Nellie McClung and the challenge of history

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Up until a few weeks ago, if I was asked my impression of Nellie McClung I probably would have said “oh, she was that suffragette, right? The one people say was racist and supported eugenics?”

I started reading about Nellie McClung this past few weeks. I’ll still a newcomer to McClung’s story and I’ve already read bits that do suggest the darker parts of her beliefs. But what has amazed me is realizing how beautiful some of her thoughts and ideas were too. She wrote novels that promoted the idea that we are all called to serve community, love one another and by doing so to change the world. She wrote defending single mothers and victims of domestic violence. (Naturally she didn’t use those terms… but the idea are there.) Here is a quote from the book Literature as Pulpit: The Christian Social Activism of Nellie McClung. “McClung here shoes that injustice on earth can destroy faith in the justice of heaven. Many women have no reason to believe in God or God’s care, for the practical experiences of their lives have been characterized by the abuse of power at the hands of men who have made the world to suit themselves.” (42)

McClung was part of a time when people were starting to believe God’s heaven could be brought here on Earth. There was a big push within the Canadian protestant churches to work for justice and for improving the world. This push was part of what led to the formation of the United Church of Canada. It is interesting to read about how McClung though pointed out it works two ways – not only can working to bring peace and justice here on Earth be part of being a Christian, but a failure of justice can push people away from Christianity. As I write this I think about all the implications and complications. I’m sure there are some reading this who think no, we humans cannot bring God’s kingdom here on Earth, we cannot establish justice and such for that will exist only in heaven. That’s a theological and ethical question. Then there’s those probably thinking about how the effort to bring God’s kingdom here, in Canada in the early 1900s, had bad consequences – particularly to the native people but also to others. I won’t deny that.

But I also won’t ignore her efforts to help women, children, and the poor. The temperance movement is widely look at as a failure, but there were a group of men and women saying that something must be done to help protect people against the evils of alcoholism. They wanted to protect families which were kept in poverty because the man had all the control over the family finances and he spent the money drinking. They wanted to protect people against other’s drunken rage. They were trying to fix problems they saw around them, trying to legislate to make things easier.

Even in Nellie McClung’s time there were others who argued against temperance saying that everything is a matter of education and character development, and that parents just need to teach their children right and the children won’t become adults who drink in excess. It is fascinating to me to read those questions being discussed a hundred years ago on that, when I see similar questions posed on facebook today about gun control or drug use. Can we pass laws to keep people safer? The idea of it just being a matter of raising the children right poses the question of whether we just abandon to their fates the children of those who will be raised in ways that promote problems (drugs, alcohol or gun violence), or whether we take them away from their parents or try to counter it with other education. If people don’t need to worry about these problems because it is just something families need to do right, what about the families that do it wrong? What about the people they end up hurting?

There is so much that Nellie McClung was dealing with that I see echoes of today. She did not reject the idea of marriage (in fact she was very pro-marriage and kids) but she did recognize the evils of marriage the way it is practiced. I think of the radical feminist whose writings I read sometimes.

In one of her novels a character is reflecting on how her parents have been criticized for being lower class. “… since she had been away, she learned to her surprise that the world does not give its crowns to those who serve it best – but to those who can make the most people serve them…. It was a quite a new thought to Pearl, and she pondered it deeply. The charge against her family – the slur which could be thrown on them was not that of dishonor, dishonesty, immorality or intemperance – none of those – but that they had worked at poorly paid, hard jobs, thereby giving evidence that they were not capable of getting easier ones.” I think about discussions around minimum wage and how people’s response to minimum wage poverty is to say that those people just need to get better paying jobs, as though we could through education rescue individuals while not caring about the person who would then fill that low-paying job. Often low-paying jobs do much needed service to others.

My impression of Nellie McClung as just a racist and eugenicist was shaped by the social justice culture that I’ve been a part of, where everyone is trying to denounce the darker parts of our past: Reject anything that was unfair to anyone. Show solidarity with the oppressed by rejecting empire and anything tainted by empire. It is a mistake, I think, to cut ourselves off from our roots. By casting aside previous generations for the harm they did, we also lose the chance to engage in discussions with their ideas, to learn from them. We need to acknowledge the bad, but not reject the whole person because of it.

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