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  • Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism
  • Wendy Roy
Cecily Devereux . Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism. McGill-Queen's University Press. ix, 174. $65.00

Nellie McClung is perhaps best known today as one of the famous five who won the Person's Case for Canadian women in 1929. But during the first three decades of the twentieth century, she was well known as a popular writer whose suffragism, temperance activism, and maternal feminism played as large a role in her fiction as in her political work. In the century since she first began to publish, McClung has been alternately celebrated for her successes in forwarding women's rights and criticized for her perceived racism. As Cecily Devereux convincingly argues in Growing a Race: Nellie L. McClung and the Fiction of Eugenic Feminism, McClung's politically ambiguous position is manifest in her fiction.

Devereux states that she is writing not to memorialize McClung but 'to consider what it means to read McClung's work through the eugenical ideas with which she is now associated.' She argues that while McClung advocated a vision of Canada that included 'British imperial ideas of race and of natural racial hierarchies,' she also sincerely worked toward 'liberating women from oppressive conditions.' Indeed, Devereux contends, eugenic feminist ideas about controlling reproduction, which included sex education, birth control, and financial independence for women, are not dissimilar to policies supported by many of McClung's current detractors.

Devereux's book is valuable for the background it provides on eugenicism and feminism (of both the New Woman and maternal varieties), and for its discussion of the ways in which these seemingly irreconcilable theories combined in the early twentieth century. [End Page 326] She canvasses eugenicists such as Francis Galton, who interpreted successes by members of the British upper and middle classes as based not on social privilege but on their inherent racial and genetic superiority. Galton opposed higher education and participation in political life for women because he believed that the duty of the right kind of women – Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and middle and upper class – was to produce more of their kind. Devereux traces the ways in which McClung and other feminists borrowed ideas about the importance of motherhood first introduced by anti-feminist eugenicists to advocate, instead, the responsibility of women to utilize their 'instinctive mother love' to better their 'race' by gaining political power in order to implement their higher moral standards.

While Devereux decries the way in which McClung's works of fiction have been treated more as historical and social documents than as works of literature, she takes a related approach when she discusses McClung's novels and stories as didactic works whose main goal is to forward her political ideas. Devereux argues in particular that McClung's fiction provides models of women as 'mothers of the race' whose role is to educate readers. While the core of Devereux's book – her analysis of McClung's fiction – is often insightful, a more detailed reading of the texts would at times make her points more compelling. Still, Devereux makes a persuasive case that the young Pearlie Watson of Sowing Seeds in Danny, The Second Chance, and Purple Springs is not only a suffragist but also a budding 'mother-woman' in her work against 'racial poisons' such as alcohol consumption and the apparently related scourge of tuberculosis. Similarly, Devereux argues convincingly that Painted Fires is concerned with the successful integration of immigrants into Anglo-Saxon Canada, but only those who, like maternal Finnish heroine Helmi Milander, are white-skinned, hard-working, and morally upstanding. In her concluding chapters on McClung's representations of First Nations in several short stories, Devereux identifies these stories as promoting a civilizing mission while arguing, perhaps contradictorily, that McClung does not advocate assimilation of First Nations (and the implied miscegenation) but instead reinforces cultural and racial segregation.

The fact that Devereux sometimes does not come down definitively on one side or other of the debates she raises indicates the complexities of McClung's legacy. Indeed, Devereux acknowledges the lack of nuancing that has accompanied recent criticism of...


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pp. 326-328
Launched on MUSE
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