Author: Andrea Gal

Publication Date: 2009 

Edited: 2022



Historic Guelph V48P50

This postcard shouts the Macdonald Institute (Ieft) and Hall (right) on the Ontario Agricultural College campus.

(Image courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archives, Macdonald Institute and Hall, circa 1900 (C6-0000731)).


The Women's Institute (WI) began as a farm women's organization, inaugurated in Saltfleet, Ontario in 1897. The mythology of the founding of the Institute is directly connected to Adelaide Hoodless and the early history of Macdonald Institute in Guelph, Ontario. In 1889, Hoodless' 14-month old son died from contaminated milk and this devastated mother believed that his death could have been prevented if she had been properly educated for homemaking.1 Hoodless became focused on the need for education suiting the contemporary roles of males and females and she launched, "A crusade for domestic science for women throughout Canada."2 The domestic science movement, which has parallels with the progressive farming movement of the Farmers' Institutes, was interested in teaching women how to more efficiently run a home with scientific methods.3 Erland Lee, who was associated with the Farmers' Institutes of Ontario, heard one of Hoodless's speeches in Guelph and invited her to speak with women in Stoney Creek on February 19, 1897. The women in attendance decided to form an organization which came to be known as the 'Stoney Creek Women's Institute.'4


Initially associated with the Farmers' Institutes, it was believed by WI leadership that "[W]hat the Farmers' Institutes have done for the farmers and the farms, Women's Institutes can do for the home through the instrumentality of wives and daughters."5 While the Farmers' Institutes focused on uplifting farming practices, the WI focused on uplifting the lifestyle in the home.


From the founding of the WI then, a central focus has been the development of education for rural women, such as the domestic science espoused by Hoodless. The forms of education available to members varied widely from informal discussions, to the presentation of research papers, to demonstrations, lecture courses offered by the Ontario Department of Agriculture, and even to formal courses offered by the Macdonald Institute at the Ontario Agricultural College (O.A.C.) in Guelph. Members were constrained in access to, and the type of information available through the formal education offered because of the leadership's conservative bias in regard to the role of women. However, the members asserted their agency in the development of relevant education at the branch meetings and they developed self-confidence through this program of learning. Despite the limitations due to the conservative leadership, the WI branch-level meetings helped women gain the confidence and knowledge necessary for the acquisition of the federal vote in 1918. Women studied topics that conflicted with the conservative mindset of the leadership, as will be illustrated in the discussion of agricultural concerns and the suffrage issue. The study of the branch level also illustrates the development of leadership capabilities in the 'typical' member, rather than just the middle-class leadership.


Both Adelaide Hoodless and the WI have been the subjects of a conflicting historical scrutiny by the membership and academics. The desire on the part of WI members for a founder in the organizational myth has led to an exaggeration of the influence of Hoodless in the formation of the WI.6 In contrast, historians such as Terry Crowley have argued that Adelaide Hoodless played less of a foundational role than was originally conceived. Hoodless remained largely a symbolic figurehead, with her involvement, "Limited to public events such as the all-important foundation meeting," and as Honorary President of the Saltfleet Women's Institute.7


'Grassroots' leadership was critical to the success of the WI. The women were expected to contribute to their own education both through the preparation and presentation of papers and through the sharing of information gathered from their own experiences in the home and on the farm. George A. Putnam, the Superintendent of the WI, argued that,


"[T]he extent and strength of the institute is due largely to the fact that local talent has been unearthed, developed, and used in the local organization."8


This sharing of education from personal experiences was a significant aspect of meetings at the branch level. Often, the roll call would be answered at the monthly meetings with practical advice or tips on a given subject. This simple inclusion of roll call 'topics' allowed members to participate in a small way at every meeting and allowed for the sharing of information derived from personal experiences. The topics of papers presented by members varied widely, with the 1917 Drayton WI meetings including topics such as: 'Home and Street Sanitation,' 'Power of Thought [sic],' 'Outside Problems,' 'Legal Rights of Canadian Women [sic],' and 'What a Woman Can Do [sic].'9 These papers illustrate that members at the branch level demonstrated considerable self-determination when choosing topics. The women did not limit themselves to a discussion of practical housekeeping issues; rather they used the meetings to broaden the scope of issues to consider.


