Nellie McClung took on a variety of roles throughout her lifetime. She was known as a teacher, temperance leader, suffragist, lecturer, politician, historian, wife and mother.
A life-long activist, McClung was also a famous novelist, writing fifteen books. An active journalist and founder of several clubs, she was the Liberal member of the Alberta Legislature for Edmonton from 1921 to 1926.
Her mother-in-law introduced her to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and stimulated her interest in women's rights when she canvassed unsuccessfully in the 1890s for suffrage petition signatures. Mrs. McClung also encouraged her to write a short story for a magazine context. This story was the basis for McClung's first novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, which became a national best seller. Mrs. McClung also pushed her daughter-in-law into her lecture career, by helping to organize her first speaking engagement at a Winnipeg church. It was at the WCTU that McClung first learned the art of public speaking: "I saw faces brighten, glisten, and felt the atmosphere crackle with a new power." As well, McClung encountered many of her future novel plots at those meetings.
McClung's understanding of human nature affected her views on temperance issues and feminism. Thus, when World War I ended and the Great Depression deepened, McClung's concern for people and her inability to keep quiet propelled her into political activism. As she watched the Depression deepen with its "destruction of youth . . . sadder than the war," she publicly criticized the government for not rushing in with employment relief projects like house and road building and water conservation.
She was elected a Liberal member of the Alberta legislature in 1921 when the United Farmers swept to power. McClung served five years and joined hands with United Farmers' cabinet minister Irene Parlby on many pieces of social legislation. However, she was disappointed—even though some progress was made getting hot lunches and medical care for school children and a municipal hospital. Her pleas for temperance legislation were ignored. "We believed we could shape the world nearer to our heart's desire if we had a dry Canada," she wrote later.
McClung was defeated when she sought re-election in 1926—but this time in Calgary. She never returned to politics, but devoted the next years to her family, community service, writing and traveling. In 1939, she was appointed to the Canadian delegation of the League of Nations.
By then, McClung was involved in another first—making “persons” out of women. When Emily Murphy was appointed first female judge in Edmonton in 1916, she was told on her first day in court that she had no right to be on the Bench—because women were not "persons" under the British North America Act of 1867. Women could vote and run for office, but they were ineligible for the Senate because the word "persons" in the British North America Act was interpreted to refer only to men. During the following decade Judge Emily Murphy, with McClung and three other prominent prairie women, fought battles through the Canadian Supreme Court right up to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain—which declared that women were "persons" on October 18, 1929. This decision affected all countries in the British Empire and McClung and her friends rejoiced!
McClung's life of achievement was impressive: first female member of the CBC Board of Governors (1936), Canadian delegate to the League of Nations (1938), public lecturer, and proponent of the Canadian Authors' Association. At the close of her eventful life she wrote: "In Canada we are developing a pattern of life and I know something about one block of that pattern . . . I helped make it. . . ." This nation-builder died, at 78, in Victoria, B.C., on September 1, 1951. Her gravestone reads simply: "Loved & Remembered" and is shared with her husband. On the 100th anniversary of McClung's birth, an eight-cent stamp was issued in a belated tribute.