The Women’s Institute (WI) is an organization most often associated with the UK, but as I recently (and very patriotically) explained to a friend over dinner, the WI is a wholly Canadian creation, which came into being in Stoney Creek, just down the road from St. Catharines.
On February 19, 1897, activist and domestic education crusader Adelaide Hunter Hoodless spoke at a ladies’ night meeting of the South Wentworth Farmer’s Institute. Invited to speak by Erland Lee, a founding member of the Institute, Hoodless suggested that women should have an institute of their own – contending that the same level of science should be applied to the care of children and household as was applied to planting and tending crops. A follow-up meeting to discuss this proposal was arranged by Lee and Adelaide was invited to speak again. In the days leading up to the February 26 meeting, Erland and his wife, Janet travelled throughout Saltfleet Township (now Stoney Creek), calling on women to invite them out the upcoming meeting – in the dead of winter, no less. One hundred and one women and one man – Erland Lee – met at Squires Hall in Stoney Creek for the first meeting of what would become the Women’s Institute. At this inaugural meeting, Adelaide Hunter Hoodless was made the honourary president, while Mrs. E.D. Smith was elected President and Janet Lee made a Director.
The Women’s Institute grew from this first branch to a worldwide organization, active in more than 70 countries around the world. WI activities have varied greatly over the years, but all – whether they are related to household sanitation, education or supporting the troops in WWI and WWII – have been in support of the Women’s Institute motto, “For Home and Country”.
Today, the Erland Lee Home is recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada. The farmhouse where Erland and Janet Lee once lived (and where Janet famously wrote the first Constitution of the Women’s Institute on her dining room table) is now a museum, celebrating the important contributions of the Women’s Institute and the Lee family.
St. Catharines had a number of active branches of the Women’s Institute over the last century, which have made important contributions to our City – not the least of which is the establishment of Brock University. The impetus to have an institute of higher education in Niagara grew out of a resolution put forward by Flora Egerter and supported by the rest of the membership of the Allanburg Women’s Institute in 1957. The resolution garnered the support of local, provincial and national branches of the WI and was brought to the provincial government. By 1964, Brock University was holding its first classes, thanks, in part to the efforts of the local Women’s Institute.
Meredith Leonard is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.