Nellie McClung was a Canadian author, politician and feminist who campaigned for women’s rights during the early 20th century. She was one of the “Famous Five” who successfully petitioned for women to be considered “persons” under Canadian law.
McClung was born in Ontario, but moved with her family to Manitoba at around age 7. She developed an interest in women’s rights at a young age, and starting in 1911 began to campaign for women’s suffrage in Manitoba. In 1916, Manitoba became the first Canadian province to grant voting privileges to women. However, by that point, McClung had moved to Alberta.
In 1921, McClung was elected to Alberta’s Legislative Assembly as a member of the Liberal party. Unfortunately, at the time, the Liberals were not the party in power – they were the opposition. As a result, her ability to effect change in Alberta law was limited. It’s worth noting that despite her progressive beliefs in regards to women, McClung also believed in eugenics and advocated for the sterilization of the ‘simple-minded.’ Her support may have contributed to the passing of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, which wouldn’t be repealed until 1972.
On August 27, 1927, a petition was submitted to the Supreme Court of Canada by Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy, and Irene Parlby. The petition asked whether the use of the word “persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act (which served as Canada’s constitution at the time) referred to female persons. In 1928, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that women were not “persons,” but the decision was overturned by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council the next year. Women could now be appointed to the Canadian Senate, and the decision had far-reaching implications for women’s rights in Canada.
McClung died in 1951; in October 2009, McClung and the other members of the “Famous Five” were appointed honorary Senators.