Encyclopedia of Canadian Adult Education
Location(s): Canada and Worldwide
Dates of Operation: 1897 - Present
Origin & Purpose
The Women’s Institute is a uniquely Canadian contribution to adult education. Rooted in its humble beginnings in rural Ontario, it now has over nine million members in over 70 countries. The Women’s Institute's objectives and organizational structure have proven to be of lasting benefit.
Built upon this premise, the Women’s Institute was founded in 1897, in Stony Creek, Ontario by Mrs. Hoodless. It was originally formed as a method of educating rural women with the purpose of improving their lives through studying domestic science. In an early speech, Mrs. Hoodless suggested that “a better understanding of the economic and hygienic value of food and a more scientific care of children with a view to raising the general standard of life of farm people is needed” (Witter, 1979).
The Women’s Institute (WI) grew dramatically; rural women in Ontario readily welcomed the Women’s Institute. By 1903 there were 12 institutes with 1500 active members. In 1904 the Ontario Department of Agriculture began funding seven full-time staff to help promote and organize the institutes in the communities throughout the province. By 1908 the Ontario Women’s Institute had grown to 24 institutes and 4500 members.
Not long after, Women’s Institutes were formed in other provinces across Canada. In 1909 BC and Alberta organized their first WIs, followed by Manitoba in 1910. New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Prince Edward Island began forming institutes in 1911. In 1913 Nova Scotia formed its first institute.
In 1915 an institute member, Mrs. Watt from Vancouver Island, introduced the Women’s Institute concept to the British Isles and helped form Britain’s first WI in Anglesey, Wales. Soon after Queen Mary asked Mrs. Watt to explain the concept to her. This resulted in the formation of the Sandringham Women’s Institute with Queen Mary and succeeding queens serving as president. As a result, Douglas (1958) reports that during the First World War, the efforts of British Countrywomen increased the food supply 35% - 60%. According to Douglas, the WI became known as Canada’s gift to the Motherland.
The idea of forming a Canadian national group was raised in 1912 but postponed due the First World War. When the war ended, the superintendent of the Alberta Women’s Institute, Miss Mary MacIssac, revived the idea. In 1919 a representative from each provincial WI met in Winnipeg, Manitoba and the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada (FWIC) was formed.
Educational Methods and Subjects of Study
In the early years, courses were held in cooking, sewing, home nutrition, childcare and handicrafts. The format was a lecture with a demonstration, followed by a question period. Because each WI operated at the community level, each was able to quickly adapt to fulfill the specific local needs. For example, in 1919, after Alberta had been struck by the Spanish Influenza epidemic, the Women’s Institute began teaching women methods of home nursing and first aid. In excess of 3400 Alberta women undertook this particular course between 1920 and 1923.
In 1924 the first annual Women’s Institute Short course was held. The course was a month long and branch members throughout Canada were asked to send a representative. These representatives returned to their respective communities to teach what they had learned. This turned out to be an effective format which remains in use. Subjects expanded to include agricultural topics, such as: dairying, beekeeping and poultry raising. Later banking and business skills became part of the standard course.
Another educational method used by WIs was the publication of pamphlets. These were referred to as “loan papers” and were kept on file at provincial Department of Agriculture offices. WI members could borrow these papers for two-week periods. Pamphlet titles included topics such as: Stocking Winter Gardens; Care of the Sickroom; Household Sanitation; Little Economics; Harmful Weeds; How to Get More Eggs; Hay-box Cooking and Labour Saving Devices.
The Depression years brought a new interest in civic responsibility. WIs began studying laws relating to women and children, the Old Age Pension Act, The Mother’s Allowance Act, The Minimum Wage Act for Women and Girls, and the Devolution of the Estate Act. WIs became active in recommending legislative change to the Federal Government.
Study circles were utilized as a method of education and socializing. In the early 1940s, with the inclusion of the National Farm Radio Forum and Citizen's Forum content in the study circles, a deeper and richer exchange of ideas improved the educational experience.
In recent years, the WIs have adopted some of the emerging information technologies. A web site now makes available the objectives of the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada:
The First International Conference of Rural Women was held in London in 1929. Forty-six women from 24 countries, including Canada, attended the 4-day conference. In 1930 a conference was held in Vienna where it was decided that a liaison committee of all rural woman’s organizations would be formed. Three years later, at the Stockholm conference, the committee was named the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW). This organization now operates in 70 countries and has a membership of nine million in 365 member societies. The ACWW has consultative status with the United Nations and is affiliated with the United Nations organizations of FAO, UNICEF, UNESCO, and UNIFEM.
Nationally, the FWIC is concerned with issues of rural child care, farm safety, legal rights, fair pay, renewal and restructuring, literacy, health, stress on farm families, and financial planning.
Internationally, the ACWW supports programs with concerns such as nutrition, leadership training, farming techniques, money management, family planning, HIV/AIDS awareness, small business development and skill training. A program entitled Water for All Fund helps by providing water tanks, bore wells, hand pumps, education and training. It also supports programs that help improve health and hygiene.
More than one hundred years after the first Women’s Institute was formed, this institution continues in its endeavours to improve the lives of rural families.
Selected Publications and Links:
Witter, S. R. (1979). An historical study of adult education in two Canadian women’s organizations: The Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada and the Young Women’s Christian Assocation of Canada 1870 – 1978. [Unpublished thesis]. Vancouver: University of British Columbia.
Douglas, J. (Ed.). (1958) Modern pioneers for home and country 1909-1959. British Columbia: British Columbia’s Women’s Institute.
Kechnie, M. C. (2003). Organizing rural women, The Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario, 1897 – 1919. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
The Ridgedale Womens Institute. (1977). Wigwams to windmills. A history of Ridgedale and area. Abbotsford, BC: Author.
Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada – Retrieved March, 2005
BC Women’s Institutes – Retrieved March, 2005
Associated Country Women of the World – Retrieved March, 2005
C. M. Dirksen, March 2005