by Marianne E. Reid
John E. Robbins Library, Brandon University
Throughout the 20th century, the Women’s Institute (WI)—an organization of Canadian provenance—was ubiquitous and dynamic in Manitoba, throughout Canada, and around the world. The WI is a rural organization with a few locals in urban areas. Since its beginning in 1897, the WI’s motto has been “For Home and Country”, with a guiding principle “a nation could not rise above the level of its homes.” The organization has guided women on how to care for their families, homes, and communities; it has been a catalyst for social activism, political change, and social improvements. Its motto, guiding principles, and activities are marked indicators of a maternal feminist organization. 
Collective quilting. The promotion of mutually beneficial group activities such as quilting has long been a tenet of the Womens’s Institutes, as shown in this undated photo of some unidentified members of the Brandon WI.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon Women’s Institute 1-2006, Box 1, album.
The S. J. McKee Archives at Brandon University has eleven fonds of Women’s Institute textual records. These well-preserved primary sources rich in local history are close to three metres in extent with inclusive dates of 1914 to 2004. This span of ten decades can give researchers insights into life in southwestern Manitoba as it changed, into the adaptations taken by the WI as women’s perceptions of their role in society evolved, and into how the waves of feminism found expression among rural women.
Nine of the eleven fonds are for WI locals: Binscarth (1928–1988, predominantly 1928–1967), Brandon (1963–1992), Clanwilliam (1947–1977), Cordova (1961–1978), Crocus (1946–1984), Douglas (1950–2004), Minnedosa (1914–1981), Rathwell (1939–1966), and Strathclair (1942–1981). Most of the fonds contain minute books, annual reports, financial records, correspondence, members’ lists, miscellaneous newspaper and magazine clippings, and scrapbooks. The minutes and financial records are very detailed. Two of the fonds are for WI administrative bodies: Southwest A Region (1956–1989)  and Manitoba Women’s Institute collection (circa 1935 to 1980s).  Along with other documents, these contain lengthy runs of WI newsletters, of programs for conventions, and of WI handbooks in various editions.
The Minnedosa WI fonds illustrates many of the strengths of this fine collection. It begins in 1914 and ends in 1981, albeit with a broken run. The Minnedosa Home Economics Society formed on 11 November 1910 and was one of 17 charter locals in Manitoba. The name changed in 1919 to Minnedosa Women’s Institute when the delegates to the Manitoba provincial convention of the Home Economics Society voted to change their name to Women’s Institute.
The domestic priorities of women’s groups in the early 20th century can be deduced from documents such as this 1914 statement by the Minnedosa Home Economics Society listing its activities in the past year: cleaning and sewing, preserving and preparing food, providing prizes for the local fair, and tending to the education of local children. It maintained a Rest Room, said to be in “flourishing condition,” for the benefit of rural women and children in town for shopping and socializing. In this early time of the First World War, contributions had been made to the equipping of a hospital ship and the Soldiers Aid Society.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Minnedosa Women’s Institute Fonds.
The Manitoba government took a leading role in the activities of the WI, including the requirement of an annual report from each local. These annual report forms usefully contain a section on Special Work, which provides an indication of the wide range of concerns of the locals. For example, Minnedosa’s 1914 Special Work statement is: “The Rest Room is in a flourishing condition. A substantial contribution was given to the Hospital Ship. Also the Soldiers Aid Society. And the prize list for Summer Fairs revised.” For 1915, the statement is: “Assisted in organizing Boys and Girls Club. Formed a Hospital Aid. Interested in Red Cross work. Undertook management of Ladies and Children’s Departments affair.”
Because the Minnedosa fonds begins in 1914, it provides insight into the activities of the WI related to the Great War. For example, a minute from the 24 February 1916 minutes reads: “… that the President offer the use of the Rest Room in the evenings to the Soldier Boys as a place to read, play games, and enjoy themselves and to be under the supervision of the Red Cross.” Later, a minute from 27 April [1917?]: “12 ladies promised a dozen eggs each to be sent to French Red Cross”, raises the interesting question of how the eggs got to France!
Local histories, which often preserve information found nowhere else, can be found among the records of the Women’s Institutes, such as this map from the 1950s showing the region around Tanner’s Crossing, that later became the town of Minnedosa.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Minnedosa WI Fond 2-2002, Village History Scrapbook 1878-1956.
