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Snapshots in History: October 20: Remembering Nellie McClung

October 20, 2015 | John P. | Comments (0)

Nellie McClung


On October 20 and beyond, take a moment to remember the contribution to Canadian women’s suffrage of feminist and social activist Nellie Letitia (Mooney) McClung (Born: October 20, 1873 in Chatsworth, Ontario; Died: September 1, 1951 in Victoria, British Columbia). While living in Winnipeg, Manitoba with pharmacist husband Wesley and their family, Nellie McClung began campaigning for women’s right to vote in the 1914 and 1915 Manitoba provincial elections as a supporter of the Liberal Party. Additionally, she helped to create the Women’s Political Equality League. In 1914, McClung organized a mock Women’s Parliament to show the illogic of denying women the vote by playfully arguing that men should not have the right to vote. The Liberal Party won the 1915 Manitoba election and Manitoba became the first Canadian province to grant women the right to vote (and the right to run for elected office in the provincial Legislative Assembly) on January 28, 1916, although Nellie McClung and her family had just moved to Alberta.

Nellie McClung championed women’s suffrage in the province of Alberta as well as advocating for dental and medical care for school children, property rights for married women, mothers’ allowances, and factory safety legislation. McClung was elected to the Alberta Legislative Assembly as a member of the Liberal Party in 1921, serving in office until 1926. McClung’s controversial support of eugenics and sterilization of the developmentally disabled influenced the introduction of the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928 by the United Farmers of Alberta.

This government also created an Alberta Eugenics Board (AEB), despite opposition from some segments of the population that the Act constituted a violation of human rights. Despite the subsequent embracing of eugenics by the racist Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s, the subsequent Social Credit government in Alberta allowed the AEB to continue its work until the new Progressive Conservative government of Peter Lougheed discontinued the law in 1972. (In fairness to Nellie McClung, other progressive people considered eugenics as a viable option for a time before the Nazis embraced it, including author H.G. Wells, playwright George Bernard Shaw, civil rights activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, and yes, even T.C. “Tommy” Douglas. Douglas completed his Master of Arts thesis on eugenics in 1933 but rarely mentioned it and never implemented it in health services while serving as Premier of Saskatchewan from 1944-1961. See: Snapshots in History: February 24: Remembering T.C. “Tommy” Douglas )

Nellie McClung is also remembered as one of the Famous Five (or Valiant Five) – five Alberta-based women ( Emily MurphyIrene Marryat ParlbyNellie Mooney McClungLouise Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards ) who petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) on August 27, 1927 to inquire whether the word “Persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act included “female persons” or women for the purposes of being considered for appointment to the Senate, Canada’s unelected Upper House of Parliament. (The background context to this petition was that women were fighting for equality rights across North America, even though Canadian women already had the vote federally and in most provincial jurisdictions.)

The SCC ruled on April 24, 1928 that women were not “persons” under the intent of Section 24, hence not eligible for appointment to the Senate, prompting the “Famous Five” to refer the matter (i.e. the “Persons Case”) to the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which reversed the SCC’s decision on October 18, 1929, utilizing the “living tree doctrine” towards the constitution in that interpretations should be broad and progressive so as to ameliorate the constitution’s adaptability to the times. In October 2009, the Senate of Canada honoured the Famous Five posthumously as Canada’s first Honorary Senators.

Nellie McClung was also an author of fiction and non-fiction books, publishing her first novel Sowing Seeds in Danny in 1908. (Click here for online access to Nellie McClung’s works.)

Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:



Nellie McClung the complete autobiography Clearing in the west and The stream runs fast Nellie McClung voice for the voiceless Nellie McClung Firing the heather the life and times of Nellie McClung


Nellie McClung Sowing seeds in Danny



Read the review of Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray in Quill and Quire.

Read the review of Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray in Canada’s History



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