McClung was one of Canada's great social activists. She dedicated herself to improving the rights of Canadian women. As such, she was a part of the social and moral reform movements prevalent in the West in the early 1900s.
As a young girl, she moved with her family to a homestead in the Souris Valley of Manitoba in 1880. She lived in the West for the rest of her lifeóin Manitou, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Victoria. Although she didnít begin school until she was ten, she received a teaching certificate at age sixteen. She taught school until she married Robert Wesley McClung in 1896.
She published her first novel Sowing Seeds in Danny in 1908. It was a national best seller and was followed by numerous short stories and articles in Canadian and American magazines. In 1911, the McClungs moved to Winnipeg. The womenís rights movement in Winnipeg embraced her. An effective speaker with a sense of humour, she played a leading role in the successful Liberal campaign in 1914.
Her great causes were women's suffrage and temperance. It was largely through her efforts that in 1916 Manitoba became the first province to give women the right to vote and to run for public office. The Government of Canada followed suit that same year. After moving to Edmonton, Alberta, she continued the campaign for suffrage. She championed dental and medical care for school children, married womenís property rights, mothers' allowances, factory safety legislation and many other reforms.
It was a time of sweeping social change. Western Canada had seen major immigration in the decades preceding and following the turn of the 20th Century. Changes to farm life, the plight of immigrants, conditions in cities and factories, prohibition, women's suffrage, World War I, the Depression and World War II were historical events influencing McClung. Called a crusader by some, she was nevertheless a pragmatic leader who put words into action.
She served as a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta from 1921 to 1926. She was one of "the Famous Five" (with Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy and Louise McKinney) who, in 1927, put forward a petition to clarify the word "Person" in Section 24 of the British North America Act (the Persons Case). On October 18, 1929, the Privy Council found that "Person" includes female persons, thereby making women eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada.
Nellie McClung founded a number of organizations: the Winnipeg Political Equality League, the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada and the Women's Institute of Edmonton (of which she was the first president). She was also active in the Womanís Christian Temperance Union, the Canadian Authors Association, the Canadian Women's Press Club, the Methodist Church of Canada and the Calgary Women's Literary Club.
McClung had many firsts: delegate to the Women's War Conference in Ottawa in 1918; sole woman delegate of the Methodist Church of Canada to the Ecumenical Conference in London, England, 1921; the only woman in the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations, Geneva, Switzerland in 1938 and first woman member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Board of Broadcast Governors (from 1936 to 1942). She toured Canada, the United States and England as an author or activist.
The first volume of her autobiography, Clearing in the West: My Own Story was published in 1933, after she and her family moved to Vancouver. She wrote sixteen books, many short stories and a syndicated column. Although she was forgotten for a decade, she was re-discovered by feminists in the 1960s.
An eight-cent postage stamp was issued in honour of Nellie McClung on August 29, 1973. Her name appears on a plaque outside the Senate chamber placed in honour of the five women who initiated the "Person's Case."