Thursday, October 20, 2005

Nellie Letitia McClung: Feminist of the Day?


Nellie Letitia McClung
Writer, suffragette, politician, teacher
"The world is beginning to see that a woman may achieve success in other departments of life as well as marriage."



We have another of the Candian famous five here so I get a chance to discuss the issues that I only mentioned in passing yesterday.

But first I was doing a bit of research and when talking about her marriage she said that her husband insisted "I would not have to lay aside my ambitions if I married him." There's something so minimal and yet slightly sweet about a sentiment like that.

So my question of today is can I really call someone the feminist of the day if they support a war and eugenics? I was tired last night so I avoided finding out what Emily Murphy's position on eugenics & war was (it turns out she was pro-peace 1914-1915 and possibly pro war 1917-1918, she also believed in eugenics but only for poor people not brown people). So I'm glad to have an opportunity to discuss the issues properly tonight.

Nellie McClung was an enthusiastic supporter of the war. I don't understand that; I don't understand why someone who cared so passionately about women, and their lives, could ignore the world beyond their borders. I don't understand progressive politics without internationalism.

I don't blame ordinary people for supporting that war, huge resources were dedicated to making sure they did, and it was the ordinary people who suffered. But people who were supposed to be fighting for a better world? I find it harder to ignore. What they did in that war stands as part of their record. I don't believe the argument that they were 'of their time' is a particularly good excuse, Christabel Pankhurst was fighting the same fight and she saw WWI for what it was.

According to her profile in Mantioba Writers Guild:

She was an enthusiastic supporter of the war effort and the Red Cross, and in 1921 was elected to the Alberta Legislature, where she championed a host of radical measures ranging from mother's allowances, to dower rights for women, to sterilization of the mentally unfit.


While two of those are really important steps forward for women, the third devalues the others entirely to me. That's because the kind of feminism Nellie McClung believed in was based on the church, and based on women having a specific place. It's times like these that I realise how different my feminism (based as it is on baby killing and destroying capitalism) is from the women who went before me. But that doesn't stop me judging them, not on the grounds that I'm right and their wrong, but on the grounds that forced sterilisation made women's lives worse.

Conclusion: I think it's important to give tribute to the people before us who have fought and won important battles, but it's no excuse to look away from their less shining moments. I'd like to learn more about her though, try and get inside her head.

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