By Janice Fiamengo
"Nellie McClung, Female Chauvinist"
Printed in the Spring/Summer 2022 edition, Vol. 12, No. 1, of The Dorchester Review, pp. 22-26.
CONTRARY TO POPULAR perception, the central text in the history of Canadian feminism is replete with female supremacism and anti-male animus.
Nellie Letitia McClung (1873-1951) is one of Canada’s best-known early feminists. Along with four other members of the “Famous Five,” she is memorialized in bronze not far from the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa for her role in the Persons Case that secured women’s right to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. A prolific journalist, novelist, activist, and politician, she attended the Women’s War Conference in 1918 and was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921. Active for over four decades in various social reform causes, she was, in the words of her biographers Mary Hallett and Marilyn Davis, “a remarkable Canadian woman” with a “strong character and lively personality” (xv). Candace Savage, author of Our Nell: A Scrapbook Biography of Nellie L. McClung, has commended her “sincerity and verve” and quotes contemporaries who provided glowing impressions (“as vivid as a tiger lily at a funeral,” “a square fighter,” and “the greatest Christian I ever knew,” to name only those on the first page).
Much of McClung’s positive reputation rests on her most significant piece of writing, In Times Like These (1915). Historian Veronica Strong-Boag called it “the best feminist writing Canada has yet produced” when she wrote the introduction to the book’s re-issue in 1972 and commended its “delightfully incisive and aphoristic style.” Beginning as a sequence of public talks McClung gave in May and early June of 1914 when she toured Manitoba to support the Liberal Party in the upcoming provincial election, the book was fleshed out and published the following year as a series of interlinked essays about war, social reform, and female political emancipation.
Both the speaking tour and the resulting book consolidated McClung’s reputation as a fearless and forthright social critic as well as a warm and humane warrior for justice. In her introduction Strong-Boag made some modest criticisms of McClung’s limitations as a feminist, noting that her vision was “conservative” and failed to offer “a radical reinterpretation of women and Canadian society” because it was shaped by her “middle-class and Anglo-Saxon” background, her belief in innate female morality (with its attendant “anti-masculine overtones”) and her acceptance that most women’s lives would be focused on family and motherhood. In general, though, Strong-Boag hailed McClung as an “outstanding campaigner” with a sophisticated “comic sense and acerbic wit.”
It is instructive to re-read McClung’s classic feminist essays in light of these cautiously laudatory assessments. The portrait of McClung that emerges from In Times Like These is not self-evidently a conservative one at all. Indeed, steeped in the “anti-masculine” ethos that Strong-Boag touched upon, the collection presents a radical vision of female moral superiority and absolute male culpability. Throughout the essays, McClung was adamant that women were “the more spiritual half ” of humanity (19); and this assertion, which seems to have been both a genuine belief and a culturally-condoned idiom, grounded her arguments for the extension of the franchise and greater social responsibilities for women, who were, she insisted, “naturally the guardians of the race” (22). No equivalent positive role — not even as protectors and providers — is vouchsafed for men.
In her lifetime, McClung was able to do more than most rural and middle-class men of her generation could have dreamed of doing, including travelling as a delegate to a 1938 meeting of the League of Nations. She was invited to and encouraged in these opportunities by many supportive men, including her own husband, who seems to have accepted her many absences from home without complaint. Yet McClung castigated men and masculinity for a multitude of social sins without once acknowledging male decency, fair-mindedness, sacrifice, forbearance, industry, or invention.
It seems particularly notable that at a time when tens of thousands of men were dying in the trenches of Europe, many of them young, voteless men with no say in the conflict, McClung could evoke the war so glibly for her feminist purposes. War, she alleged early on in the collection, was “the result of male statecraft” (19). By this, she meant not only that international politics embodied allegedly masculine qualities of competitiveness, divisive pride, and aggression, but also that most individual men enjoyed and encouraged bloodshed. Only voting women could stop them. Castigating a society that celebrated soldiers rather than citizens, she asked and answered a question at the heart of much of her feminist writing: “Why, then, does war continue? Why do men go so easily to war — for we may as well admit that they do go easily? There is one explanation. They like it!” (15).
This was a crudely reductive proposition and one that, offered as the war actually raged — and as men came home from the front armless or legless, or didn’t come home at all — seemed notably lacking in the qualities of empathy and fairness that McClung so often claimed for women. In Times Like These is notable not only because it reveals the antimale animus that was almost always, as I have found in my research, a part of feminist conceptions, but also because it shows how acceptable and deep-rooted such animus was in an allegedly conservative culture.
