By George Siamandas
THE RISE OF THE WOMENS INSTITUTES
The idea had come from a woman named Adelaide Hunter Hoodless who had lost a child to the “summer complaint” or unsanitary milk. She helped form the first Women’s Institute in 1897 at Stoney Creek Ontario.
In Manitoba, they were founded in 1910 at Morris and these groups became a way women in rural areas could come together to meet and discuss common problems. A Mrs Finlay Mackenzie who had picked up the idea while visiting Ontario in 1909 started the Manitoba group. A request to premier Roblin resulted in provincial help. Supported by the provincial dept of Agriculture, they provided instruction on homemaking, motherhood and health concerns; things isolated and uneducated farm women did not know enough about.
Everyone has an aunt that needs to use the washroom every hour. In the early part of the century, travel for farm women was difficult because of the absence of toilets. Accordingly one of the first steps of the WI was to build toilets including the first at Delorraine in a private home and others within municipal buildings like at Birtle.
In 1913 the federal govt passed the Agricultural Instruction Act which greatly supported the ability of lecturers to go out to teach dressmaking, millinery and canning skills. Canning proved to be a very successful practise that had a push during the war years when supplies of wheat were short.
They became known as Home Economics Societies and helped with war relief making and sending off socks, pyjamas, sweaters and magazines and cigarettes. The Societies also became active in women’s rights and the suffragette movement and were a major force in 1916 pushing the govt to amend the Manitoba Dower Act.
Over time these groups spread to Britain and by 1933 were a worldwide organisation called the Associated Country Women of the World. In the mid twenties this activity saw rise to a University Extension service complete with newsletter offering courses in personal hygiene, home nursing, theory of foods, principles of cooking, laundry and sewing. But during the depression, the Women’s Institutes lost govt support and had to survive on their own. New classes were developed on thrift and mental health, and they promoted the idea of rural dental clinics.
During WW2 the women’s Institutes helped find homes for refuges and became advocates of rural electrification.
RURAL HISTORY AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPEMENT
The WI became active in recording local histories and in starting drama festivals. As early as 1949 they advocated the use of Lower Fort Garry as a museum.
They funded a study on the health needs of rural seniors and in 1958 renovated the old Memorial Hospital in Deloraine for a seniors residence. They also pushed for free glasses, wheel chairs and hearing aids. In 1960 they petitioned the provincial govt to build a home for retarded children.
They have been active in hot lunches in the schools, providing playground equipment, and maintaining child welfare centres. They have helped build community halls, established libraries and beautified towns and arranged relief work when disasters have struck. A plaque dedicated to the efforts of the WI hangs inside the legislative building commemorating the creative energy of rural Manitoba women who have enriched the lives of other Manitobans.