The participation in meetings and the preparation and presentation of papers also helped the women develop self-confidence in their abilities as wives, mothers, and members of a farm women's organization. The process of this development can be seen in the introductions to some of the papers presented by members. For example, Miss Marion S. Hill of Guelph told her 1914 audience that, "I am just a practical poultry woman, so [consequently I] will ask you to overlook my shortcomings as a speaker."10 Despite acknowledging her potential weaknesses as a public speaker, Hill recognized that she had valuable information to share, based on her experiences with raising chickens.


Historic Guelph V48P53

Image appears courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives, Macdonald Institute, ca. 1910 (C6-0000529).


Members sometimes even tackled subjects that had been covered previously by male guest speakers. In "Bee-Keeping for Women, " Miss Ethel Robson of Ilderton acknowledged that she was building on, "The article by Mr. Morley Pettit, Provincial Apiarist, O.A.C., Guelph, on 'Bee-Keeping for Women.'"11 Evidently, Robson believed that her practical experiences were of value, even in light of an address by the Provincial Apiarist since she said, "[M]y qualifications for the task are that I have kept bees with at least enough success to prove that a woman can run an apiary."12 By sharing her experiences, Robson set herself up as an example to the other members that it was a plausible undertaking for women and girls who had, "A fair share of grit."13


Another key source of education for the WI members was the demonstration lectures, organized through the collaboration of the local WI branch and the Ontario Department of Agriculture. At the 1911 Annual Convention, Miss M. U. Watson, the principal of the Macdonald Institute, addressed the issue of demonstration lectures, and reminded the attendees of the question that had been raised at other conventions: "Is it not possible to have a teacher sent out to give a whole series of lessons in one place?14 Haldimand County was used as the test locale and, according to a participant, "Some of the ladies walked four miles to the meeting," illustrating the interest and enthusiasm of the women to attend.15 The aim was to make the courses accessible to both the future housekeeper, and the 'contemporary' housekeeper, illustrating Crowley's argument that the WI played a central role in the development of continuing education for women in Canada.16 By the 1913 Convention, demonstration lectures were offered to approximately 50 branches.17


Historic Guelph V48P54

This photograph shows the Macdonald Institute on the campus of the Ontario
Agricultural College.

(Image courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archives, Macdonald Institute, 1914 (C6-0000524).


The courses were of practical benefit to those who had the opportunity to participate. In keeping with their focus on 'For Home and Country,' the first courses offered centered on cooking and sewing. Accordingly, the cooking courses taught participants how to make, "Plain serviceable dishes."18 Branches chose the classes that were of interest to them, as evidenced by the lack of interest in a home nursing course and a preference for cooking and sewing classes.19 There were limitations, however, in the feasibility and availability of the demonstration lectures. The relative isolation of some of the WI branches limited the extent of the services they could receive from the Department of Agriculture. Problems relating to transportation, and the associated costs, continued into at least the 1940s for some branches.


If travel expenses were overcome, the branches could also face issues in securing a location and the necessary resources for the demonstration lectures. The branch was responsible for securing the appropriate number of participants, collecting the fees, and securing the necessary equipment (e.g., tables, stoves, and sewing machines).20 The lecturers' expectations did not incorporate the differences in situations between the branches; the size and prosperity of the branch would influence the number and quality of sewing machines available for the sewing demonstration lecture. Thus, there was some disconnect between the demonstration lecturer and the participants in the courses, which could lead to tension and misunderstanding regarding the interest of the participants. Putnam also argued for balance between the sharing of information between individual branch members and the systematic instruction from the demonstration lecturers. This mediator role between 'scientifically trained' and 'practically trained' housekeeper suggests some tension between the two positions and 'types' of education.21


The Macdonald Institute, which opened in 1903 at the O.A.C. in Guelph, was another formal source of education available to WI members and their daughters.22 It was a school for women that taught domestic science and nature studies. The popular beliefs surrounding the origins of the Macdonald Institute place Adelaide Hoodless in a key role in its establishment where she was said to, "Judiciously [impress] upon Sir William [Macdonald] the importance of training our girls in Home Economics."23


