It’s always good to have a great plan of action.
This philosophy has worked well for the Prince Edward Island Women’s Institute (PEIWI), which this year is celebrating a century of service to this province and its people.
One plan put into motion for this milestone was the release of Recognizing...Reflecting...Responding: A History of the Federated Women’s Institute on Prince Edward Island 1913-2013, which will be launched March 21 at 7 p.m. at the Farm Centre in Charlottetown.
This book explores the host of PEIWI achievements in the past 100 years and the secret of their successes, many of which were groundbreaking and helped shape the way P.E.I. is today.
“One of the approaches that is typical in the institute’s successes — it sounds simple but it’s not — is do one thing at a time, plan it well and carry it through. And that has been an approach that has guided the Women’s Institute of Prince Edward Island for a good long time,” says the book’s author, George Doughart.
The PEIWI has its roots in the Agricultural Instruction Act, which was implemented by the federal government in 1913 as a way to advance Canada’s agricultural sector through education.
One aspect of that legislation was improving the conditions of rural life, particularly for women and children.
“In the first decade of that century, many children were malnourished and unhealthy, and many mothers knew (little) about childrearing other than what they’d learned from their mothers,” Doughart says.
“So (approximately 10 per cent of the act’s financial) aid that came went to the establishment of Women’s Institutes because it was determined that was the mechanism that would allow mothers to become more knowledgeable about raising children.”
Twenty-one institutes were formed on P.E.I. in that inaugural year, 10 of which are marking their century milestone this year.
“When the (First World) War hit, the ladies had to engage themselves in making what they called ‘comforts,’ which were 68 different things that the Red Cross (recommended to be made) from rolling bandages for the hospitals in England to knitting mitts with one finger for the rifle . . . ,” Doughart says.
“(Some) communities decided they couldn’t do both so they closed their institute to focus on Red Cross work (and later re-organized); others were able to keep both going.”
One bonus for the PEIWI members was the social aspect of the organization at a time when there were only about 3,900 women in the labour force.
“(Longtime WI member) the late Helen Herring said one of the reasons for the institute was to deal with the social needs of the women in the province,” Doughart says.
“They were lonely, isolated, undereducated, overworked caregivers and they needed both education to help them to (better care for) their children, but they also needed social life.”
By the time of the Second World War, there were more than 4,000 women in 270 WI branches across the Island.
“The women’s institute really branched out after the war . . . . It was almost like a cultural revolution for them,” Doughart says of the era that was marked by the formation of the P.E.I Music Festival, the P.E.I. Rural Beautification Society and the P.E.I. Drama Festival in the mid-1940s and the introduction of the Handicraft Van program in the early 1950s, which encouraged home sewing and handcrafts for the economic and cultural benefit of rural Island women.
Handcrafts were an important element in the work of the PEIWI.
The earliest reference to a sponsored handcraft display was at the first Women’s Institute convention in 1914. But best known of all is the annual showing at the P.E.I. Provincial Exhibition and Old Home Week, the first reference of which goes back to the 1920s.
The Provincial Handcraft and Arts Exhibition is still a staple at this event, featuring competitive classes for handcrafts, photography, art, food and flowers.
“The tourism industry was what prompted the interest in handicrafts because the tourists wanted quilts and, particularly, hooked rugs. That was a big thing. So it started (in 1924) with what they called the Handcraft Exchange where women would (make) a rug,” Doughart says.
“They would consign it to the Handcraft Exchange in Charlottetown and tourists would buy it, and the Institute would keep a small portion of the sale and the (crafter) would get balance. That expanded until it became (a competition to) judge them and see who had the best one, type of thing . . . . It was another way to encourage the rural women to reach their potential. This was long before they got into the paid labour force in big numbers.”
Doughart says one of the biggest challenges faced by the PEIWI was the P.E.I. Comprehensive Development Plan, which resulted in the closure of most small rural schools on P.E.I. in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This brought a long-standing institute era to an end.
“(Until that point) government wasn’t doing very much and a large part of the operation of the school, from scrubbing the floor to putting science equipment in, bringing library books, providing a music teacher, all of that was done by the Women’s Institute, in co-operation with the teacher and the trustees . . . ,” Doughart says.
“(So) the closure of rural schools was probably the biggest challenge that the institutes of the province had to deal with in terms of adapting. But they did it with courage and determination.”
In fact, many branches purchased schools and turned them into community centres.
“They didn’t let the past get lost and they didn’t let the future get away from them. They kept their role in the schools, serving lunch, (providing) scholarships, serving on committees, all of the things that you do when you care. They’re a caring organization,” Doughart says.
The re-invention of the PEIWI included new focuses, such as the annual provincial Roadside Clean-up, which began in 1973, and agriculture promotion programs, such as From Farm to Table in 1981, Buy P.E.I. in 1994 and others.
Included in that was the ongoing support of special building and equipment campaigns at P.E.I.’s two main referral hospitals — the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown and the Prince County Hospital in Summerside — to the tune of almost $1 million to date.
More recent partner initiatives were the successful Legacy Bike Tours in 2001 and 2002, the Women’s Heart Health Campaign in 2011 and the P.E.I. Women’s Health Expo in 2012.
The annual Spring is in the Air Gala dinner also continues to be a major fundraiser for the PEIWI.
Another change in the more recent decades has been the increasing number of women in the work force, which jumped from 3,900 in 1913 to more than 27,000 in the mid-1980s. This had an across-the-board impact on membership for all volunteer organizations.
Still, at present there are more than 1,100 members of all ages in 94 branches across the Island, for whom the social aspect of this volunteer organization is still a big draw.
“The social part is still very important for the ladies of the community, especially a new person moving in . . . . (Another aspect is) education of themselves and their children, their province and their country,” says PEIWI president Doreen Cole.
“It’s people wanting to be involved; people wanting to make a difference . . . because you want to do your part, you want to part of your community . . . ,” adds Ellen Cudmore, who is chair of the book launch committee of PEIWI.
“(This book) is to record the history so that future generations know what happened . . . . It’s wonderful to look back and it’s wonderful to go ahead, but we build on all of those things that the ladies before us did. Now the torch is in our hands to keep going, whether it’s the focus on health or violence against women and knitting the little hats for the babies in the (hospital) nurseries. There are all kinds of issues out there.”
AT A GLANCE
Women’s Institute launches book celebrating 100 years on P.E.I.
The book Recognizing ...Reflecting...Responding... A history of the Federated Women’s Institute on Prince Edward Island 1913-2013 will be officially launched on March 21, 7 p.m., at the Farm Centre in Charlottetown (storm date, March 22). All are welcome. Written by George Doughart, the book takes readers from the very beginning of the PEIWI through to 2013 and showcases through the contributions of the branches and their members across the province.
The book will be available for purchase the evening of March 21 and in the PEIWI office at 40 Enman Cres. For further information, email email@example.com or call 368-4860.