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Suffrage Flashback: Remember when Nellie Mocked Parliament?
Almost 100 years ago, women won the right to vote in Canada. We revisit a few of the most awesomely Canadian moments in the struggle for suffrage – with the help of a few historians and the granddaughter of a certain feminist legend.Read More
For She's a Jolly Good Fellow
Imagine a roomful of shiny-shoed politicians rising from their leather-backed chairs – “with much fervor” – to let loose with a “rollicking” rendition of “They’re Jolly Good Fellows”.
That was apparently the scene at the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba on January 27, 1916. The men sang in answer to the “ladies who thronged the galleries” in the Legislative Building, ladies who, moments earlier, burst into song themselves. They sang to celebrate a key moment in Canadian history: when women in Manitoba became the first Canadian women to gain the vote.
It was a scene of “unparalleled enthusiasm” according to a front-page story in the next day’s Manitoba Free Press.
It was also a defining moment in the Canadian suffrage movement. Other provinces would soon follow Manitoba’s lead, like B.C. in April, 1917. On the federal side, women – with the exception of Inuit and First Nations women – were granted the vote on May 24, 1918.
At the heart of the Canadian suffrage story was the writer, teacher and activist Nellie McClung. She died in 1951, but she’s widely commemorated: you can find her in ink form on page 30 of your passport or in bronze on parliament building lawns in Ottawa and Winnipeg.
McClung brought humor and creativity to the long fight for gender and political equality in Canada, leading suffragists in a movement historians describe as distinct from movements elsewhere.
“Nellie was a renowned public speaker,” says Bette Mueller, a retired history teacher who sits on the board at the Nellie McClung Foundation.
“If some man was booing her or saying, ‘Why aren’t you home with your children’, she would answer him with what was pretty close to humor/sarcasm.”
On January 27, 1914, McClung lead a delegation of women to Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly to ask for the vote. She had a sneaky twofold mission: ask then-premier Rodmond Roblin for the vote, and steal some of his best lines for her planned portrayal of him.
“He was at his foamy best," she wrote of Roblin’s response to the women’s delegation in her autobiography, The Stream Runs Fast. “He told us how he loved his mother, and for her sweet sake, reverenced all women.”
While the premier refused to budge on the whole gender equality thing, he did serve up some great lines for McClung to repurpose, mockingly, the next night.
“I did not want to forget his exact phrases,” she recalled, “so I just sat with every fibre of my brain stretched to absorb his diction and the exact tones of his voice… I observed every gesture, the attitude he struck when he caught his thumbs in the armholes of his coat, twiddling his little fingers and teetering on his heels.”
McClung could hardly contain her glee.
“He was making the speech that I would make in the play in less than thirty-six hours. O, the delight of that moment!”
The next evening McClung moved from activist to actress. Before a sold-out crowd in Winnipeg, she played the part of premier in a mock parliament play, in which women politicians debated the pros and cons of giving men the vote.
She’d later write about it in The Stream Runs Fast.
“We had one desire: to make the attitude of the government ridiculous and set the whole province laughing at the old conception of chivalry”.
The dramatic reversal of gender roles drew positive press, like this story in the Manitoba Free Press. The journalist quotes “the premier” (i.e. McClung) as saying, “Another trouble is that if men start to vote they will vote too much. Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills – broken furniture, broken vows, and – divorce.”
Mock parliaments like this were performed for crowds across the country, spanning the length of the suffrage movement, according to women’s theatre expert Kym Bird.
“Mock Parliaments were organized to raise public support for suffrage and much-needed campaign funding for suffrage organizations; they were successful at doing both,” she wrote in a 1992 paper, Performing Politics: Propaganda, Parody and a Women's Parliament.
A Granddaughter's Perspective
Marcia McClung was still a child when her grandmother Nellie died. Now she’s a Toronto-based communications consultant. She’s done work to support Equal Voice, a national multi-partisan organization “dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office in Canada”.
Recently, I spoke with Marcia over the phone. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
How do you remember your grandmother?
“The thing that I remember about her is that there were always meetings going on in her house [in Victoria, BC]. She had very bad arthritis, [so] people came to her. It was sort of fun being around her because there were always lots of people.”
“She was very animated when she talked, and she talked a lot. Her voice had lots of spirit in it.”
Where do you think she got her strength and her character from?
“I think a lot of it came from prairie grit. They had a very difficult life, the family… Then I think she was a person of considerable personal faith. Both she and her husband, Wesley, were Methodists. She acted on what she believed.”
“[The suffragists] were intransigent. They knew that they had a case and they were just going to keep at it until they won. And they did. They didn’t give up.”
What would you ask her today if you could?
“I would ask her what she thinks the women’s movement should really take on at this stage.”
Would you say your grandmother’s activist legacy and her mother-in-law’s before her (i.e. Annie McClung) had a strong impact on your life and work?
“Definitely. Absolutely. I often think about her and her determination and her stick-to-itiveness because I think they’re very important qualities. I just wish I’d known her. And of course, the other thing I wish is that I’d asked [her children] a lot more questions about her… because all her children are dead now.”
On November 19, we’ll launch a series that recognizes Nellie McClung’s contemporaries across the pond. In Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power Historian Amanda Vickery digs into the UK’s 300-year-long campaign for political and gender equality.
The British suffrage story is quite different from our own, according to retired history teacher Bette Mueller.
“People in Britain were much more volatile… belligerent… (and) confrontational than in Canada.”Sixteen-year-old British suffragette Dora Thewlis is arrested by two policemen on March 20, 1907 (according to info shared via Wikimedia Commons).
For more on McClung, Bette Mueller recommends reading Firing the Heather: The Life and Times of Nellie McClung, by Mary Hallett and Marilyn Davis. The Nellie McClung Foundation also offers a number of photos and other primary sources. And if you plan to be in Winnipeg October 18, 2015, the Nellie McClung Foundation will be staging a play about the mock parliaments.
Final Thought: Who Would Play Nellie?
I asked both Bette Mueller and Marcia McClung who they would imagine playing Nellie McClung in a film. They were both quick to answer: Helen Mirren. What do you think? Who’d make a great Nellie? Share your thoughts in our comments.