In an era when there was no system of rural libraries sponsored by the province, the WI locals helped to fill a vital cultural role in Manitoba. The initiative for lending libraries housed in the local Rest Room was launched in the 1930s. References to these can be found throughout the minutes of WI locals in the 1930s and 1940s. This is an example from the Binscarth minutes for 10 October 1931: “Mrs. Drew then gave a splendid report on the activities of the library, after discussion it was moved by Mrs. Lucas, Seconded by Mrs. Cooke that we purchase the 40 books from the Russell Institute at a cost of $3.50 for the Institute’s own library, which it is hoped will commence with the New Year.”
During the Second World War and after, the horizon of the WI returned to international matters. WI locals prepared packages for the enlisted men overseas, and raised “thousands of dollars for the Children’s War Service Fund, for air raid victims through the Queen Elizabeth Fund and for the Red Cross.”  The 14 January 1948 minutes of the Crocus WI provides an example of this activity: “Food parcels for Britain was then mentioned and all members agreed we should send more parcels to the people of Britain.”
Women’s Institute scrapbooks preserve rare glimpses in such forms as photographs of early pioneers, membership lists.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Minnedosa Women’s Institute fonds, scrapbook.
In the 1960s, topics that were formerly not spoken about, or addressed, were being discussed at the WI. In Binscarth in October 1962, the local took up the question of putting a sanitary napkin dispenser in the local high school and succeeded in doing so.
Other changes were also taking place affecting the WI. The Brandon WI fonds that begins in 1963 reflects the migration of farm families to urban areas. The first sentence on an insert attached to the fly leaf of the 1963–1969 minute book reads: “Brandon Women’s Institute was formed in 1963 by a number of ladies who had moved to Brandon, who had belonged to WI in country … they missed the WI.” In the 1970s, the effect of rural depopulation is noted directly in the Crocus WI scrapbook covering the period 1946 to 1974: “The closing of our rural school and the sale of the school building in 1964 removed one sphere of our interest, and a place to hold our larger meetings. … Our local children are now divided between Erickson and Minnedosa schools.”
By the 1980s, several of the WI locals had disbanded due to rural depopulation and to the movement of the younger women into the labour force. This is reflected in the S. J. McKee Archives fonds wherein only two of the fonds have records beyond 1989. However, the Manitoba Women’s Institute still exists; more information may be found at its website. 
Women’s Institutes such as the one at Minnedosa, organized in November 1910, received formal Certificates of Organization from the Manitoba Department of Agriculture and Immigration in 1922.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Minnedosa Women’s Institute Fonds.
One of the legacies of the WI is the abundance of local histories, thanks to the triennial national Lady Tweedsmuir Competition for local histories. Three notable examples are found in the Minnedosa WI fonds. The Minnedosa entry, “Our Village History”, was entered in the 1949 Tweedsmuir Competition and placed first in the Manitoba provincial competition and won honourable mention at the national level. Several other fonds also have scrapbooks and local histories; however, none is as elaborate as the three in the Minnedosa fonds.
Researchers may access detailed finding aids online for the WI fonds held at S. J. McKee Archives website using the keyword phrase “Women’s Institute.”  Each finding aid includes a general introduction to the WI’s history in Canada, its beginning in Manitoba, and an account of the origins, activities and lifecycle of the local. Researchers may also wish to consult the Archives of Manitoba, which has several fonds of WI papers, some dating from as early as 1910.
Some Women’s Institutes organized tours, such as this one to the nursery and arboretum of horticulturist Frank Skinner near Dropmore, in July 1951.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Crocus Women’s Institute Fonds 5-2002, Scrapbook.
I acknowledge Tom Mitchell for his useful suggestions for revisions to the original draft.
1. Maternal feminism is defined or viewed as “the idea that women are natural caregivers and ‘mothers of the nation’ who should participate in public life because of their perceived propensity for decisions that will result in good care of society” (Wikipedia).
2. This fonds holds material from various Women’s Institutes in the Southwest A Region.
3. This fonds has textual records from the Manitoba Women’s Institutes office and a miscellany of textual records from various branches.
4. “The Women’s Institutes of Manitoba”. Winnipeg: Manitoba Department of Cultural Affairs and Historical Resources, Historic Resources Branch. 1983. p. 6.
Cool Things in the Collection: For Home and Country, Reflections of the Great War on a Women’s Society by Marianne E. Reid
Manitoba History, Number 76, Fall 2014
Page revised: 4 November 2018