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How Nellie McClung faces a sexist dollar double standard in Canada

Why was the suffragist rejected from the Bank of Canada currency, while divisive male prime ministers have long made the cut?

Nellie McClung finished first overall in an online poll answered by Canadians, however she was left off the Bank of Canada shortlist.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA

Nellie McClung finished first overall in an online poll answered by Canadians, however she was left off the Bank of Canada shortlist.

Growing up, I admired women like Lucy Maud Montgomery, Pauline Johnson, Nellie Bly, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Roberta Bondar and Angela Lansbury.

And of course, Nellie McClung.

Among all the others she lived larger than life in my imagination.

The daughter of an immigrant farmer and illiterate until the age of 10, McClung somehow managed to become a successful author, politician and activist. She advocated for equality in divorce, pushed for universal dental and health care for children, fought for improved worker safety, mother's allowance and property rights for married women, all while raising five children.

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However, McClung is best known as a feminist who fought to extend suffrage to women before becoming one of the Famous Five — a group that launched a legal challenge to have women recognized as people under Canadian law.

McClung was also a believer in eugenics and a sterilization proponent for the so-called "simple-minded."

It is for this reason, some have speculated, that McClung was not short-listed to become the first Canadian woman featured on our currency, despite being the favourite choice in online polls.

But the decision is more a sign of the times and less of a nod to history.

Today, we judge historical figures not by the degree to which they shaped our world — be it for better or worse — but rather by how well they fit our modern values. They must be all things to all people to be found worthy of recognition, they must be entirely inoffensive and have defied the the social mores of the times they lived in without exception.

And no group is more tightly bound by the expectation of saintliness than women, who are routinely required to oppose the bonds of class, sex, gender, race and ability simultaneously to be deemed appropriate for recognition, whether they were born in 1520 or 1920. The irony is that while pushing to recognize the historic limitations faced by wide swaths of our citizens and repair the damage inequality has done to our society, we are also holding the women of history to a sexist double standard, forcing them to account posthumously for the values of their generation in a way that male historical figures rarely have to.

Take for example Canada's eighth Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, a man who has graced Canada's $100 bill since 1976. Despite having leveraged racism and anti-immigrant sentiment to win the 1911 election — he used the slogan "A White Canada" in British Columbia — Borden has rarely been seen as a divisive figure and there is no groundswell of momentum to strip his face from our currency.

Likewise, Sir John A. Macdonald is featured on the $10 bill despite having authorized the execution of Metis leader Louis Riel.

That's because in reality history is rarely defined by those who are purely good or evil. History is shaped one day at a time by real people, influenced, curtailed and motivated by the times they live in, people who are multifaceted and flawed. 

To deny that complexity is to miss opportunities for critical thought and constructive change, while reserving the public landscape for a dwindling number of one-dimensional historical figures with limited influence on society. 

It's a debate heightened by the sad reality that after 150 years as a country, the government's attempt to add balance to the historical record consists of pitting women against each other to fill a token position on a Canadian banknote. No one woman can represent Canada's history, nor should any one woman be expected to.

To me, the solution to the current debate is clear — for the next 150 years, only women should be featured on our money, all of it. After that we can discuss a 50/50 arrangement.

But then again, that's just my two cents worth.