Literature as Pulpit: The Christian Social Activism of Nellie L McClung // Review

Article excerpt

While Nellie McClung has long been looked to as a pioneer among Canadian feminists, at least two portraits of her activism have tended to emerge over the years. One, known largely to women studying in theological colleges, has been that of a religious activist and has focussed primarily on McClung's battle for the ordination of women in the United Church of Canada, accompanied by a somewhat embarrassed acknowledgement of her work as a temperance promoter. The other, perhaps more widely known, picture is of McClung as political activist, fighting for the right of women to vote and to be recognized as persons within Canadian law. In Literature as Pulpit, Randi Warne advances a more integrated view of McClung which acknowledges the interconnections between her religion, feminism and social activism.

It is Warne's contention that McClung's feminism has sometimes been narrowly viewed from the perspective of her collection of speeches, In Times Like These (1915), and needs to be set against the broader backdrop of her novels as well as the context in which she lived and wrote. The discussion is then moved from the arena of theory and abstract ideas to that of narrative and cultural systems, a more useful approach in analyzing the complex political issues of gender and religion. The particular focus of Literature as Pulpit is the feminist message of McClung's Pearlie Watson Trilogy (1908, 1910, 1921) and her more complex novel, Painted Fires, (1925), as well as on the anti-feminist context of her times. These are then used to amplify the feminism of In Times Like These and to answer some of the charges levelled against McClung in more recent times.

One of Warne's major concerns is that a stereotype of McClung has emerged as a bourgeois, liberal, maternal feminist whose religious views were naive at best and tended to cloud her feminist critique. One of the contributions of Literature as Pulpit is that it forces us to take a more balanced view by presenting a portrait of a much more complex person who wrote in response to her context and whose feminist social activism was her religious vocation. While McClung knew and made others aware of some of the living and working conditions of the working class, her purpose was to make the public aware of women's experience generally. Although McClung was somewhat paternalistic toward "our foreigners" (as she sometimes called them) she stood against all forms of prejudice and challenged Canadian citizens on their disregard and mistreatment of immigrants to Canada. McClung's comments on women and women's experience need to be seen in the context of her audience, both anti-feminist men and conservative women, who held traditional assumptions about the roles of women and men.

Although McClung claimed some difference in women's experience, her female characters were not sentimental do-gooders but bold, capable, and determined women through whom McClung challenged both women and men to change their stereotypes of female and male roles. …