Nellie McClung’s Complicated Legacy

Mrs. Nellie McClung, women’s rights activist, writing at her desk | Photographer Unknown | c. 1910-1918 | Glenbow Archives NA-1641-1

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In 1923, the well-known author, activist, and Alberta MLA Nellie McClung became a new neighbour of the Lougheeds. McClung and her family moved into a half-timbered house at 7th Street and 15th Avenue West. In her first years in the city, McClung commuted to Edmonton, but still managed to be a political and literary presence in Calgary, joining the local branch of the Canadian Authors Association, mentoring city authors and holding literary gatherings of her own.

Nellie McClung’s house, Calgary, Alberta | Calgary Herald October 4, 1979 | Glenbow Archives NA-2864-36788-28

 

McClung is perhaps best known for her work for advancing women’s rights and the suffrage movement. While living in Manitoba, she famously helped organized a mock Women’s Parliament in which she satirically played the Manitoban Premier. Her performance highlighted the absurdity of the arguments against female enfranchisement by reversing the genders of the protagonists.

She was a member of the Famous Five, a group of five suffragettes who posed the question, “Does the word ‘Persons’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?” to the Supreme Court in the case Edwards v Canada. They won on appeal, and in 1929, women were legally granted status as persons.

Women are Persons! Monument | Olympic Plaza | Artist Barbara Paterson

 

Despite that fact that she advocated for increased rights for white women, McClung was also a believer in eugenics and supported the sterilization of individuals with disabilities or mental illnesses. In 1928 when McClung was no longer an MLA, the Alberta government passed eugenics legislation known as the Sexual Sterilization Act that enabled the involuntary sterilization of individuals classified as ‘mentally deficient’. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Act was repealed. During its four decades in operation, 2832 sterilizations were performed.

Want to learn more about Nellie McClung, suffrage, and eugenics? Visit the Famous Five Foundation or read about Alberta’s eugenics programs.

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