However, later she became 'disconnected' from the school, as evidenced by the cancellation of her course on ethics. In her push for the reincorporation of her class into the program, she argued that her continued, "Direct association with the school," would be beneficial in keeping the other staff, "In touch with what [was] going on in other fields."24 The principal of the school, Mary Urie Watson, allowed Hoodless to resume her former position for the duration of her life, but it was clear that Hoodless was not as influential as she had originally thought herself to be.25


Contemporary rural Ontario recognized that entrance into a program at the Macdonald Institute was not easily attained by farmers' daughters.26 The Degree Course, which took four years to complete, required "Grade XIII- nine papers: two English, two of a second language, two Mathematics, two Science (Chemistry [and] one other paper)." The year-long Diploma Course required girls to be, "17 years of age," and to, "Have successfully completed two years of high school work."28 The associated costs for the program were around 800 dollars per year.29 Thus, the girls had significant barriers to overcome for admission into the school. Farm daughters would have to meet the educational requirements and convince their fathers to give them the money and the time away from work on the farm and in the farmhouse. No wonder, there was only a, "Modest enrollment of farm daughters."30


There were also tensions, at least in the early years, about whether the Macdonald Institute should be educating farm daughters or educating rural teachers in nature study and home economics. The emphasis varied according to source and, seemingly according to the target audience. Dr. G. C. Creelman, who was actively involved in the WI because of his role as Superintendent of the Farmers' Institute, asked,


"[C]an you blame me if town and city girls... make application for entrance into Macdonald Institute classes, where the farm girls are not in sufficient large numbers to take up these rooms; can you blame me for letting them come?"31


In contrast, Miss M. U. Watson said the Macdonald Institute had,


"A regulation which [gave] the preference to the farmer's daughter to within sixty days of the opening of the term, and... within the last three terms in connection with the non-professional classes, farmers' daughters have practically crowded out the other girls."32


Watson's address was printed three years later and points to a radical shift towards a focus on making the program accessible to farm daughters. Of course, the applicants still had to overcome all of the aforementioned challenges.


Despite the limitations for entrance into the Macdonald Institute, the school provided other services that were accessible to WI members, such as assistance in researching papers. WI members were invited to write to the school and request information, especially along the lines of housekeeping difficulties.33 The women were asked to give the Macdonald Institute at least two weeks' notice, and, "Very few failed to give [the Institute] time enough to send out their material."34 At the 1910 Annual Convention, for example, Watson said that during the previous year, 350 letters had been received with requests for information, and about 260, "Of these letters got help in some form or another."35 Thus, the Macdonald Institute was an accessible source of information for the WI members in the preparation of papers for monthly meetings. Miss M. U. Watson even expressed a willingness to send magazine articles which could be read at meetings to elicit discussion.36 This offer provided an alternative for members who did not have the time to fully research and prepare a paper, since it still allowed them to learn and participate in the meetings.


Historic Guelph V48P57

Image courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archives, Macdonald Institute, [19 -?] (F38-050026).


Although the WI was initially seen as a source of education for farmers' wives, the conservative leadership tried to present an (artificial) separation of the farm and the farmhouse. The leadership focused on domestic science as the solution to economic problems, rather than recognizing the necessity of women's economic contributions to the family income.37 This attempted split between the farm and the farmhouse is most clearly seen in the writings of Miss Laura Rose, a WI lecturer, on dairying. In "A Plea for Better Dairy Equipment on the Farm," Rose spoke of the differences in the quality of equipment and appliances for the men and the women in the home, in the dairy and on the farm. She concluded, "This is largely the women's own fault that they have not better equipped kitchens and dairies," explaining that women focus instead on saving money. Although she tried to soften her blame of the women by acknowledging that this collection of supplies could be a gradual process, the paper shows Rose's disconnect with the conditions on the farm for many families.39 Survival of the family farm was often dependent on the 'Barn First School of Farming' strategy, which meant that technological advances were deemed more important for the farm and the 'heavier' work undertaken by men.40 Consequently, women's abilities to acquire such labour-saving devices were dependent on the decisions of their husbands, who often had little understanding of the use of or need for the devices.41 By placing the blame on the farm women themselves, Rose underscored her lack of knowledge surrounding the realities of daily existence on a family farm.