To support her contention that men fought wars because they liked to fight wars, McClung offered a home-spun anecdote with no reasonable claim to veracity or representativeness. It told of the first contingent of soldiers mustering from Manitoba in the early days of the war, leaving behind on the train station platform a number of sobbing women. One of them was a mother with an infant in her arms and three children at her side who had just seen her husband off. In explanation of her tears, she said to those who inquired, “‘ ’E loves a fight — ’e went through the South African War, and ’e’s never been ’appy since — when ’e ’ears war is on he says I’ll go — ’e loves it — ’e does!’” McClung’s appraisal was “That explains many things” (15).
Even accepting the accuracy and fairness of the wife’s account of her husband’s thoughts and attitude, one could quarrel with the anecdote’s illustrative power on multiple grounds. Perhaps the husband was happy to enlist because it meant a guaranteed income and a pension for his family, should he be killed; better than the income he was able to achieve as a labouring man. Perhaps his determination to do his part in defending his country was shaped by far more chivalric and idealistic beliefs than his wife comprehended. Perhaps he did not want the charge of cowardice or shirking that was often levelled at military-age (or even under age) men during wartime.
McClung should have known — as she followed the statements and actions of the British suffragettes — that thousands of women in Britain and the Dominions handed out white feathers symbolizing cowardliness and unworthiness to men not in military uniform throughout the war years.
Such complexities didn’t matter, though, because the story made precisely the point McClung wanted: that men are propelled by base motives that women do not share. Men are crude, violent, and insensitive to their womenfolk; women pick up the pieces.
McClung pressed this point even where it seemed most rebarbative and tonedeaf. With fresh-faced boys encountering the hell of the trenches, she poured out scorn on the idea that men sacrificed for women or acted to protect them. That was a myth, she declared, created by men to cover over the reality of male indifference. “One of the oldest and falsest of our beliefs regarding women is that they are protected,” she scoffed (38). But then why was it men who were fighting, then, and not women? Why had women survived the Titanic disaster in such significantly higher numbers than men? McClung’s confidence in general male selfishness never faltered. She could dismiss the reality of male suffering partly because of her absolute faith in male responsibility for war. Since men alone had started it, it was only right that they should bear its burden. And because of her conviction that when women played their rightful role in statecraft through voting and other political participation, war would be at an end. This was an irrefutable argument popular with North American and British suffragists.
McClung wielded her broad-brush strokes of female caring and male destruction throughout the collection. On the few occasions when she had harsh words for women, it was to indict them for failing to act on their allegedly natural feminine qualities or for accepting the passivity allocated to them by men. McClung made a number of references to the women of Germany who, had they been more politically active, might have saved their country — and the entire western world — from war. At one point she even imagined the scenario that might have played out if German women had taken their cue from a tough-talking, big-souled activist like McClung herself.
“I could not help but think,” she reflected, “that if there had been women in the German Reichstag, women with authority behind them, when the Kaiser began to lay his plans for the war, the results might have been very different. I do not believe women with boys of their own would ever sit down and wilfully plan slaughter, and if there had been women there when the Kaiser and his brutal warlords discussed the way in which they would plunge all Europe into bloodshed, I believe one of those deep-bosomed, motherly, blue-eyed German women would have stood upon her feet and said: “William — forget it!” But the German women were not there — they were at home, raising children!” (89)
If raising children was good and necessary, as McClung agreed that it was, it was even better to work also to improve the society the children would encounter. And women were perfectly made for this task, she claimed, because “Deeply rooted in every woman’s heart is the love and care of children” (23). McClung developed this theme extensively, setting up various contrasts between female and male tendencies, always to the detriment of the male: “The woman’s outlook on life is to save, to care for, to help,” she proclaimed. “Men make wounds, and women bind them up” (23).
McClung’s ‘anti-masculine’ ethos presents a radical vision of female moral superiority and absolute male culpability: Men have no positive role to play in society.
Men killed because it was easier than making improvements. “To hang the man who commits a crime is a cheap way to get out of a difficulty; a real masculine way. It is so much quicker and easier than trying to reform him” (89). Women were more patient — having had no choice but to be so — and more protective. “The woman movement, which has been scoffed and jeered at and misunderstood most of all by the people whom it is destined to help, is a spiritual revival of the best instincts of womanhood — the instinct to serve and save the race” (66). What were the best instincts of manhood? McClung didn’t say.
Her assessment of the record of male achievements was at best dismissive: “Men have had the control of affairs for a long time, long enough perhaps to test their ability as the arbiters of human destiny. The world, as made by man, is cruelly unjust to women” (76). Men in McClung’s depiction were exclusively destructive, petty, resentful, unjust, and jealous of women (“The smaller the man, the more disposed he is to be jealous”), keeping women out of positions of power because women threatened to expose their inadequacies.
