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Comics and Canadian Feminism: Willow Dawson’s Hyena in Petticoats and the Story of Suffragist Nellie McClung

Posted by Sean Carleton
30 August 2014 - 7:49pm

Historically, women have not fared well in comic books. As a traditionally male dominated medium, derogatory depictions of women figure prominently in both past and present comics. Even portrayals of iconic female characters from the 1940s and 1950s, such as the US-generated Wonder Woman and, in Canada, Nelvana of the Northern Lights (Bell, 2006), often conform to what scholars Erving Goffman and Sut Jhally have called “Codes of Gender” (Goffman, 1959 and 1978; Jhally, 1987 and 2009). In short, this graphic form commonly represents women as deferential, submissive, and highly sexualized. Even the empowering attributes of superheroines, of which there are admittedly some, often take place within an overarching patriarchal framework and thus adhere to stereotypically constricting gender roles.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a strong feminist contingent in comics that has pushed for alternative representations. In the US, artists such as Susan Rudahland comics such as Wimmen’s Comix (1972-1985) and It Ain’t Me Babe (1970) have critiqued sexism in comics and society generally. In Canada, the Corrective Collective published a feminist history of Canada entitled She Named it Canada Because That’s What it Was Called (1971), and the Graphic History Collective recently released a comic book about a Canadian socialist-feminist union (2014). Contributing to this feminist comics tradition is Toronto artist Willow Dawson’s recent graphic novel, or comic book, Hyena in Petticoats (2011), which documents the life and times of the important but controversial Canadian author, activist, and suffragist, Nellie McClung (1873-1951). Dawson dedicates her much-needed comic book to “all the girls!” and the project certainly deserves a wider feminist readership today.

Throughout the comic book, Dawson illustrates how McClung’s personal life shaped her political path. Drawing inspiration from McClung’s published autobiographies, Hyena in Petticoats begins by casting Nellie Letitia Mooney as an outspoken, free-spirited, and rebellious child (McClung, 2003). Growing up in a rural setting, first in Ontario and then in Manitoba, Nellie quickly became frustrated with the gendered expectations for young girls on the farm to simply cater to men’s demands and respect their ultimate authority. Instead, Nellie wanted to play sports, to “run with the boys” (p. 8), and to go to school to learn to read, write, and form her own opinions. It was the espousing of the latter—throughout her career as a prominent author and politician—that would establish McClung as perhaps the most recognized advocate for women’s rights in Canadian history.

After tracing the contours of Nellie’s adolescence and young adulthood, including her awareness of the Métis resistance in 1885, her graduation from school, her employment as a teacher, and her marriage to a minister’s son, Robert Wesley McClung, and starting a family, Dawson shows how Nellie began to reflect more on women’s social status. Nellie sought to change the world: “Why do women have to suffer so much? They can’t vote, they’re not protected by the law, and yet they have to do all the work bearing and raising children. Women have endured too much and said nothing. Well, I’m not going to be meek and mild and resigned” (p. 33). On that basis, Dawson describes how Nellie joined a number of different organizations that fought injustice in the home, at work, and in society generally. In all of Nellie’s endeavours, including a career as a politician, Dawson illustrates how Nellie brought a fighting spirit and a charismatic creativity that won her supporters and advanced the cause of women.

The most fascinating sections of Dawson’s comic book treatment of McClung are depictions of the fight for suffrage, or the right to vote and stand for electoral office. Although McClung cut her teeth on the temperance movement, like many turn of the century activists, she soon focused centrally on enfranchisement as a key to wider social reforms. For example, after being patronized by Conservative Manitoba Premier, Rodmond Roblin—“What in the world do women want the vote for? I don’t want a hyena in petticoats talking politics at me. I want a nice gentle creature to bring me my slippers” (p. 48)—Dawson shows how McClung and members of the Political Equality League put on a mock Parliament to raise awareness about women suffrage. Clearly demonstrating Nellie’s brilliant use of humour as a political tool, the performance was a smashing success and solidified her reputation as “Windy Nellie,” the most celebrated Canadian feminist of her time.

Hyena in Petticoats is an excellent introduction to Nellie McClung and the history of first wave feminism in Canada generally. Dawson sees in McClung a feminist role model for young girls and choses to emphasize her indomitable spirit and indefatigable organizing for women’s rights and social change in hopes of inspiring youth today to fight for a better world. However, Dawson’s attempt to present McClung solely in a positive light comes at a cost. The author chooses to avoid McClung’s more controversial beliefs. Specifically, Dawson ignores McClung’s support for the eugenics movement as well as her contentious views on race and immigration (Valverde, 1992). Instead of confronting these opinions, to emphasize McClung’s complexity as a feminist figure as many historians have advocated (see Strong-Boag, 1997 & Fiamengo, 2002), Dawson shunts acknowledgment of McClung’s prejudice into a short “Afterward.”

Thus, teachers in elementary, secondary, or post-secondary classrooms using Hyena in Petticoats will need to offer a more balanced and nuanced approach by drawing on established scholarship and current debates about McClung and first wave feminism in Canada. To point out flaws and discriminatory politics in our historical role models is not an exercise in discrediting them. Rather, it allows subsequent observers to appreciate human complexity and to consider the ways that errors of the past can be avoided in the present.

Overall, Hyena in Petticoats is a welcome addition to the tradition of feminist comics. For too long, girls interested in comics have had few worthy role models. Dawson’s celebratory comic book biography of Canadian suffragist Nellie McClung offers an alternative representation of women that, with some additional reading, can inspire readers unsatisfied with the status quo to organize and fight to transform it.

Sean Carleton, Trent University

Sean Carleton is an activist, educator, and writer living in Peterborough, Ontario, Anishinaabe territory. He is a PhD Candidate in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies and a member of the Graphic History Collective.

This article was originally published by Women Suffrage and Beyond: Confronting the Democratic Deficit: Reprinted with permission.


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