Written by Sarah Bessey
Nellie McClung was the woman who made me want to be a feminist.
Nellie caught my eye when I was a student - like most kids in Canada, I learned her name along with the other famous suffragettes of Canada. Born in 1873, she was one of the original Famous Five (also called the Valiant Five) - the women who joined forces on behalf of women’s rights in Canada, culminating in their great victory known as The Persons Case wherein they successfully challenged the government of Canada to recognize women as persons before the law. I remain deeply grateful to the women who came before me, the women on whose shoulders I stand one hundred years later, enjoying the privileges they fought to secure.
But I came to deeply admire Nellie McClung, not only for her work, but for the way in which she engaged with the struggle. She had a reputation for mischief, charm, and joy. She remained hopeful and boasted a fierce conviction that real social change happens through relationship and respect. She was a wife and a mother of five who loved fashion, particularly becoming well-known for her hats.
It was precisely because she was a devout Christian that she became active in women’s social issues, both in public and in private ranging from her leadership roles within the Christian Women’s Temperance Union fighting on behalf of the most-common victims of alcoholism (women and children) to personally employing immigrant girls in her home in order to teach them English and give them a good start in their new country of Canada. She campaigned for the rights of Aboriginal and Asian women. She was a writer and a politician, an activist and first-wave feminist, a force to be reckoned with. Nellie embodied the very values she proclaimed with consistency. Canada came to trust her and so we began to listen and then to change.
But Nellie was cheeky, too, helping to stage a mock Parliament with her friends at the Political Equality League to utterly turn the tables on the conversation of the times. She played the Prime Minister, chairing a mock debate about whether or not men should be allowed to vote. They caught the attention of the public with their sly truth-telling through humour, igniting the public conversation in their favour at last: less than two years later, women had the vote in Manitoba and then Saskatchewan. When she died in 1953, a deeply admired woman.
The lessons I took from Nellie when I was young deeply inform my feminism even today: I’m rooted and grounded in my faith. I believe in the inherent value of each person. She practiced real community and sisterhood, working with other women as partners to accomplish great things in an imperfect system. And I learned from her that there is something infectious and attractive about both embodying a better story and inviting everyone else to come along with joy, a lively wit, an eye to the long-game, and a bit of sly insubordination. She was devoted to creating what she called a “more homelike” world. I still want to be a feminist like Nellie.
Sarah Bessey is the author of the forthcoming book “Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith” and the best-selling book “Jesus Feminist.” She is an award-winning blogger and writer. She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada with her husband and their four tinies. You can find her online at www.sarahbessey.com or on Twitter @sarahbessey.