“Get the thing done and let them howl!”

Useful counsel for officeholders and activists of all stripes, particularly those advancing reform agendas.

In the opening decades of the twentieth century, Nellie McClung fought with wit and grace for women’s rights. A key organizer of the Manitoba Political Equality League, she appeared in early 1914 before the province’s Legislative Assembly to make her case for granting women the vote: “Have we not the brains to think? Hands to work? Hearts to feel? And lives to live? Do we not bear our part in citizenship? Do we not help build the Empire? Give us our due!”

When her delegation’s arguments failed to sway the all-male legislature, she turned to humour. Starring in a “Mock Parliament” theatrical production, she parodied the conservative premier’s anti-suffrage views by flipping them on their head: “politics unsettle men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills — broken furniture, broken vows and — divorce … Nice men do not want to vote.” Her caricature brought down the house.

McClung moved to Alberta in 1915 after blazing the trail for women’s suffrage in Manitoba. She won a seat in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly in 1921. And while sitting in the province’s legislature she stood up for women’s rights across the country. The inch-by-inch battle for equality ran up against prominent male (of course) Ottawa politicians who denied that women counted as “qualified Persons” eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate. But she wasn’t buying it. McClung and her associates launched a court challenge to that position, culminating in the landmark “Persons Case” in 1929. One year later Cairine Wilson became the first female Senator in Canadian history.

McClung went on to be a Canadian delegate to the League of Nations and the first female member of CBC’s Board of Governors. She earned nicknames as various as “Windy Nellie,” “Mrs. Western Canada,” and “Calamity Nell.” But it’s her spirit and eloquence that remain with Canadian feminists and reformers today, captured maybe best of all in McClung’s un-dated campaign poster slogan: “Never retract, never explain, never apologize—get the thing done and let them howl!”

Image source: Nellie McClung Foundation

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