IN Firing the Heather: The Life and Times of Nellie McClung (Fifth House, 336 pages, $26.95 cloth), an ambitious biography 20 years in the writing, Mary Hallett and Marilyn Davis offer a penetrating examination of Canada's greatest suffragist. "Firing the heather" is a Scottish term meaning to burn off the old crop to make room for new growth. Few activists of her time were better at this than the Scottish-Irish McClung, who engineered a slow burn on complacent, phallocentric Canadian politics and social welfare for 30 years. A solid writer, a keen intellect, and a tireless worker, McClung enjoyed a commanding personal presence and oratorical genius that made her the voice of feminism for her generation.
Hallett - who died during the final revision work - and Davis wisely chose not to divorce their subject from the context of her tumultuous era, and the result is a kind of feminist rewrite of early- 20th-century Canadian history. As they follow McClung down the path of suffragist victories, first in Manitoba, then Alberta, and ultimately on the national level, it is fascinating to note how closely the cause of female voting rights was tied to the temperance movement. At the turn of the century, a Canadian woman cast no vote, was excluded from the machinery of state and church government, and came by wealth only through husband and father. The taw did not even recognize her as guardian of her own children. McClung lived to see most of these injustices redressed, but it was a bitter disappointment to her that Canada did not become an alcohol-free utopia.
McClung's own two-volume version of her life, Clearing in the West (1935) and The Stream Runs Fast (1945), may better convey the inimitable voice of this captivating debater. But Firing the Heather is both an entertaining, thoroughly researched look at the suffragist era and a must-read for anyone who wants to know how Canadian women got where they are.