HISTORY

WHAT GOT HER SO FIRED UP?

CHARLOTTE GRAY April 7 2008
HISTORY

WHAT GOT HER SO FIRED UP?

CHARLOTTE GRAY April 7 2008

WHAT GOT HER SO FIRED UP?

HISTORY

CHARLOTTE GRAY

In 1908, Nellie McClung, age 35, was living with her husband, Wes, a pharmacist, and their four children in Manitou, Man. Her first novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, was already a bestseller in Canada and the U.S., but McClung was only beginning to discover her true power as a writer, a women’s rights activist, and finally, one of the great public speakers of the 20th century.

In Manitou, Nellie frequently saw the utter helplessness of women. Dejected wives and downtrodden daughters crop up again and again in her fiction as exhausted, sad characters, their health ruined by drudgery, annual pregnancies, or spousal abuse. “Winter-killed souls” she called these brokenspirited women, and she described their predicament with gentle irony and biting satire. In one short story, Annie Berry “died from overwork and child-bearing.” But all her hus-

band, Luke, could say was, “Women don’t seem to have the sand in them they used to have; my mother raised 15 and lost five, and I have often heard my father say they never had a doctor in the house and never needed one.” Nellie added, poker-faced, “It was quite evident that Luke Berry had been badly treated.”

In Nellie’s fiction, the only weapon a woman has in the world is her own courage. She loved writing stories about spirited young women (most of whom resemble her) who transcend the barriers and prejudices they face through sheer force of character. But there were plenty of women without her heroines’ spunk, and the reality of their lives—the hardship and helplessness—deeply offended Nellie McClung’s strong sense of natural justice. The vulnerability of women, and the failure of the state to protect them, sparked a slow burn inside her. Why was it, Nellie wondered one day, that homesteaders always left their land to their sons, regardless of what their

daughters had contributed in labour? She knew of one family in which each son had inherited a full section of land. The equally deserving daughter received one hundred dollars and a cow named Bella. “How would you like to be left at 40 years of age, with no training and very little education, facing the world with one hundred dollars and one cow, even if she were named Bella?” Nellie asked, in a line that even a famous satirist like Mark Twain could not improve on.

Nellie McClung wanted to make a difference within her world: she wanted to eradicate the injustices she saw. But the starting point for Nellie’s campaigns to improve women’s lives is one that strikes a modern reader as a curious place to begin. When she was not talking about [her fictional protagonist] Pearlie Watson, she was usually speaking about the dangers of alcohol. Why did she begin there?

Today, we assume that the obvious solutions to women’s powerlessness were 20thcentury reforms—greater access to education, well-paid employment, political power, and laws that recognized gender equality. But when Nellie was growing up in Manitoba, such ideas were unthinkable for most people she knew, including her own mother, Letitia Mooney. The idea that a woman’s primary role in life was to be anything other than wife and mother was as startling to Letitia as the notion that one day human beings would walk on the moon.

This was where the Women’s Christian Temperance Union came in. Women like Letitia could see that many women were desperately badly treated, and they could also see that alcohol was often part of the problem. Too many husbands spent too much time bellying up to the bar with the boys. Letitia (whose own husband, it appears, barely touched the stuff ) would never question the status quo in terms of roles assigned to men and women— they were God-given, in her book. So she would never join an organization that used phrases like “women’s rights.” But temperance was a powerful, and church-supported, movement throughout Western Canada. From their pulpits, Protestant churchmen regularly preached about the link between unrestrained boozing and moral depravity.

So temperance was the vehicle for change that traditional women like Letitia were comfortable with. However, that wasn’t enough for some members of the WCTU, including Nellie’s mother-in-law, Annie McClung. Annie felt that the adoption of temperance by individuals, and the abolition of alcohol by government, was only half the answer: real improvement in women’s lives could be won only if women themselves had a say in the way society ran. By the time Nellie had moved from Hazel to Manitou, she had already heard that the preacher’s wife had gone round Manitou’s parlours, collecting signatures for a petition for women’s suffrage. Annie McClung, along with most WCTU leaders, argued that alcohol abuse was part of a general pattern of male disregard for women’s needs. The organization recognized that if women had the vote, they could influence legislation and lobby for laws limiting the production and distribution of alcohol. Nellie herself happily signed Annie’s petition for women’s suffrage, but most of Manitou’s respectable matrons had refused to look at such an outrageous document. Nellie would recall later how one of these women (“the wife of the town drunkard”) opined that “it’s an insult to our husbands to even ask for the vote.”

