In Conversation with Marcia McClung
Special projects editor Eli Yarhi interviews Marcia McClung, granddaughter of suffragist, reformer, legislator and author Nellie McClung, for The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Marcia McClung: I'm Marcia McClung, I'm the youngest granddaughter of Nellie McClung — my father was her youngest son — and I have been a communications person all my life, working primarily in the arts and entertainment industries. Just working backwards, I had my own business for 15 years called Applause Communications and before that I was the vice president of communications at Harbourfront here in Toronto. And then before that I was at the National Ballet.
Nellie McClung was my grandmother. She was and she would have identified herself as a writer. She wrote 16 books over the course of her life. [Many] of those were novels [or collections of short stories], stories about Western Canada, mostly about pioneer life, which is a life that she and her family did in fact have. She was also an activist, [who] worked on the rights of children and women. [See also Women’s Movement.] Today she is known primarily as an activist on women's issues. Getting the vote for women, she was part of a group that worked on that, and general women's rights. She was also the first woman member of the board of the CBC. She was a founder of a number of political organizations, like the Women's Political Equality League. Despite its kind of cumbersome name, [it] was the organization in Manitoba that started to work for getting women the vote.
One of the reasons that she is known today and is successful was that she cut across a number of boundaries. She was also an active churchwoman — first of all a Methodist and then a supporter of the unity that brought about the United Church in Canada. And interestingly enough, when the United Church was formed it didn't allow women to be ministers. So then she fought for that. She was very much a fighter for rights.
The interesting thing about the Persons Case was the struggle for it. At the time, no woman could be named to the Senate. And also in the legislation, any five citizens could fight a piece of legislation, so the five women — five women in Alberta — got together and decided to fight this [see Famous 5]. Well they lost in the Supreme Court of Canada. And at that time, Canadian law was set in Britain, so the last court of appeal was to the British Privy Council. And the British Privy Council overturned the Canadian court's decisions and granted women status as persons. It took a long time.
Eli Yarhi: What are your childhood memories of Nellie McClung?
MM: I've a child's memory of my grandmother. In Victoria, which is where the McClungs had retired to in 1935, they bought a beautiful piece of land, high, overlooking the ocean, which was called Lantern Lane. And she wrote a couple of books from Lantern Lane. So as a child I knew my grandmother and I used to go up and sit with her while she wrote. She had very bad arthritis in the last years of her life so she was at home a lot.
So I remember her as being so much fun. And it was so much fun as a child to be around her because there was always activity. The phone was ringing, there were people arriving. It was sort of an action central.
I do remember a number of women arriving at the house. There was a long driveway and I always knew there were people coming to the house when there would be dust arriving from the driveway, because it meant cars were arriving. A bunch of women arrived to talk about war memories, and so I was allowed to sit in the garden and listen — listen and not talk. So I do remember that and I thought that was really an adult thing that I was being allowed to do.
EY: What question are you not often asked about Nellie McClung that you’d like to hear more often?
MM: Nellie McClung was also a temperance leader [see Women’s Christian Temperance Union]. This was very much in keeping with the thinking of the time, however. Temperance now sounds like a very dated concept, which it is. But then it wasn't. They blamed liquor for violence against women, and they were right to do so at the time. In a pioneer society men were paid in cash on Friday. They went out and drank and came home and beat their wives and children. So that was the germ of it.
But my father and the children in the McClung family certainly drank, and my father decided that he was going to take this on and felt that his mother should have a drink. And he put vodka in a glass, or got the bartender to put vodka in a glass, and she spotted it right away and she laughed, but she also gave him a real lecture about how this was really not the right thing to do, and she was never, ever going to change her views on temperance.
I'm not often asked about temperance because in today's society it's such a dated issue and it situates her in a very clear historical period. That's the reason I'm not asked. The reason I'd like to be asked is that it's one of the issues that brought women together and it certainly was a factor and an important theme in her life and in her writing. It doesn't come out all that strongly in her writing but certainly in her speaking it comes out. So I guess we could use it as an example of how things have changed over the years.
EY: Do you have any other anecdotes like that?
MM: The vodka story is probably my all-time favourite story, but my second all-time favourite story is [that] she was criticized for abandoning her family, right? That you know, “How could she go out and do all this and be away?” And the children were aware of this, and the eldest son, Jack, taught my father, who was four and didn't know what he was saying, to come out onto the stage and say, "I'm the son of a suffragette and I've never known a mother's love."
And of course he didn't know what he was saying, right? But they pushed him on the stage one night before his mother was going to speak and he said this, and then he said, "I didn't realize everybody was laughing and clapping." So after that the children stayed home. They never — but after that she started to begin every speech by saying the children are okay. But she told those stories herself, so...
EY: What do people first ask you when they find out your grandmother was Nellie McClung?
MM: A lot of people ask me what she would think of the women's movement today. Would she approve of reproductive choice, for example? How she would view Canadian society. I would say that's the thing I'm asked the most because she's viewed now — and I guess correctly so given her dates — as a historical figure.
