Nellie McClung Haiku

Sad your stupid words

Were twisted, thrown back at you?

Cry more, punk premier.

Today on Ehler’s Choice Week, Nellie McClung! Canadian suffragette and another pick from my sainted mother.

Women of other countries attained the vote through hardship, long and bitter campaigns, and the occasional threats of violence. Women of Canada caught their foot in that door through the awesome power of mockery. (And later flung it open with the force of political expediency.)

Enter Nellie McClung, born to the Irish John Mooney and the Scottish Letitia McCurdy in Ontario in 1873. Due to the failure of the family farm, they moved out to Manitoba in 1880. Despite receiving a mere six years of schooling and only learning to read at age nine, Nellie was already employed as a teacher at age 16. At age 23, she married a pharmacist named Robert McClung, with whom she raised a daughter and four sons. Her other interests were the temperance movement and writing. (She published her first novel in 1908, which became a national bestseller.) It was through the former that she got involved in the suffrage movement, as they were part and parcel during that time.

In 1911, she and her family moved to Winnipeg, and promptly became a thorn in the side of Conservative Premier Rodmond Roblin. The man had willfully turned a blind eye to social issues, even as McClung led him by the hand to garment sweatshops filled with woman ceaselessly sewing in ill-ventilated hell holes that he couldn’t last five minutes in. In 1914, she and her fellow suffragettes visited the Legislature to appeal for the vote. As expected, Roblin turned them off with a condescending speech. They listened. And took notes. And wrote and performed a mock parliament to be staged the next evening.

The plot, of course, involved a group of downtrodden men, pleading to their female government masters to grant them the vote. Which of course, was ridiculous. Said Premier McClung-Roblin: “Politics unsettle men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills — broken furniture, broken vows and — divorce.”

Basically, all her lines were cribbed from Robin’s speech and altered for gender.

In any case, the mock parliament was a huge success, Roblin became a laughingstock, and his government was run out the following year. Women got the vote in Manitoba shortly thereafter, but McClung had already moved to Alberta and helped women get the vote there. She became an Alberta MLA in 1921 and continued to write and advocate for social reform, particularly as it partained to labor, children, women, and divorce rights.

Her second most famous turn on the Canadian national stage was her involvement in the ‘Famous Five’. This group filed a petition to the Supreme Court of Canada to officially define woman as ‘persons’. The SC said… No. Woman are not ‘persons’ under the law. As this was pre-Pierre Trudeau, though, the Five had a higher court of appeal. They took it all the way up to the British Privy Council, who decided in 1929 that yes, a woman was a person. So it was. Women could now be judges, senators, anything, hurrah!

She was also one of the sane voices arguing for the acceptance of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. It’s sad that she was an exception in this, and her words went largely unheeded in this matter.

The big black spot on McClung’s legacy is her support of eugenics, as well as the ‘Sexual Sterilization Act’ of Alberta, in effect from 1928 to 1972. This legislation allowed for the wholesale sterilization of anyone deemed mentally unsound, which conveniently turned out to be disproportionately First Nations, Metis, Catholics, and other historically maligned groups. (Look up the case of Leilani Muir, who was erroneously assumed to have subnormal intelligence and was sterilized at age 10. Not that she was told this. She was told that the surgery was for an appendectomy.) Unfortunately, way too many progressives that I otherwise admire bought into this shoddy ‘science’, smearing them with a large, unsightly tarnish that will not rub out. (Looking at you, Tommy Douglas and Agnes Macphail.)

McClung died in 1951 in Victoria, like most elderly Canadians.

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