Even the lone word masculinity became in McClung’s idiom a synonym for destructiveness, as for example when she declared that, “The whole race is suffering from masculinity; and men and women are alike to blame for tolerating it” (90). In case that were not conclusive enough, she repeated the idea a few pages later with elaboration, linking masculinity with inhumanity: “The world has suffered long from too much masculinity and not enough humanity, but when the war is over, and the beautiful things have been destroyed, and the lands laid desolate, and all the blood has been shed, the poor old bruised and broken heart of the world will cry out for its mother and nurse, who will dry her own eyes, and bind up its wounds and nurse it back to life once more” (94). Men were consistently associated in McClung’s vision with wreckage, warfare, and death; women with health, caring, and home-making.
The association with home-making was so powerful, in fact, that McClung was able to extend the trope of the home to authorize women’s involvement in political affairs as a grand clean-up project to set the national house in order. McClung was scornful of the claim advanced by some antifeminist men that public life was too corrupt for women. Her rejoinder indicted male inadequacy and corruption: “Any man who is actively engaged in politics, and declares that politics are too corrupt for women, admits one of two things, either that he is a party to this corruption, or that he is unable to prevent it — and in either case something should be done!” (48). The formulation was a classic either-or fallacy, but it rang decisively and promised near-miraculous feminine restoration. “The hand that rocks the cradle does not rule the world,” she regretted. “If it did, human life would be held dearer and the world would be a sweeter, cleaner, safer place than it is now!” (22).
Women’s involvement in political affairs would be a grand cleanup project to set the national house in order, making the world a ‘sweeter, cleaner, safer place than it is now.’
McClung ultimately developed an extended analogy of the political sphere as a long-neglected, filthy house in need of a thorough cleaning by a competent housewife. The gormless husband, however, would not allow her to dirty her “precious little white hands!” The analogy was particularly apt in that it accepted the traditional division of spheres between male and female in order to overturn that division by arguing that the same qualities of determination, orderliness, economy, and competence necessary to keep a house would suffice to purify the political realm.
What would you think of a man who would say to his wife: ‘This house to which I am bringing you to live is very dirty and unsanitary, but I will not allow you — the dear wife whom I have sworn to protect — to touch it. It is too dirty for your precious little white hands! You must stay upstairs, dear. Of course the odor from below may come up to you, but use your smelling salts and think no evil. I do not hope to ever be able to clean it up, but certainly you must never think of trying.’
Do you think any woman would stand for that? She would say: ‘John, you are all right in your way, but there are some places where your brain skids. Perhaps you had better stay downtown today for lunch. But on your way down please call at the grocer’s, and send me a scrubbing brush and a package of Dutch Cleanser, and some chloride of lime, and now hurry.’ Women have cleaned up things since time began; and if women ever get into politics, there will be a cleaning out of pigeon-holes and forgotten corners, on which the dust of years has fallen, and the sound of the political carpet-beater will be heard in the land. (48)
The analogy was witty and humorous enough that its indictment of the incapacity and irrationality of the husband was almost without sting. Bumbling John whose brain sometimes skid was, in McClung’s formulation, fully representative of most men: imagining themselves to be “protecting” women, but in actuality shutting them out of occupations and spheres of decision-making where they might have done good. The best a man could do when confronted with women’s demonstrably superior capacities was to gratefully accept their offer of assistance in restoring order to the mess they, men, had made of things.
It was a cheerfully contemptuous assessment, and it was “conservative” only in its belief that women were naturally maternal. Even women who didn’t marry or have children, however, might “mother” the nation, and McClung’s feminism acknowledged no sphere in which women wouldn’t bring crucial improvements in orderliness, empathy, and concern for the weak. McClung’s volume, in fact, names no area of society where men have made unique or even distinctive contributions; and names no masculine qualities as essential to a well-functioning nation. In sum, McClung made it clear that the 20th century would belong to women, and that men had better get used to it.
Given her reputation as a “lively,” “sincere,” “square-fighting,” “Christian” woman, In Times Like These now seems (to this reader, at least) a surprisingly aggressive and mean-spirited book, its alleged “wit” often caustic and baldly chauvinistic. It’s nearly impossible to imagine any male writer producing the misogynistic equivalent, or at least to imagine such a production widely applauded and admired. One hundred years later, McClung’s assumptions retain their after-life, and we still hear a good deal about toxic masculinity and the future as female. Perhaps it is time to speak honestly about the woman who promoted such bigotry.
Hallett, Mary and Marilyn Davis, Firing the Heather: The Life and Times of Nellie McClung. Calgary: Fifth House, 1994.
McClung, Nellie, In Times Like These. 1915. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.
Savage, Candace, Our Nell: A Scrapbook Biography of Nellie L. McClung. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979.
Strong-Boag, Veronica, “Introduction” to supra, McClung, In Times Like These, vii-xxii.
Printed in the Spring/Summer 2022 edition, Vol. 12, No. 1, of The Dorchester Review, pp. 22-26.