Political rights

Canada 150: People Challenge Granted Political Rights to Canadian Women


Helen Letitia Mooney McClung has been deceased for 65 years, but her newspaper column still appears in the Victoria Times Colonist.

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To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we’re counting until Canada Day with the profiles of 150 remarkable British Columbians.

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Helen Letitia Mooney McClung has been deceased for 65 years, but her newspaper column still appears in the Victoria Times Colonist. The most famous of the Famous Five, “Nellie” helped launch the “Persons” affair in 1927. One of Canada’s first wave feminists, she excelled at deflated repartee. A rowdy once shouted that the Prime Minister would step down if ever a woman was elected. “It proves what a purifying effect women would have on politics,” she replied.

The Famous Five challenged a Canadian law according to which women were not legal persons and therefore were not eligible for appointment to the Senate. The British Privy Council, then Canada’s highest court of appeal, ultimately supported the challenge. “The exclusion of women from all public office is a vestige of days more barbaric than ours,” he said. “And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include women, the obvious answer is, why shouldn’t it? A few months later, Canada appointed its first senator. However, the matter was of much greater importance. This meant that women could no longer be denied rights using narrow interpretations of the law. The victory was crucial in the expansion of human rights.

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Born October 20, 1873 in Chatsworth, Ontario, she was the daughter of an Irish immigrant farmer and his Scottish wife. When she was seven, her father lived in Manitoba. She didn’t go to school or learn to read until she was 10 years old. But at 16, she was teaching in a rural one-class school. She married Robert Wesley McClung and, five children later, moved to Winnipeg where she began writing and lecturing. She was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was soon in demand as a spokesperson for women’s suffrage. The Manitoba Legislature became the first to extend the franchise to women. She followed her husband to Alberta and was elected to the Legislative Assembly. It was there, in 1926, that she added her weight to the personal business.

McClung moved to Victoria in 1932 and continued to write. She has published 16 books. Her reputation has been tarnished by support for the once popular doctrine of eugenics and sexual sterilization, which she called protection for “simple-minded young girls” but which others, including the Nazis , cited as justification for removing the “deficient” from the human gene pool. Nonetheless, her accomplishments on behalf of all women, children, education and social reform were enormous. She died in Saanich in 1951.

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