Hallet, Mary and Marilyn Davis. FIRING THE HEATHER: The Life and Times of Nellie McClung. 1994. Fifth House, Canada.

Firing The Heather: A Book Review

“The phrase [fire the heather] is a Scottish agricultural term that means getting rid of the old crop, so that new growth may begin.” Catherine Kerrigan, Edinburgh University

Someone recently said that ´feminism´ had become invisible and even the word was seldom used. So I thought it was time to re–new my knowledge about the women on whose shoulders modern women stand.

One of them most famous women in Canada was Nellie McClung, 1875–1951. The authors of this biography – and there are others, my public library lists eight, including McClung´s own memoir – have written a comprehensive record of the life of this pioneer feminist.

Nellie McClung was born, the last of six children, to a farming parents in rural Ontario; later the family moved to a homestead on Manitoba, familiar beginning for many settlers from Europe. She became a teacher in a rural school when she was barely out of school herself. Her flair for drama and public speaking became evident in those early days.

She became a campaigner for women´s rights and the vote and a public personality with a razor wit and a unerring ability to retort to hecklers, reducing them to fools. She campaigned for temperance, not a [popular idea now, but one she saw as vital to preserving family life. She also favoured compulsory education and defended the rights of immigrants. Somehow with all her political activities and a growing family, she found time and energy to write sixteen books, mainly what these authors call “antiromantic fiction”, tales of the hard lives that women had to endure.

Every year Nellie McClung and her friends, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise McKinney are celebrated, usually around International Women´s Day for their historic “Persons Case” victory in 1929 when the British Privy Council declared that women were persons and as such could be senators of the Canadian Parliament. They are now cast in bronze in bigger than life size in Calgary, the site of the regular Women in Black vigil and in Ottawa by the Parliament Buildings.

It was common then as it is now to call feminists man–haters, but like so many modern feminists, Nellie had a long and happy marriage of 53 years to a supportive and caring man. After living form Ontario to Manitoba to Alberta, Nellie spent her last years, busy as ever with her work and her family, in Victoria, not far from my home.

Filed under Book Reviews, Marilyn Davis, Mary Hallet