History of the Women’s Institutes

Submitted by Marilyn Snedden

This organization was founded in 1897 by Adelaide Hunter Hoodless with the help of Erland Lee (since back then a woman alone would have trouble getting recognition). Her son had died from drinking contaminated milk and she formed a group of her neighbours in the Stony Creek area of Ontario to improve the education of rural women about health & sanitation. Within a few years the motto “For Home & Country” was approved along with an oval royal blue & gold pin bearing the slogan.

In most rural communities it was the only group that all women could join, regardless of politics or religion. In the beginning, the women joined as a break from the drudgery at home and a social outing where they could learn from each other or a speaker. Over the years branches were formed in most communities and the organization grew to have a District level (usually a County), an Area level, Provincial, Canadian, and finally the ACWW (Associated Countrywomen of the World). Queen Elizabeth was a member in England.

The Department of Agriculture supported the W.I. with a Home Economist in each county who conducted workshops for leaders sent by local branches to learn crafts such as bread making or quilting. The leaders then returned to share the info with all their members. The 4-H Clubs also gained leaders from the W.I. who were trained by the Home Economists. Unfortunately, the Ontario Government cut out these programs some decades ago which was a great loss to rural people. Over the years many resolutions have been sent through the levels supporting worthy projects or seeking changes in many items affecting rural life.

Agriculture in the Classroom is an Ontario-wide project widely supported by the W.I. As few teachers have an agricultural background, children were missing this part of their education.

Preserving history became a major focus when in the late 1940’s Lady Tweedsmuir, wife of the Governor General, was afraid rural history was being lost. She sponsored a competition for the best community history across Canada and this became a focus of each branch with curators appointed who created Tweedsmuir History Books to preserve photos and stories.

Many of these are available online since the FWIO (Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario) obtained a large grant to digitize many of the books. Online you go to FWIO, then to the History Tab, then Digitized Histories and then click the “Virtual archives” link to take you to a page where you enter the name of the branch you are searching.

When the FWIO celebrated their 100th Anniversary in 1997, there were 16,000 members but that number has declined greatly since so many women are working out of the home and information on homemaking skills is quite available online. Many members kept on with their rural branches when they retired to town so that a survey back then showed 1/3 lived on a farm,1/3 lived in a rural area and 1/3 had retired to town.

In Lanark County, we had 11 branches in the north and 17 in the south but now only have 2 and 3-a drastic change. Archives Lanark is striving to store the Tweedsmuir Histories and Minute Books of the disbanded branches and has scanned most of what is stored there. These books are a great source of old photos and farm histories recorded over the years so many people have been excited to find a photo of what their farmhouse looked like decades ago or photos of their ancestors.

The histories of the W.I. are especially useful for finding stories on female ancestors since there was a competition in 1997 for the best collection of autobiographies so detailed stories of women were documented then along with photos and stories of their work in the W.I. They also contain newspaper stories collected over the years.

Resources: Tweedsmuir Histories: FWIO Digital Collections

Archives Lanark

Some of the W.I. branches that Archives Lanark have books for are Appleton, Beckwith, Cedar Hill, Clayton, Pine Grove, Rocky Ridge, Rosetta, Union Hall from the North and Balderson, Fallbrook, Ferguson Falls, Franktown, Rosedale, Snow Road, Otty Lake, Second Line of Drummond

Archives Lanark is open Fridays from 10-3 at 1920 Concession 7 Road (Drummond Center) or by appointment on Saturdays. The website is http://www.archiveslanark.ca or you can get information at info@archiveslanark.ca

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