“We have to start discussing how we are going to move into this second century.”
– ENID CLARK, MANITOBA WOMEN’S INSTITUTE PRESIDENT
ABenito Wome n’s Institute member rose from her chair one day in 1947 to voice her worries.
While putting her team of horses away for the day, she’d spotted a woman changing a baby’s diaper in the town livery stable. The woman had nowhere else to look after the child.
In the first half of the last century, a rural woman accompanying her husband on a trip to town often had nowhere to go while he transacted business at the bank, blacksmith shop and beer parlour.
Instead, she would wander by herself along the street, frequently with small children in tow, with nowhere to sit. In latter years, she’d stay in the farm truck.
Her lonely predicament might have gone unnoticed. But women’s institute members could see her. And they did something to help.
The Benito WI, that long-ago February day, resolved to build a “rest room.”
It was a postwar example of what would be about 60 such places established by women’s institutes during the years between 1910 and 1950, “for the rest purposes of ladies and children from out of town.”
Donna Norell, author of an article published in The Manitoba Historical Society, notes how the rest room came to be dubbed “the most humane institution in all the village,” a progressive idea for an era when most civic infrastructure accommodated mainly the comings and goings of men.
But rest rooms weren’t always viewed in that light. “Local WIs frequently had to fight to provide rest rooms, since early efforts to promote them were not without opposition,” Norell writes.
The rural “rest room,” is one of the most vivid symbols of the women’s institute movement in Manitoba, which began in this province in 1910.
The WI celebrates its 100th anniversary this spring in the town of its birthplace – Morris, Manitoba.
The event promises to be a grand gathering of ladies with long memories spanning decades of identifying and advocating many more needs of rural families and communities.
Many things now taken for granted resulted from persistent lobbying by WI members of the political leaders of their day.
Rose Kieper, a Silverton WI member, says one of their local’s most senior members can recall when they were pressuring their rural municipality to start paying for the new library at Russell through taxes so country people didn’t have to pay a user fee.
“She often speaks of that,” says Kieper, adding that many rural libraries exist today specifically because WI pushed for them.
The WI’s 100 years of advocacy and social action leaves a vast legacy that spans many areas of strengthening rural communities, including advances in health care and education, equity under the law for women, and supports and resources for farmers and their families.
WIs have supported the International Peace Garden through fundraising since the 1930s.
Three decades of Dugald Women’s Institute efforts to create a vast collection of historical clothing led to the 1983 opening of the Dugald Costume Museum. Today its the Costume Museum of Canada relocated in Winnipeg.
Over the years, thousands of women have become involved in local WI groups, with their “for home and country” motto. Many have stayed members since their locals were established decades ago.
Today, with around 500 women still involved throughout the five regions province-wide, the WI remains resolved to carry on their work.
But rural society is a much-changed place in a century, and not the place collectively envisioned and worked for by WI.
Instead, precipitous population losses have occurred, with corresponding school and post offices closures and declining services. Main streets are quieter than the days of the rest room.
“The biggest thing is how the communities have changed,” says MWI president Enid Clark, a retired nurse and farmer at Newdale. “Rural businesses in small towns are practically disappearing one a day, and the population is decreasing because farms are larger. People are leaving to go to find jobs because there aren’t jobs left in those small communities. I think that is the biggest concern that WI would have right now.”
Thinner populations also make it tough to keep the ranks of their organization strong, she continues, especially with so many rural women today working outside the home.
Convincing a younger generation of the relevance of a rural women’s organization can still have on their lives, and finding ways to harness their input is WI’s biggest challenge ahead, says Clark.
“We are going to have to redefine ourselves,” she says. “We have to start discussing how we are going to move into this second century.”
A name change might be a start, she continues. The word “institute” may have to go. “The immediate thought that comes to a person’s mind now is ‘institution.’ Or else it’s ‘old – old ladies who just sit and drink tea.’”
It’s been Manitoba Women’s Institute since 1918. Before that they were Home Economics Societies. They began in 1910 as Household Sciences Associations.
The women’s institute history is closely tied to that of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of human ecology, also founded in 1910 and also marking its 100th anniversary with celebrations in September.
MWI’s birthday bash will be held at their spring convention May 13 to 14.
Highlights of the two-day event include a special dinner with guest speaker Honourable Flora MacDonald and other invited dignitaries and a fashion show featuring resources of the Costume Museum of Canada.
Manitoba forestry officials will present every attending MWI member with a tree seedling to be planted wherever they live, and registered as a heritage tree with Manitoba Forestry Association’s Heritage Tree program.
Each February 19 the province declares Manitoba Women’s Institute Day.
The Manitoba Women’s Institute can be reached at: 1129 Queens Avenue Brandon, Manitoba R7A 1L9
Phone: (204) 945-8976 Fax: (204) 328-5294 Email: [email protected]