Manitoba having the vote.
“There was a lot of opposition. It was not vicious. It was satirical. ‘Women should have their place, and their place is not in public at all,'” Moulton explained.
The following year, Roblin’s government fell out of power, and in 1916, Manitoba became the first province in Canada to grant women the provincial vote.
Despite that victory, women weren’t even considered ‘persons’ in the eyes of the Canadian government, according to the British North American Act. McClung, along with a group of others-we know them as The Famous Five-championed the rights of women. They took the case to the Supreme Court, and then to the Privy Council of England, who, in 1929, finally declared that women were indeed persons.
“It was a start. The gains were incremental. They weren’t overnight. That’s what Nellie and her colleagues hoped-that once you got the vote, things would change. Once you were persons, things would change,” Moulton said. “Of course, we are still having this struggle today.”
Women have come a long way in Manitoba and in Canada since then.
But have we come far enough? Would Nellie McClung be proud of where are today? I reached out to McClung’s great-granddaughter to get her perspective.
“I think she would be happy that we continue to come together to fight, but I think she would be disappointed that we still need to fight,” said Caitlin McClung, who is a policy analyst in Toronto.
“She would want to live in a world where those who face barriers, that those barriers are removed. By calling them out, and demanding change. Change to the system, not change the individual, is something we are all fighting for right now.”
I asked Caitlin how she carries on her great-grandmother’s legacy.
“Nellie was a fighter. I’d like to think that, in my daily life, if I feel that there is an injustice that I have the power, and the willpower, to stand up for those injustices. I was taught that at a young age. I’m a mother of a two-and-a-half year old girl. I am trying to raise her to recognize and know her privilege, and understand not everybody is afforded that privilege, and we need to do something about it.”
Caitlin also explained where she thinks we need to go from here.
“We’re getting into a feminism that I think is going to work for everybody eventually. There are groups of women that are not reaping the benefits of Nellie McClung’s and others’ leadership. And we need to continue to address that. I am very hopeful that we are starting to do that. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Caitlin feels there are a lot of positives happening right now.
“I think we have to continue to apply pressure on decision makers. There’s a lot of discourse right now on these issues in the general public, and we need to keep this discourse going. I don’t think we’ve seen this type of discourse in 20, 30 years, since the seventies. We just need to keep it going. I am very hopeful, because I think there’s an amazing amount of leadership in this area now, and people aren’t going to give up.”
It’s clear that if Nellie were here today, she would want us to work with others to make a difference, and to keep making noise!
“I think we have to have heroes. I think that Nellie stands as a hero for us. I think she stands for someone who says ‘You can have a voice. If you use your voice, and you work with others, you can make a huge change. And just go ahead and do it, and let them howl,'” says Moulton. “We need those types of roles models. We need those kind of people to say, ‘She did. She wasn’t afraid. I can do it.'”