Women’s Institutes in Central Alberta

This month marks a significant milestone in the history of our community.

It was 100 years ago, in November 1912, that the first Women’s Institute was formed in Red Deer.

The origins of Women’s Institutes, an international women’s organization, goes back to the late 1890s in southwestern Ontario.

Adelaide Hoodless lost an infant son due to ‘summer complaint’ which was likely brought on by drinking contaminated milk. While devastated by the tragedy, Hoodless became determined to help improve conditions for women, particularly for mothers living in rural areas.

Her main focus was on education. She pushed for the inclusion of home economics instruction in schools. In 1897, she founded the first Women’s Institute in Stoney Creek, Ontario, as an organization dedicated to education and home improvement but also to community service and socialization.

The concept and movement quickly caught on.

W.I.’s were formed across Ontario and then spread to western Canada as well as many other parts of the nation.

In 1909, the first W.I. was formed in Alberta at Lea Park.

The Alberta Government was impressed by the Women’s Institutes and decided to provide active assistance. Promotional activities were started with government support. Eventually, a provincial superintendent for W.I.’s was appointed.

Meanwhile, Adelaide Hoodless continued her work to improve educational opportunities for rural women.

In 1903, she helped to establish Macdonald Institute, a college for the teaching of household sciences at the Ontario College of Agriculture (now the University of Guelph). Funding came from Sir William Macdonald, a friend of Adelaide Hoodless and a man who Queen Victoria called “The greatest philanthropist in education in the British Empire.”

In 1907, Macdonald College was established at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec and also provided education in the household sciences and home economics. Macdonald College is now part of McGill University.

In 1910, a proposal was made to construct another college at Red Deer, which would “Give girls in western Canada and especially girls in the rural areas the opportunity of receiving an education.”

Unlike Macdonald Institute and Macdonald College, the new Alberta Ladies College was not funded by Sir William Macdonald or attached to an existing educational institution. Rather, it was a project of the Presbyterian Church, although it was to be non-sectarian in nature.

On Nov. 11, 1912, a ‘mixed farming special train’ made a visit to Red Deer. The train included a number of exhibits on farming and also on Women’s Institutes.

A special lecture and public meeting was held at which a decision was made to create a Red Deer W.I.

Mrs. Elizabeth Lees, the wife of a local judge, became the first president while Jean Muldrew, principal at the Alberta Ladies College, served as vice-president.

In May 1913, the Springvale-Clearview W.I., the first rural branch in the district was formed, although the name was soon shortened to the Clearview W.I.

In 1914, the First World War broke out and attention turned to the war effort. However, in 1915, the first provincial W.I. convention was held in Olds. In 1916, the Provincial Government passed the Alberta Women’s Institutes Act to give more legislative authority to the organization.

Jean Muldrew became the first secretary-treasurer of the A.W.I. and was later appointed the assistant superintendent of the Provincial Government’s Department of Women’s Institutes.

In the post-war years, a number of W.I. branches were formed across Central Alberta. In 1921, a regional grouping, the Innisfail and Red Deer Constituency was created. During the peak years of the 1950s and 1960s, there were more than a dozen branches in the Red Deer area and 300 province wide.

Changes in rural communities and lifestyles have contributed to a dwindling number of W.I. branches. However, the Women’s Institute remains a vital organization in a number of Alberta rural communities.