During the First World War, the conservative bias of the leadership also remained. The work of the WI transitioned to wartime contributions, where conserving on the home front was seen to be essential. According to Putnam, the WI gave, "Considerable attention to thrift," such as Miss Gussie Nercher's paper on, "Economy in the Home," presented at the February 1917 Drayton WI meeting.42 However, Putnam also made it clear that the involvement of the WI in fundraising for, "Patriotic work," was only meant to be temporary.43 Thus, while the women were commended for their efforts and encouraged to continue contributions to the war effort, their superintendent retained the conservative view that members needed to keep sight of, "The original objects of the institutes."44 Although the women were indeed branching into 'new' areas with their involvement in organizations such as the Red Cross, Putnam's concern was largely unfounded because many of the activities can be seen as an extension of the domestic science movement.


Since women were able to exercise discretion and agency when planning their monthly branch meetings, members were able to discuss aspects of women's roles in regards to the war that were not necessarily congruous with the conservative concerns of the leadership. For example, at the Drayton WI meeting on Saturday August 23, 1919, a paper was read:


"By Louise McHuney [sic] our first Canadian woman member of parliament who talk[ed] on the question of whether women will be willing to go back to the positions they had before the war and let the men have their places again or if the women will hold their vantage ground."45


This discussion implicitly recognized the prevailing belief that women's wartime contributions were only temporary, and would necessarily end when the men returned from war. The paper also acknowledged that women had made gains through their participation on the home front and illustrated that they would not necessarily be willing to return to the pre-First World War ideal that women's concerns were largely domestic. Although probably unintended by the WI leadership, the branch meetings allowed women to discuss varying concepts of a woman's role during the war, and whether or not such roles should continue after the war's end.


Another topic of increasing concern during the First World War was suffrage. Leadership declared the topic, "Off-limits," for discussion at WI meetings because of a desire to keep the organization non-sectarian and non-partisan. Significantly, at least some women were interested in pursuing the topic, as evidenced by the request at the 1915 Annual Convention for WI involvement in, "That great missionary movement 'The Suffrage."'46 Across the province, women were preparing themselves for the time when they would gain the right to vote in ways that were in keeping with the educational program of the WI. Members were becoming more involved in the local community, and they covered a wide range of subjects at the meetings. The papers and subsequent discussions gave women the opportunity to consider conflicting positions and to determine which they found more applicable. Thus, the WI was indirectly, and sometimes even directly, a resource for educating women in preparation for the time when the right to vote in the federal election was extended to all women over 21 in 1918.47


As the example of suffrage shows, there were at times considerable gaps between how the leadership conceptualized the WI and how the members used their branch meetings. The more formal types of education offered to members were beneficial for those who could access them, but often reflected the conservative mindset of the leadership, such as the issues of accessibility relating to the first demonstration lectures on sewing and cooking. Similarly, the Macdonald Institute was largely inaccessible to the average farm daughter because of the strict entrance requirements and associated fees. The strength of the WI as an educational tool, could be found at the branch level; where, members had autonomy in choosing topics for papers and discussions. Members gained self-confidence through presenting papers and sharing knowledge gleaned from personal experiences. Thus, the branch meetings were the most effective means of education for rural women in Ontario. These educational aspects of branch-level meetings may be one of the reasons for the continued world-wide existence of the WI.



