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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nellie McClung: Likable Rebel Brings our Series to a Challenging Close

It was with a sense of celebration and a tinge of sadness that the Philosophy Club brought our "Rebel with a Cause" series to a conclusion this past Thursday. Hats were the order of the day as we doffed our cap, so to speak, to charismatic campaigner for Canadian women's suffrage, Nellie McClung (1873-1951). Never without a stylish hat as she hit the campaign trail and took her message of a better lot for women from one public venue to the next, her apparent lack of anything even remotely resembling a 'bad girl' persona found us questioning whether 'Our Nell' actually belonged in our rebel hall of fame. If a split opinion on this matter precipitated a discussion of what, in fact, constitutes 'bad' behaviour when you are operating in a world that treats you badly, it was clear that the Nellie we had come to know through Charlotte Gray's (2008) look at her life and achievements (Nellie McClung) and Janet Fiamengo's (2008) examination of her use of rhetoric ("Nellie McClung and the Rhetoric of the Fair Deal") was our most obviously 'likable' rebel. Moreover, we could not help but be impressed by her extraordinary oratorical skills, by her unfaltering commitment to a cause in which she believed, and by the integrity she showed in the face of both heady accolades and vicious attacks.

Never too big for her boots but leaving behind a mightily formidable pair of boots to fill, there was something solid about Nellie McClung, something good. And no, this solidity, this goodness, had little to do with her allying of female suffrage to the Christian Women's Temperance Union - a tactic, this, that probably spoke as much to her conviction that alcohol abuse on the part of men was having a detrimental effect on women's and children's lives, as to her determination not to alienate the majority of women from a cause - attaining the vote - that, at that point in time, was seen by many as hot-headed and radical: a threat to home and family. Rather, it sprung from the way Nellie moved in and through the world: buoyant, fiesty, generous, hard-working, kind, compassionate, conscientious...wholesome.

And yet, for all that she was wholesome, she sidestepped the slippery slope into sticky sweet as a result of the sharpness of her wit. That, and because she was clever and charming. Using these assets to her advantage, she became popular. Though she spoke about prohibition and women's emancipation, her speeches were considered to be great entertainment. People - all sorts of people - flocked to hear her speak. If Nellie McClung was a rebel, she was a mainstream rebel. She was to early 20th Century women's rights what Ellen de Generis is to early 21st Century gay rights: personable, accessible, nonthreatening; using girl-next-door ease and a home-spun sense of humour to break the proverbial centuries-old ice.  First, with pushing through the vote for women, and second, with the constitutional bestowing upon women of "personhood" as a member of The Famous Five, Nellie McClung revolutionized Canadian society whilst sporting a fine-feathered hat.

All to say that Nellie McClung raises important questions about the trope of the female rebel - questions that we explored through exercises that probed how Nellie differed from the other 18th, 19th and 20th Century rebels in our six week survey, and where the similarities lay. In terms of the latter, here's a word of caution to any future female rebels out there: expect to be demonized for being a negligent mother or daughter or wife or partner as a result of being faithful to your cause; and brace yourself for a barage of comments about how you look and what you wear irregardless of whether you comply with feminine conventions of the time or not. Sorry, gals...Plus ca change and all that...

From Nellie up close, we proceeded on to Nellie in context. Working from insights I had gained into the trope of the female rebel through specific points raised by participants during the course of our six sessions together, we created eight thematic headings. Using these themes as our jumping off point, we crafted a collective treatise about the female rebel.
The treatise itself reflected each one of our rebels...

From Mary Wollstonecraft, we borrowed the form. Entitled "A Vindication of the Female Rebel," our own version of this tract-style argument famously used by Wollstonecraft and designed to justify and defend a certain cause or course of action, began with Wollstonecraft's famous line, "It is time to effect a revolution in..." and concluded with a comment she had made in a letter to her sister just before she wrote her landmark Vindication, "...And I am going to be the first of a new genus...I tremble at the attempt."

From Leonora Carrington, we borrowed the method. Returning once again to the surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse with its celebration of "the mystique of accident," we built a separate "collective collage" around each of the eight themes that comprised our 'Vindication.' Asking ourselves whether the end result of this game-like approach to serious tract-drafting would, as Max Ernst insisted, be a case of "mental contagion" revealing the "unconscious reality in the personality of the group," we were equally interested to see whether this exercise in cross-pollination would reveal an understanding of the female rebel that bespoke common sense, nonsense or a whole new sense.

