Women running farm homes a century ago could scarcely have imagined the clean, comfortable, and efficient homes of their daughters and granddaughters.
But they could envision a better quality of life, and today’s farm families owe a debt of gratitude to those women who fought for amenities such as electricity and running water, and encouraged their friends and neighbours to learn new skills to create a better life.
Their allies in that fight were the province’s first professional home economists, graduates of what were then called Home Economics Societies. Created by a provincial act in 1910, the societies (later renamed the Manitoba Women’s Institutes or WI) sent women educated at the Manitoba Agricultural College across the province to help rural families acquire a better lifestyle.
Proficient in all manner of home management skills, these first home economists opened the doors of education for many, with the training and resources they provided affectionately dubbed “the rural women’s university.”
Next weekend, hundreds of home economists will gather at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of human ecology to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their profession in the province. Among those gathering will be the authors of a soon-to-be-released book documenting the history of Manitoba’s extension home economists. The book was authored by former directors and specialists with the Manitoba Department of Agriculture (which took over responsibility for extension services from the agriculture college in 1926).
A Time In Our Lives: Empowering Women, Strengthening Families, Building Communitiesis both a chronological account of extension work by home economics over the past 100 years, and a collection of memoirs, says Betty Burwell, one of the book’s authors. Her recollections of extension work date back to the late 1950s and early 1960s while she served as the extension service’s program director.
CHANGE IN AGRICULTURE
Manitoba’s provincial extension program was essentially a needs-based education providing rural women with the resources they required to help their families adapt to rapidly changing times in agriculture, says Burwell.
“Women steadied the family through the changes that were taking place,” said Burwell.
A Time In Our Livesis a carefully researched account of the very earliest years of extension, which date back to 1872 when agricultural societies were first established. In 1910, the same year the Women’s Institutes were established, the Manitoba Agricultural College created a diploma course for young women, offering a wide array of training for anyone managing a demanding household – including clothing construction, laundering, food preparation and preservation, nutrition, food budgeting, home furnishings, minor household repairs, home nursing and personal hygiene.
Extens ion programming changed with the times. Sewing, food prep and preservation courses remained hugely popular throughout the decades, but by the 1960s, money management and financial record keeping were also emphasized, reflecting both the changing reality of farm life, and women’s expanding role in bookkeeping and records management on the farm.
The ’60s were also a decade in which many new farm homes were built, so a home design specialist was added to the extension team in 1959 in order to help families plan new kitchens and bathrooms, and incorporate office space into new homes.
Their programs “emphasized management of resources, consumer and business education, human behaviour and development” and provided women and girls “with an opportunity to increase their knowledge, develop skills and change attitudes and beliefs about themselves, their families and their environment,” Burwell writes inA Time In Our Lives.
But extension programs offered far more than just skills developments, says Gail Watson, also a former director and book co-author.
“We were part of the decade when the roles of women changed considerably from being the mom on the farm or in town, and primarily responsible for children,” she said.
While participating in sewing or cooking or food-handling programs, women were also building their intellectual resources, she said. They would talk about the issues of the day facing their communities, and about ways to tackle them.
“We called it ‘skills development’ then,” says Watson. “We would call it ‘capacity building’ today.”
The extension home economists also helped with the early 4-H programs, which began in Roland in 1913. They enjoy still hearing of “the youngsters” whose projects and speeches they once judged, retired extension workers say.
“When you look at some of the farm leaders in Manitoba, they came up through the 4-H program,” says Burwell. “You recognize the names.”
Some are their own sons and daughters as many of the home economists married local boys and remain in the communities they first worked in.
Known since 2005 as rural leadership specialists, or business development specialists, extension home economists have also left a legacy through their support of rural organizations, says Burwell.
“Will we be remembered? I think probably we will be,” she said. “I think we’ll be remembered by the women that we worked with.”
The centennial celebrations for the faculty of human ecology will be held Sept. 23-25, with three days of class reunions, tours, receptions, presentations and speakers planned.
A documentary on a century of home economics societies, WI and extension services will be shown. A rotating power-point presentation will highlight achievements of 100 “star grads” of the faculty.
“We’ve tried to create a program that will honour graduates’ history, celebrate their successes and imagine their future,” says anniversary events co-chair Elaine Adam.
For more information on the centennial events log on to:
www.umanitoba.ca/facul ties/human_ecology/centen nial/centennial. html.
duringwhichextensionhome economistsworkedthroughout ruralManitoba
The Memoirs OfA Time InOur Lives
A Time In Our Lives also contains lively recollections contributed by about 50 former extension home economists recalling everything from challenging working conditions to the people they met.
Finding a place to live in rural Manitoba was challenging in the 1950s….
“There were no apartment buildings or rooming houses and the residents were not accustomed to having boarders. The school teachers were all middle-aged women married in the community, as were the bank staff and store clerks. The whole town seemed very suspicious of a young woman moving into their community.”
Navigating country roads wasn’t easy either.
“Some of my funniest memories are of driving in the mud. One day I got on the wrong road and got stuck. The kind farmer who pulled me out said, ‘Nobody’s made it that far down the road in months!’”
The extension home economists brought new ideas with them. “Freezing of fruits and vegetables was a fairly new concept at the time and women were very interested.”
They were learning all the time too.
“I developed a lasting admiration and affection for rural women.”
Many recall amusing situations that arose. “And then there was the lady whose African violets grew so well. She was also a 4-H leader who wanted to serve us home brew for lunch on the day we were judging and would not take “no” for an answer. So we fed the violets every time she left the room.”