In a few months, Canada will be celebrating its 150th anniversary of Confederation! I’m sure it will be quite a party, and while I’ll be celebrating and giving thanks for our great country along with the rest of the nation, I’ll remember that last year Canada celebrated another momentous achievement. Just over 100 years ago, Manitoba women were the first in Canada to be awarded the right to vote.
One of the champions of this effort was feminist, politician and social activist Nellie McClung. As it reads on the Nellie McClung Foundation website, she and the rest of the “Famous Five” paved the way for all women in Canada “…to take their rightful place in our democratic society”. Today I want to tell more of her story and show how she’s helped shape the Canada we know and celebrate today.
Western roots of a “famous” lady
Nellie was born in 1873 in Chatsworth, Ontario, to an Irish immigrant father and a Scottish born mother. When the family farm failed in 1880, they moved to Manitoba. There she had six years of formal education but didn’t learn to read until she was ten years old. Later she married Robert Wesley, a pharmacist, and together they raised five children in Winnipeg.
A gifted public speaker with a delightful sense of humour, she wrote extensively and developed an interest in politics, as she described it, not out of choice but of necessity. Between 1911 and 1915 she fought for women’s suffrage, campaigning for the Liberals on the issue of votes for women. During the 1914-15 federal election, she and a group of women under her leadership held a mock parliament. Women played the role of politicians, with McClung acting as Premier, debating whether or not men should have the right to vote. The event exposed the absurdity of those who opposed women’s suffrage and gained national attention. Through these efforts, Manitoba became the first province in which women gained the right to vote at the provincial level and Nellie was soon after elected to the Alberta Legislature.
For the next few years she continued in politics while writing a novel, short stories and articles for many magazines. The Calgary, Alberta home in which she lived during this time still stands today as a designated heritage site. And then, in 1927, she became involved in what would be considered as another great achievement for women’s suffrage: the right for women to be appointed to the Senate.
Fighting for personhood
Known as the Persons Case, Nellie was one of five courageous women who argued in favour of the motion. They were initially rejected, with the Supreme Court ruling in 1928 that women were not “persons” according to the British North America Act and therefore could not be appointed to the Senate. The women appealed the ruling, and in 1929 the case was heard by the British Privy Council, the highest court in Canada at the time. This time, it was approved. Because of their efforts, these five women earned the nickname “The Alberta Five,” which was later changed to “The Canadian Five”. They were women of great courage and determination who accomplished a great deal for women in a relatively short period of time.
In 1954, Nellie McClung was named as a person of national historical significance by the government of Canada. We will forever be thankful for the contribution of political and ideological change that Nellie McClung and many others have brought to the women of our nation. And yet, while the majority of Canadian men and women now sympathise with the goal of social justice for women, much work is still to be done. There remain underlying human attitudes warring against true liberation and equality.
Where does true freedom lie, and how should it be expressed?
Returning to full liberty and freedom
True freedom comes with spiritual change. It comes through inner, personal transformation. We, as men and women, have a choice to yield to the one who created us. God always intended for both men and women to be free. It is mankind that has distorted and rebelled against his plan. Sin and the resulting curses have caused strife and bondage – and the ongoing conflict between men and women is just one aspect of this. Knowing and following the truth sets us free, and aligning with the truth gives us that which we desire.
There is great freedom in following the Lord’s plan and mutual honour and respect. The gift of freedom is truly a gift when we receive it, and then share it with each other. True life comes from God and it’s exciting to see how he works, bringing supernatural power and even the miraculous into our life and relationships when we ask.
As we consider Canada’s future and honour our past, let us all embrace the truth that, with God’s blessing and purpose, we each have the potential to be the next Nellie McClung.