First petition signed by Nellie McClung found

A replica of the first petition signed by Nellie McClung is at Nellie's Houses in Manitou. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

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A recently unearthed signature is shedding light on the early activism of Nellie McClung, one of Canada’s most famous women’s suffrage activists.

Volunteers with Nellie’s Homes in Manitou found the first petition McClung signed when she was in her late teens and living and teaching in Manitou.

Co-chair of the Nellie McClung Heritage Site Barbara Biggar said the reaction has been overwhelming. “People understand that Nellie McClung is a national icon in the women’s rights movement,” she said. “This is a piece of a puzzle that really has been left uncovered for well over 100 years.”

Biggar said board members are well-versed in McClung’s history. A few years ago, Co-chair Bette Mueller told board members that McClung had left a clue in one of her books about an early petition she had signed.

“She doesn’t say what year, she doesn’t say what community,” Biggar said. “Just that she was at a quilting bee when she signed her first petition.”

That was the only clue they had, and the group decided to try to track the document down.

A volunteer on the board went to the Archives of Manitoba to try her luck at finding the first petition to grant women the vote. Once they found out it was from 1893, the board knew McClung had been in Manitou at the time. They asked to see the pages from Manitou and the signature was there.

“We suspect nobody had ever made that connection to look at the Manitou pages before,” Biggar said. “There were about five Manitou pages that were glued into the middle of the scroll, because they joined all the communities together.”

As volunteer Tobi Brown unrolled the scroll with the archivist, the first signature she saw was James McClung, Nellie’s future father-in-law.

“We thought, ‘We’ve hit pay dirt,’” Biggar said.

McClung signed the scroll as “Nellie L. Mooney,” as she was only 19 and unmarried at the time.

Biggar said her signature was just as recognizable as Nellie L. Mooney as it was as Nellie L. McClung.
“Pandemonium broke out, we were so excited,” she said.

Activists glued pages together, rolled them into scrolls and delivered wheelbarrows full of scrolls to legislature in order to have their voices heard. Biggar said while the methods have changed over time, the strategy has not.

“To me this is really the beauty of it: it’s the same,” she said. “Back then they used what they had to fight for equality for women. Yes, it was pieces of paper that were signed… today we try to get better rights for women using different tactics but I think our goals are still the same.”

Biggar said as a small museum, getting to add to the national narrative of McClung’s life and activism is a major accomplishment.

“That’s a significant contribution for a group of eight volunteers,” she said. “We’re going to keep digging. We’re going to keep looking for new things, we’re going to keep seeing what else we can discover about Nellie.”

Biggar said the signature is evidence of how early McClung got involved in the women’s rights movement.

“Everybody thinks she was known for the ‘mock parliament’ in Winnipeg, she was known for the Famous Five case, but this shows just how young she was when she made a commitment to fighting for women’s rights,” she said.

Biggar said one of the board’s mandates is to try to connect McClung and her legacy to current generations. “Here she was in the early 1900s, in this case 1893, no telephones, no internet, horse and buggy, making a significant commitment and starting to make a difference young,” she said. “Our message to young people is to say ‘Follow in her footsteps.’ Have confidence that you can make a difference in your family’s life, in the life of your community or for larger causes.”

Biggar said teenagers shouldn’t let their age frighten them away. “It didn’t frighten Nellie McClung off,” she said. “She’s just our own local hero, and a great role model for particularly young women.”

A replica of the petition will be on display at the McClung House in Manitou until the end of September, and Biggar said people from the area can also come try to find their own family members on the scroll as well.