I’ve been talking on this blog about the fight for women’s rights in Canada. One of the agents of that struggle is the Women’s Institute. Founded in 1897 in Stoney Creek, Ontario, the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada has championed women, particularly rural women from its very beginnings up to the present time.
The inception of the Federated Women’s Institute of Canada (FWIC ) grew from a personal tragedy. Adelaide Hoodless, a young wife and mother, lost her fourth son to “summer milk fever,” an infection carried in unpasteurized milk. The bereft mother turned her attention to educating women, particularly rural women, on proper hygiene and the safe handling of food.
“A nation cannot rise above the level of its homes, we women must work and study together to raise our homes to the highest level possible.” Adelaide Hoodless.
After that first meeting in Stoney Creek, the WI flourished. By 1913 there were institutes in every province. In 1919 at a meeting in Winnipeg the FWIC was formed to co-ordinate and support local chapters. In 1958 a national office was established in Ottawa.
Rural women banded together to educate and support each other as a parallel organization to the Farmer’s Union, but they weren’t content with just putting healthy food on the table. The phrase “think globally, act locally,” was a watchword for the Institute. They were instrumental in the establishment of Macdonald Institute at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Ontario and in the creation of Macdonald College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, P.Q.
They aided the cause of women in the political field, rallying around Emily Murphy in the “person’s case.” They lobbied for counselling for farm families during hard times. They worked for facilities to benefit their communities. The WI Hall is a common sight in rural Canada. They manned food tents at the Fall Fair and Ploughing Match. They offered courses in safe canning methods, first aid, farm ownership succession and estate planning.
During WWI and WWII they knit socks, rolled bandages, fund-raised and worked to increase food production and decrease waste.
They volunteered and fund-raised for rural clinics to improve infant health. They operated book-mobiles to bring information and education to rural homes. In the 1940’s the brought hot meals and school milk days to the local school. They lobbied for the establishment of Brock University in Ontario. They wrote “Tweedsmuir Histories,” a valuable documentation of community life throughout the country.
The motto “For Home and Country” reflects FWIC aims: to promote an appreciation of rural living, to develop informed citizens and to initiate national programs to achieve common goals. Today, true to its roots, The WI is focussed on rural child care, farm safety, legal rights, fair pay, literacy, health, stress on farm families and financial planning.
Internationally, the WI assists craft programs in developing countries, helping rural women to increase their family income and to educate their daughters. They also contribute to efforts for clean water, literacy and women’s rights.
My mother was a proud member of the Women’s Institute. Despite the complaints of her family about a cold supper, she attended a meeting one afternoon a month where she and her cohorts worked for the common goal of healthy families, informed citizens and the recognition of the farm family as the foundation stone of our community. I miss my Mom. Kudos to her and all the other Institute Women. They persevered in the face of hardship, criticism and selfish children, and created a better home and community.