Well I think in general she'd be very pleased to see progress for women, but she would also say that that there's a lot more to do. Nellie and her contemporaries felt that the full participation of women in Canadian society would be guaranteed once women got the vote. They saw that as the linchpin. Once women got the vote they would be fully enfranchised. And she lived to see that that didn't happen. That although women got the vote it didn't mean that there were more women in our elected legislatures.
So she would say today, I think, that there was still a lot of work to do. There's been progress, but she would tell us to get to work on that front. She was a supporter of divorce, although that was a fairly controversial idea at the time. She used to say, “People make mistakes, that's why pencils have erasers,” which is a great — I think that's a great line of hers. So she would have supported the equality of women in the division of property rights.
[Note, some sources quote her as saying: “Why are pencils equipped with erasers if not to correct mistakes?”]
EY: How do biographies of Nellie compare with your memories and family stories?
MM: I would say that in general the history has been correct. I've got a few sort of minor details about a few small inaccuracies in some of the things that have been written about her. But basically I think it's correct. There have been a couple of biographies and the most recent one was written by Charlotte Gray as part of the Penguin series on eminent Canadians.
EY: Were there any differences between the public and private person?
MM: Because I knew her as a child I didn't really grasp — when I was a child I just knew she was my grandmother and special. When I then got to realize what her accomplishments had been, I realized what a remarkable life she had had. And so I learned both from other members of the family, but I also learned from my own research on her.
One of the great sources, which does not exist today thanks to the new technology, is they were great letter writers. In her letter writing, which was — her network was immense — she wouldn't put a date on it. She would just write “Tuesday” or “Wednesday” to the people that she wrote to regularly. So you had to figure out who was she writing to and what was she talking about. That's how you can figure out what was going on.
Her official archives exist in the archives of the province of BC, where she died, but there are also McClung archives in Alberta. One of the things that I don't think you get from the public side is how funny she was. And she was apparently a very good public speaker. One of the reasons that she was so popular was that she framed her social messages in humour. And so while she was talking about closing down the factories that had child labour in Winnipeg, she would add an anecdote — a funny anecdote — that would somehow make her message more palatable.
One of the great examples of that was, the women's Political Equality League was starting to lobby the Manitoba legislature for the vote, and they didn't get anywhere. They would go back and back and back to see Rodmond Roblin, who was the premier at the time, and he would slough them off and there were all kinds of arguments that he would give them. He said he didn't want his wife to have the vote because it would take away from her main job, which was to make sure that the house ran smoothly and to raise the children and it would be impossible to concentrate on the vote and also deal with household responsibilities. So he had all kinds of reasons.
Well they decided that they were going to do a mock parliament and use the language that was used against them to talk about how men shouldn't have the vote. And they went to the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg and they took on the kind of language of the time. And when you read the reports of the day, it was very, very funny. And somehow they were able to get through to a lot of people because they were funny and not as preachy or condescending as a lot of so-called do-gooders were at the time.
EY: How do you reconcile McClung’s support for eugenics? Does that part of her legacy make you uncomfortable?
MM: She talks about eugenics, and it's not in a particularly well-formulated way. But she talks about it as being a system that would assist women who were in some way mentally incapacitated. Because what happened in the time was that women who had serious depression or serious mental issues, or who in fact had been institutionalized, were the victims of sexual violence and were forced to have children that they didn't need or want and that they were not capable of looking after.
So she felt that sterilization would assist those women in not having to bear a burden that they did at the time. So that was the example that she used when she talked about it. So it wasn't particularly well-formed as a philosophy. But I find it abhorrent, yes, I do. And I don't know what she would say today. I do understand how she would have had that view about women who were not capable of negotiating their way in society. I would hope that today she would realize that those women are protected in another way. But yeah, it's slightly — certainly the view makes me feel uncomfortable.
EY: Where was Nellie’s husband throughout in all of this? What was his position?
MM: There's another great quote of hers, "I look to a greater world of fair men and active women." So she did recognize that men were a part and had to play a part and should play a part, and it would be liberating for them to work to be in a society that was more egalitarian towards women. And she was married to a man who believed that, which helped.
[Note, some sources quote her as saying: “I point you to a better day which will reverse the old order, a day of brave women and fair men.”]
He — his name was Wesley — had been brought up by an activist mother. His mother was a temperance leader in Manitoba, which is where she met him. The white ribbon campaign was a temperance campaign, and Annie McClung was her name. Nellie as a young teacher boarded with that family in the small town of Manitou, Manitoba, a tiny place outside of Winnipeg. And she came under the influence of Annie McClung as an activist.
So Annie had brought up a son, Wesley, who Nellie married, who was very used to having an activist mother. So he was comfortable with all of this. He was a quiet man himself but I always felt that he quite liked having all this action going around him. He was very supportive of her political life and also they shared this common face.