By Veronica Strong-Boag
Canada’s official and popular histories supply their share of well-told lies. Think of the representation of the Northwest Rebellions as proof positive of Métis and Indian barbarism or the story of the Canadian sergeant crucified by blood-thirsty Huns during World War One.
Nellie L. McClung was not immune to those deceptions but she understood the assault on truth when it came to suffragists. Her classic volume In Times Likes These (1915) skewered “hardy perennials,” her term for fake news, those “prejudices regarding women that have been exploded and blown to pieces many, many times and yet walk among us today in the fullness of life and vigor.”
Enfranchisement during and after World War One and the appearance of the first female legislators did not halt anti-suffrage propaganda. Even as misogyny genuflected before women’s patriotic sacrifices, its Conservative, Liberal, and left-wing champions maintained their defense of men’s right to rule.
Like Donald Trump’s 21st century resort to the distraction of a female press secretary (in effect making women complicit in their own victimization), early Canadian reactionaries enjoyed pitting women against one another. In the process, they celebrated their preferred version of ‘real women,’ a type less flatteringly summed up by McClung as “selfish women who have no more thought for the underprivileged women than a pussy cat in a sunny window for the starving kitten in the street.”
Such was the case in June 1922, when MacLean’s, self-titled ‘Canada’s National Magazine’ and would-be arbiter of mainstream Anglo-Canadian culture, published “The Confessions of a She-Politician.” Depicted as a “startling admission from the pen of a successful feminine politician, known in several Canadian provinces,” its target was the pioneers entering Canadian parliaments beginning in 1917.
Identifying herself as a reasonable suffragist, certainly not one of the “agitating variety,” properly thankful to the good men who conferred the franchise, and only anxious to share the burden of government, the Canadian apostate announced herself a woman brought to her senses. A dose of public office (a provincial legislature was unstated but readily inferred) had taught her that it was “a grave mistake for women to rush into political life.” Even someone as capable as she claimed to be inevitably succumbed to the “feminine mind,” prone to “awandering” when serious matters were at hand.
Beginning with a nod to prejudice, the writer admitted the special handicap of occupying “a man’s place,” of keeping “a man out of a place which he thinks rightfully belongs to him, and so do his friends” and of exclusion from “informal discussions (lunch together at the club, meeting in the bank, or any of the dozen ways men are in contact ‘downtown’).”
Almost immediately, however, the boys’ club is absolved of blame. Clubs of frivolous and badly organized women were the real culprits. Old mainstream suffragist strongholds offered only reasons “to question the loyalty of our sex to one another.” Denounced as uninterested in candidates’ “qualification or preparation for office,” club women were reduced to caricatures, doing little more than defending their “social standing” and deferring to “male relatives.” They, not men, explained female political failure.
Even as she assailed her own sex, the ‘she-politician’ welcomed her “new appreciation of the burdens the men of this world have been carrying, and an increased respect for their ability in administration, their capacity for hard work, their grasp of detail, their clear-headed thinking, and most of all the ‘stickatitiveness’ which so many women like.” Such virtues should return women to “the good old-fashioned common sense of their grandmothers,” who left “the political game to the men.”
The cartoon depicted above summarized the lesson. “How about a ‘Back-to-the-Home’ Club?” invited Canadians to find humour in the portrait of the well-named (in spite of her size) Minnie fleeing from ill-advised activism into the embrace of her husband John. Common sense (the frequent subterfuge of much fake news) was left to triumph over suffragist fantasies of equality.
Not everyone was hoodwinked. MacLean’s editor, John Bayne MacLean, eventually admitted that the article “aroused a storm of comment, about one-third favoring the sentiments … and two-thirds condemning them.” He confessed as well that “nearly all those endorsing the views” preferred anonymity. They would not be called to account.
Critics of fake news stood their ground. In time for Dominion Day 1922, Miss M. Ada Dickey of Pembroke, Ontario, took direct aim. Concluding that the “purpose of MacLean’s Magazine was (if it had one) … to insult the women of Canada,” she cast doubt on the gender of the author. In any case, they were a “coward,” purveying no more than the “anti-suffrage” views of “the days gone by in English, United States and Canadian third-rate publications.”
A few months later, clearly having consulted with Canada’s six other female legislators, Nellie L. McClung, challenged the so-called ‘she-politician’. The Alberta MLA went straight to the heart of editorial integrity:
I do not doubt for a moment that a lot of people would be glad to think that the women in politics are just as shallow and insincere as the writer of this article evidently is, but even that fact does not establish the truth of her assertions, and the point at issue is this: the writer of this article IS NOT one of the women politicians of Canada.
The article was no more than malicious slander.
The editor remained unrepentant. Deliberately using a form of address that emphasized his challengers’ relationship to men (even as this was shifting for female politicians who were quickly being hailed by their first names)– “Miss Agnes McPhail, Mrs. Arthur Rogers, Winnipeg, Mrs. L.C. McKinney, Claresholm, Alta., Mrs. Harvey Price, Grande Prairie, Alta., Mrs. Walter Parlby, Alix, Alta, Mrs. Ralph Smith, Victoria, B.C., and Mrs. H.S.L. McClung, Edmonton”– he conceded that none was the offender. Taking refuge in the writer’s stipulation “that her name should be kept a deep, dark secret,” he nevertheless refused to recant. Instead the article remained, as it does today in MacLean’s on-line archive, an apparent testament to women’s self-confessed inadequacy and indeed self-hatred.
The 1922 dispute quickly disappeared from public note. The corrections from Dickey and McClung were readily lost, including by me in earlier investigations. Canadian magazines and newspapers persisted in routine parodies of female politicians.
“Confessions of a She-Politician” ultimately serves as a cautionary tale. While remarkable for the editor’s public admission of misinformation, its original lie reminds us of earlier ‘post-truth’ moments when fake news likewise threatened citizens’ right to know.
Veronica Strong-Boag, the author and editor of many scholarly books and articles, received the Tyrrell Medal for excellence in Canadian history from the Royal Society of Canada in 2012 and is a former president of the Canadian Historical Association. She is a Professor Emerita at UBC and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria.
 The Stream Runs Fast, 1945.
 “In the Editor’s Confidence,” MacLean’s Nov. 15, 1922.
 Ibid., July 1, 1922.
 See, for example, the obvious attack on Agnes Macphail in H.F. Gadsby, “Letters of a Woman M.P.” ibid., Feb. 15 and March 1, 1929).