It is easy to laugh at the temperance campaign these days, and the Prohibition zealots with their paraphernalia of white ribbons

and abstinence pledge cards. Banning alcohol seems to us about as realistic a goal as banning gas-guzzling SUVs. But in Nellie’s day, the prevalence of bars, hotel saloons, and whiskey-selling grocery stores was truly astonishing. Whiskey was cheaper than milk. There was a whole culture of boozing, which included the universal practice of “treating”: drinkers regarded the duty to take turns buying a round for everybody present as almost a moral obligation. Add to the availability of alcohol the demographics of Manitoba’s pioneer society, in which men far outnumbered women, and the brutally hard work most of them performed, and you have a society characterized by widespread drunkenness.

Nellie McClung would later observe, “It is easy to see why we concentrated on the liquor traffic. It was corporeal and always present; it walked our streets; it threw its challenge in our faces!” She knew of farmers who spent

their paltry capital on whiskey rather than seed grain. She saw the local doctor become increasingly incompetent as he took to the bottle. She heard about women whose husbands regularly got roaring drunk and then staggered home to beat them. (She did not know any cases of female drinkers. When she finally saw a woman staggering down a Winnipeg street, she was appalled.)

Nellie was committed to the twin goals of temperance and female suffrage by the time she was in her early twenties. But in the early years of her marriage, she was too busy raising her family, dreaming of becoming a writer, and being an active citizen of Manitou to do much about them. Manitou was the kind of place where a high-energy personality like Nellie was in constant demand.

The pharmacist and his wife were a fine, upstanding, popular couple, and no Manitou gathering was complete without them. Together they attended all the shows that travelling artists and companies performed

THERE WERE A FEW WHO WOULD TUTTUT AT THE NERVE OF HER

at Manitou’s community hall. The quality and content of the entertainment was unpredictable, varying from lederhosen-clad Swiss bellringers to blackface American spiritual singers, from full-throated bird impersonators to full-chested operatic contraltos.

For Nellie McClung, these occasions were more than just diversions: they were lessons in stagecraft. One performer in particular captivated her. E. Pauline Johnson, the halfMohawk, half-English poet from the Six Nations Reserve on Ontario’s Grand River, arrived in Manitou and played to capacity crowds in the local Methodist church on two consecutive nights. Nellie and her sister-inlaw were so smitten with the diva’s lyrical nature poems, followed by fierce verses featuring Indian warriors, that they decided to call on her. “She was the first great personage we had met, and we knew it was a time for white gloves and polished shoes.” Nellie decided that Pauline, who also called herself by the Mohawk name Tekahionwake, was “an actress of great power.”

Oh, to have such power! Nellie McClung, once the little girl who loved to show off and

now a pillar of the community, yearned to create that enchantment herself. Thanks to the WCTU, she had already cut her teeth as a speaker during Saturday afternoon debates. And temperance had once again crept up in her priorities as an issue to be addressed. It was no surprise to Nellie’s Manitou friends when she was asked to give the address of welcome at the WCTU’s provincial convention, held in her hometown in June 1907 Like an orator in ancient Rome, she knew that presentation was as important as content. “I began my preparations at once,” Nellie wrote in the second volume of her memoirs, The Stream Runs Fast. “I got a new dress.”

I love picturing Nellie striding down the main street of the dusty prairie town toward the town hall that day, with perhaps a hint of nervousness in the way she kept adjusting the angle of the stylish new hat on her curly auburn hair. It was the first time she would address a sizeable crowd, but she just knew she could do it. She was preaching to an all-female audience of the converted, and her easy warmth would establish instant rapport. Most of her listeners would applaud enthusiastically. There were, however, a few who would roll their eyes at her irreverence, and tut-tut at the nerve of the girl. A bit too big for her boots, I can hear them mutter. Too fond of the sound of her own voice. Who does she think she is?

Nellie put her all into that first speech. Alongside the rhetoric of ancient Rome were the instincts of a modern politician. She knew she had to sell a message of hope—“new hopes for a new world,” as she put it—rather than give a boring, finger-wagging sermon filled with statistics. “Prohibition is a hard sounding word, worthless as a rallying cry, hard as a locked door or going to bed without your supper.” Instead, she painted a picture of the wonderful world that a booze-free future might bring. “Life for both men and women could be made much more attractive with recreation grounds, games, handicrafts, orchestras, folk dances, better houses, better farms.” Quaintly folkloric this vision might be—yet in Nellie’s enthusiastic rendition, it was magic. Nellie felt her audience responding with the same enthusiasm that Pauline Johnson had triggered after her recital. “I saw faces brighten, eyes glisten, and felt the atmosphere crackle with a new power. I saw what

could be done with words____For the first

time I knew I had the power of speech.” M

From Extraordinary Canadians: Nellie McClung by Charlotte Gray. Copyright © Charlotte Gray, 2008. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).

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