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"For Home and Country": The Founding of Canada's First Women's Institute

For the week of Monday February 19, 2007

Erland Lee
Erland Lee
© Erland Lee Museum
On February 19, 1897, following an inspired lecture by Adelaide Hunter Hoodless, the Women’s Institute of South Wentworth, Ontario, was founded. This Institute was duplicated in communities across Ontario and, later, across Canada. One Institute’s motto, “for home and country,” signified their belief in the importance of work in the home and community to the economy and welfare of the country.

Janet Lee
Janet Lee
© Erland Lee Museum
Erland Lee (1864-1926) was a proponent of Women’s Institutes. He invited Hoodless, a noted advocate of domestic science education for young women, to speak of the values of such education at a “ladies night” meeting of the Farmers’ Institute of Saltfleet County on February 12, 1897. Eight days later, Erland convinced Hoodless to give another lecture. At Squire’s Hall in front of an audience of 101 farmwomen, Hoodless delivered her usual speech on domestic reform, but added a proposal that a women’s institute be created on the model of the Farmers’ Institute. This Women’s Institute was the brainchild of Erland and his wife, Janet. When taken to a vote, the women were overwhelmingly supportive. Beyond being the primary male support behind its founding, Erland gained the Institute official status from the superintendent of the Farmers’ Institutes, which was under the auspices of the Ontario Department of Agriculture.

Erland’s wife, Janet (1862-1940) was also very involved. She was a member of the committee responsible for creating a constitution for the first Women’s Institute. Once the committee agreed on the contents of the constitution, Janet hand-penned the final draft. Janet’s involvement in the organization did not end there. She was among the first directors of the Stoney Creek Women’s Institute, and served as its president twice between 1898 and 1906.

5¢ Associated Country Women of the World stamp (1959), commemorating the creation of Women's Institutes in Canada and around the world
5¢ Associated Country Women of the World stamp (1959), commemorating the creation of Women's Institutes in Canada and around the world
© Canada Post Corporation {1959}. Reproduced with Permission.
After 1897, Women’s Institutes appeared throughout Canada. The organizations were deeply involved in social welfare initiatives in communities, including the establishment of community halls and libraries. Beyond these initiatives, Institutes provided women with educational and social opportunities. At the meetings, women heard lectures on a variety of topics, including cooking, horticulture and basic health care. The meetings and annual conventions provided women with the chance to meet and socialize not only with other women in their community, but also with women from across Canada. Such social opportunities helped to lessen the isolation that plagued rural women’s lives in the late 19th century.

Erland Lee (Museum) Home, the site where the constitution for the first Women’s Institute was signed, became a National Historic Site in 2002.

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