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Margaret Watt Unites Rural Women

For the week of Monday November 24, 2014

On November 29, 1948, Margaret “Madge” Robertson Watt passed away in Montréal, Québec, after founding organizations that improved the lives of rural women in Canada, Great Britain, and elsewhere around the world.

Margaret “Madge” Robertson Watt
© British Columbia Women’s Institute
Watt was born in 1868 in Collingwood, Ontario, and was the first woman to earn a master's degree from the University of Toronto. She became editor of Toronto’s Ladies Pictorial Weekly, a position then rarely held by women, and wrote for widely read newspapers such as the New York Evening Post. In 1893, she married her school sweetheart, Dr. Alfred Watt, and moved to British Columbia where she became involved with Women’s Institutes as a founding member of the Metchosin branch.

Women’s Institutes were established in Ontario in 1897 at a time when the provincial government was concerned about rural depopulation. They were based on the Farmers’ Institutes, which hosted educational lectures to increase farmers’ appreciation of country life. Initially, Women’s Institutes focused on teaching domestic and agricultural skills. However, they soon expanded their activities to include social reforms and community projects such as supporting women’s property rights, improving hygiene practices, and building local meeting halls. The organization spread across Canada, as women like Margaret Watt created local institutes.

Margaret Watt at the 1933 conference in Stockholm, Sweden, where the ACWW adopted its present form. The blackboard says “Associated Country Women of the World” in four languages.
© Associated Country Women of the World

When her husband died in 1913, Watt moved to England with their two sons. As the First World War (1914-18) began, she realized that Women’s Institutes, a Canadian innovation, could benefit the British people. Working for the British Department of Agriculture, she set up more than 300 institutes in England and Wales, whose first success was increasing domestic wartime food production.

After the war, she promoted the creation of an international organization that would connect rural women all over the world. This vision became a reality when Margaret Watt, Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, and Elsie Zimmern hosted the first International Conference of Rural Women in 1929, and then formed the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW) four years later. Watt served as its first president until 1947 and toured extensively to popularize it. Today, women of the ACWW continue to share their knowledge and support social causes.

In recognition of these efforts, Margaret “Madge” Robertson Watt was designated a national historic person. Canada’s First Women’s Institute is a national historic event.

To learn more about the establishment of Canadian Women’s Institutes, please see The First Women’s Institute and “For Home and Country”: The Founding of Canada’s First Women’s Institute. Read about another co-founder of the ACWW, The “Governess General” of Canada, in the This Week in History archives.

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