Women's Institute

W.I. A.W.

Cornwall Women's Institute 1924 (or '29) - Photo courtesy of Alice Wilson

Although the Women’s Institute was formed in Canada in 1911, it was not until two years later that the organization made its way to Prince Edward Island.  It was introduced by the Department of Agriculture “for the improvement of home and community life.” 1 The first Women’s Institute branch in the Cornwall area was created on April 7, 1913 and comprised three communities; Cornwall, York Point and Meadow Bank.2  The meeting took place in Cornwall and was attended by thirty people from the surrounding areas.  Mrs. H. McMillan chaired the meeting, which was supervised by Mrs. A.E. Dunbrack.  Mrs. Dunbrack was sent by the Department of Agriculture to assist with the process of establishing the Institute.3  That day the Cornwall branch was formed, taking in the three aforementioned communities.  The first president of the Cornwall Women’s Institute was Mrs. George MacDonald,4 who eventually went on to become the vice president of the national board.5  Miss Emma MacMillan was the first Secretary-Treasurer.6

 

A.W. W.I.The Women’s Institute quickly became an active force in the community.  The women wasted no time in contributing to the local schools.  The school visitor sang the praises of the women’s contribution to the schools in his annual report for 1913. “The advent of the Women’s Institutes into a field of school work cannot but be productive of good results.  Already they have effected many material improvements in the schools within their spheres of action.  The efforts of the ladies of the New Haven, Clyde River, Meadow Bank, York, Cornwall and Marshfield Institutes in this direction are commendable, and I take this opportunity of thanking them for the good work they have done.”7   The women provided supplies and support to the schools; they also helped clean the school in preparation for each new school year. (Cornwall W.I. 1939 - photo courtesy of Alice Wilson)

 

 

A.W.W.IThe Women’s Institute became involved in every aspect of the community.  Members made many contributions to the war by knitting and sewing home-made items for the men overseas.  They took responsibility for operating the Cornwall Hall, they hosted suppers and bridal showers for members of the community and even petitioned the government for community improvements.  In later years the women also visited the sick and shut-ins, donated items to school libraries, provided gifts to those in the hospital, raised money for many various charities, participated in road-side clean-ups, assisted at blood donor clinics, etc.  You name it, the Women’s Institute did it. (Cornwall W.I. 1937 - photo courtesy of Alice Wilson)

 

 

A.G.W.I.A very short time after the creation of the Cornwall/Meadow Bank/York Point branch, the group decided to split.  Meadow Bank created their own branch and held their first meeting at the Meadow Bank School on May 3, 1913.   Mrs. Wm. Crosby was elected as the first President while, Mrs. Charles McLean was elected Vice President and Mrs. M.E. Roper was elected Secretary.9  The Meadow Bank branch met monthly for the first number of years at the Meadow Bank School and later held their meetings in the homes of the members.10   Although the Cornwall branch disbanded a number of years ago due to declining numbers, the Meadow Bank branch is still active and currently has a membership of roughly fourteen. (Cornwall W.I. photo courtesy of Audrey Godfrey)

 

 

 

A.G.W.I.

In 1955, the Cornwall/York Point Women’s Institute split into two separate branches due to increasing numbers.  The main goal of the newly formed York Point branch was to contribute to the York Point School and 4-H.11  Like the other Women’s Institute branches, the women of the York Point Women’s Institute branch contributed to all aspects of the community.  They kept very busy during the war years, preparing home-made goods for the boys overseas.  They provided for the school, sponsored garden and calf clubs, were involved with 4-H and Red Cross, they also visited the sick and shut-ins and provided gifts to new babies and contributed to charities.  The women also created a swimming and water safety program which operated for twenty years.  In 1973, the women of the York Point branch purchased the York Point School and converted it into a community centre.  During the 1970’s and 80’s the centre housed various different groups such day care groups, Brownies, Beavers, W.I., C.I.C. and hockey teams.  The branch raised funds through community events, banquets, bake sales and the like.12  Although the former school/community centre is no longer operational, the Women’s Institute branch is still active with roughly eleven members. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Godfrey)

 

E.M.W.I.A North River Women’s Institute branch including the communities of Warren Grove and East Wiltshire was also created in 1913.  The founding women, numbering less than a dozen, met in early July at the East Wiltshire School-house.  The branch was formed under the direction of Miss James.  Mrs. Frank Howard was elected President, Mrs. Oliver Warren as Vice President, and Mrs. Vickerson as Secretary-Treasurer.13  Originally named Harmony, the group later decided to change the name to North River.14  This branch was involved with many of the same activities as the other branches.  They created care packages for the soldiers during the war, instructed young brides about home making, cared for parks and the community centre, donated to charities, volunteered their time to various different events, knitted quilts and clothing to families in need, celebrated milestones within the community, sponsored the Red Cross and provided swimming lessons, etc.15 (photo courtesy of Eleanor MacEachern - York Point W.I. 1958)

 

Lowther W.I.In all branches of the Women’s Institute, the Women celebrate Life Members.  Life Members are those women who have dedicated years of service to the organization.  Although the numbers in recent years have declined significantly, there are still approximately 100 branches on Prince Edward Island, with a total membership of approximately 1300.16  The mandate of the W.I. is, “Women being a voice, taking action and creating change in PEI communities.”17  The Institute has four guiding principles which are;
* We will focus on women, home and family
* We believe in a culture of collaboration and sharing
* We will strive to protect our environment
* We believe that through education, leadership and goodwill, we can build stronger communities.18 (photo courtesy of Lance and Phyllis Lowther)
 

 Those who may know any members of the W.I. can see that these women live out the four principles to the fullest.  They display an almost un-ending amount of compassion and care for their community.  When looking back at the plethora of contributions the members have made over the years, one cannot help but think that these women were a huge factor in establishing gender equality over the years.  They performed what duties they were allowed to have in an exemplary fashion and demonstrated not only to themselves but to the society as a whole that their contributions were significant and needed.   Take for example the following entry in the school visitors report for the year ending in 1914. - “In my last report I took occasion to refer in terms of praise to the excellent work which the Women’s Institutes of this province were doing on behalf of the schools.  Since that time other Institutes have been organized and almost without exception they likewise have at once interested themselves in school improvements paying particular attention to the equipment, cleanliness and general sanitary conditions of the schoolhouse and school surroundings, and extending their sympathy, encouragement and support to the teachers.  In view of the helpful interest taken by the women in the work of the schools and as a means of still further utilizing that interest, I again recommend that the School Act be amended so as to give to all women who have children of school age the right to vote in their respective districts at all school meetings.”19

Even after one year of its inception the Women’s Institute was assisting not only the community but those women who were dedicated to fulfilling its mandate.  Thanks to the women of the W.I., the role women play in society has become more recognizable and appreciated.

W.I. Lowther

Members of the Cornwall W.I. dressed in clothing from the past - Photo courtesy of Lance and Phyllis Lowther

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