  1. Linda M. Ambrose, Women's Institutes in Canda: The First One Hundred Years (Gloucester, Ontario: Tri-Co Printing, 2000), p. 3.
  2. Ambrose, Women's Institutes in Canada, p. 3.
  3. Monda Halpern, And On That Farm He Had A Wife: Ontario Farm Women and Feminism, 1900-1970 (Kingston: McGill-Queen's, 2003), p. 53.
  4. Ambrose, Women's Institutes in Canada, p. 4.
  5. Women's Institutes from the Report of the Superintendent of Farmers' Institutes from the Province of Ontario, 1900, (Toronto: L. K. Cameron, 1900), p. 4.
  6. Terry Crowley, "The Origins of Continuing Education for Women: The Ontario Women's Institutes," Canadian Womens' Studies Vol. 7 (Fall 1997): p. 19.
  7. Linda M. Ambrose, For Home and Country: The Centennial History of the Women's Institutes of Ontario, (Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 1996), p. 20; Ruth Howes, Adelaide Hoodless: Woman With a Vision, (Federated Women's Institutes of Canada, 1965), p. 13.
  8. Geo. A. Putnam, "Report of Superintendent," Report of the Womens' Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1915, (Toronto: A. T. Wilgress, 1916), p. 122.
  9. January 27, 1917 to November 29, 1917, Drayton Women's Institute Minutes.
  10. Miss Marion S. Hill, "Rural Industries for Women - Poultry-Raising," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1914, (Toronto: L. K. Cameron, 1915), p. 130.
  11. Miss Ethel Robson, "Bee-Keeping for Women," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1911, p. 123.
  12. Robson, "Bee-Keeping for Women," p. 123.
  13. Robson, "Bee-Keeping for Women," p. 123.
  14. Miss M. U. Watson, "Demonstration Lecture Course," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1912, (Toronto: L. K. Cameron, 1912), p. 13.
  15. Mrs. Wm. Thomson, "Demonstration Lecture Course," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1912, p. 16.
  16. Crowley, "The Origins of Continuing Education for Women," p. 18.
  17. Mrs. L. A. Hamilton, "Committee on Resolutions," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1912, p. 19; Geo. A. Putnam, "Annual Report " Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1913, (Toronto: L. K. Cameron, 1913), p. 26.
  18. Gertrude Gray, "Courses in Food and Cooking," in "Demonstration Lectures in Domestic Science, Cooking, Sewing, and Home Nursing." Ontario Department of Agriculture Bulletin Vol. 215 (Toronto: Department of Agriculture, 1913), p. 13.
  19. Geo. A. Putnam, "Annual Report," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1913, p. 26.
  20. Geo. A. Putnam, "Appendix: Announcement of Demonstration-Lecture Courses, 1917-1918," in Chapman, "War Breads," p. 12-13.
  21. Putnam, "Annual Report," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1913, p. 27.
  22. James G. Snell, Macdonald Institute: Remembering the Past, Embracing the Future, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2003), p. 11-12.
  23. Report of the President, 1901, Adelaide Hoodless Family Papers,
    University of Guelph Archival and Special Collections, p. 1.
  24. Letter from Mrs. Hoodless to Mr. Creelman, p. 2.
  25. Crowley, "Madonnas before Magdalenes," p. 545.
  26. Halpern, p. 13.
  27. "Plan to be a Home Economist," Correspondence and Other Documents Relating to the Establishment of Macdonald Institute, 1902-1904, University of Guelph Archival and Special Collections.
  28. "Plan to be a Home Economist."
  29. "Plan to be a Home Economist."
  30. Halpern, p. 13.
  31. G. C. Creelman, "Address of Welcome," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1909, p. 13.
  32. Miss M. U. Watson, Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1912, p. 41.
  33. Ontario Department of Agriculture, Women's Institute Branch, 1910, (Toronto: The Department, 1910), p. 5.
  34. Miss M. U. Watson, "What the Macdonald Institute is Prepared to do for the Women's Institute," Report of the Province of Ontario, 1910, (Toronto: L. K. Cameron, 1910), p. 57.
  35. Watson, "What the Macdonald Institute is Prepared to do for the Women's Institute," p. 57.
  36. Miss M. U. Watson, "What can Macdonald Institute do to Help the Women's Institute," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1909, p. 49.
  37. Margaret C. Kechnie, Organizing Rural Women: The Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario, 1897 -1919, (Kingston: McGill-Queen's, 2003), p. 93.
  38. Miss Laura Rose, "A Plea for Better Dairying Equipment on the Farm," Women's Institutes from the Report of the Superintendent of Farmers' Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1900, p. 28.
  39. Rose, "A Plea," p. 28.
  40. Halpern, p. 33.
  41. Halpern, p. 33.
  42. Geo. A. Putnam, "Announcement of Superintendent," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1915, p. 10; "February 24, 1917," Drayton Women's Institute Minutes.
  43. Geo. A. Putnam, "Report of the Superintendent," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1915, p. 13.
  44. Putnam, "Report of the Superintendent," p. 13.
  45. "Saturday August 23, 1919," Drayton Women's Institute Minutes.
  46. "Question Drawer," Report of the Women's Institutes of the Province of Ontario, 1915, p. 12.
  47. Veronica Strong-Boag, "Women's Suffrage in Canada," The Canadian Encyclopedia,  [updated May 17, 2022]. Original 2009 article by Susan Jackel.