From Colette, we borrowed style. This seemed fitting, given that Colette has been called France's greatest literary stylist. It also presented a significant challenge, having to "make sparks fly" between each of the words we used. For this, according to post-structuralist thinker Gilles Deleuze, is what style is. In the case of Colette, sparks flew between words because of her glorious juxtapositions. Just as her attitude to life was to dwell in the "marvelous commonplace," so too did her prose: these kinds of unexpected word twinnings setting off within the reader little ripples of pleasure, little tingles of suspense. This, of course, was the root (and route!) to Colette's reputation as a sensualist: her words, the way they jostled for a place and slipped into a certain position in any given sentence, creating a richly sensual experience for the reader. Roland Barthes has suggested that whereas literary form is cultural, literary style is personal: style being our own special signature - the individual twist - with which and through which we embellish the literary conventions of our society and era. Which meant that we didn't all have to produce sensual writing a la Colette...But that in working towards making those sparks fly, we did have make our writing sizzle towards some end or other, as well as stamp our own individual mark upon the 'Vindication .'

From Margaret Sanger, we borrowed tone: a strong and forceful tone at that. This was, after all, a 'Vindication' of society's defiant and challengers, its subversives and fighters...Not much to make light of there. And as Margaret Sanger had been quick to point out when fielding accusations that she had no sense of humour, she wasn't in the business of making light. In her unflagging support of the poor and the voiceless, she was, in her own words, the spokesperson for those people "who have nothing to laugh about." Leave that to the Nellie McClungs of this world, she might have thought to herself - to those rebels who have the tact of a diplomat and the gift of the gab, and can elicit from even the solemnest of subjects a heartfelt belly laugh as she works the crowd. No, in being the one to set the tone of our 'Vindiction' it was evident that our "magnet for controversy" Margaret Sanger was sticking to her guns. Which meant, somewhat ironically, no guns...Calling not for "frothy tin horns screeching - a popgun here, a popgun there" but rather, for "the deeper sounds of an outraged, angry, serious people," what Sanger's instructions regarding tone were telling us is that those Colette-ish sparks were going to fly in the name of an outraged and angry and serious end product.

Finally, from Nellie McClung, we borrowed the orator's gift of craft and delivery. This was, after all, Nellie's week, and fired up as we were on her prodigious rhetorical skills as exemplified in the script of her 'mock parliament' stage triumph in Winnipeg in 1914, as brought directly into our living room courtesy of an old 1938 CBC radio clip of her address to a Parliament Hill audience as a plaque was unveiled in honour of The Famous Five, she was bound to play a starring role in our 'Vindication.' In terms of craft, we followed Nellie's standard speech formula when assembling our collective collages: a few lines to "disarm" the doubters, a development of our key arguments in order to "engage and convince," and, to end, a spirited "call to action" which put the walk back into the talk. In terms of delivery, we wore hats, of course; but also, tried to inject a little of Nellie's impeccable timing and eloquent flare as we each, in turn, delivered a segment of the finished 'Vindication.'

As for the themes that kept emerging as we worked the trope of the female rebel over our six weeks together, that we spun an exciting line of philosophical questioning in and through and around during this time, and that we attempted to evoke in our final 'Vindication,' these were: The rebel as a set of contradictions; The rebel as a distinctly female trope; The rebel as a site of on-going struggle; The rebel as a case of 'complicated kindness'; The rebel as necessarily 'bad'?; The rebel as 'to ego or not to ego...'; The rebel as a troubling heroine; The rebel as a troubler of Time.

We brought the series to a close by turning the focus on ourselves: reflecting on which of the five rebels we most resembled, least resembled, liked best, liked least, would most like to borrow something from; contemplating those aspects of our own characters that most lent themselves to being a rebel, and those aspects that found us scurrying for cover at the very mention of the 'r' word. The results of this exercise in self-reflection were revealing. If we were refreshingly divided when it came to selecting our rebel of choice and our rebel alter-egos, we were almost unanimous in our admiration of the rebel's ability to put her convictions and/or cause well ahead of the comfort that comes of being liked and esteemed by others. Similarly, we were generally humbled and awed by the courage that each of our rebels seemed to possess, and by the single-minded determination that kept them 'on task' for a sustained period of time, and often in the face of relentless opposition.

As we handed out 'Certificates of Achievement' that not only marked Club participants' 'graduation' from this latest wwp learning experience, but also spoke to their respective rebel acts during the course of it, we raised a glass to both the Class of Spring 2012 and to welcoming more radicalism - more appetite for life and living fully! - into our lives. We are looking forward to a shared celebratory meal with our fantastic Philosophy Club members at the Nurtury in early June. And we are already planning the next Philosophy Club series, which will take place when we return from our wwp roadshow across Canada.