It’s an organization with big impact, yet it’s incredibly modest.
It counts some of the world’s most important women as members – Her Majesty the Queen, for example.
And, it’s an organization by women, for women, with major global reach but strong Canadian roots.
The Women’s Institute (WI) was born in Victorian-era Ontario, when founder Adelaide Hoodless’ infant son died after drinking impure milk. Hoodless recognized that although farmers had groups to share advice and resources with each other, their wives and daughters had no such support.
First formed in 1897, the WI worked to ensure rural women were informed and aware of how to properly care for and feed their families. More than 500 branches were organized across Canada within the organization’s first decade.
In fact, Nova Scotia got its first branch in Pictou County in 1913. That makes this year the centenary of the Women’s Institute of Nova Scotia (WINS).
The past 100 years have been particularly productive for the group, which numbers around 700 members across the province. It helps rural as well as urban women build the knowledge and skills needed to meet the demands of life in the 21st century. This means learning about food and nutrition, education, consumer awareness, the environment and balancing family and work life. WINS has also developed leadership training, encouraged good citizenship and preserved traditional arts and crafts.
“We are one of the best-kept secrets in Nova Scotia,” says past-president Coni Murray of North River. “People say we don’t toot our horn enough.”
While the group may keep a low profile these days, their legacy lives on in very visible programs such as the buy local food campaign known as ‘Select Nova Scotia,’ the ‘Adopt-a-Highway’ program – which is managed locally by WINS – and the group’s newest initiative, called ‘Back to Basics’.
This program works with community organizations such as food banks to teach women how to cook healthy, affordable meals in a slow cooker. Over a six-week period, participants learn kitchen safety, safe food handling and smart shopping, and are given advice from chefs, hygienists, dietitians and nutrition experts. These things that used to be taught in school under the banner of home economics, are now sorely lacking as fundamental skills.
“In a few cases so far, we found that the program does more than just teach people how to cook,” says Sheila Richards, WINS president-elect. “It is also breaking barriers and teaching people how to get along and be accepting of each other.”
WINS also runs projects to improve the quality of drinking water in Nova Scotia and to teach children how to stay safe on the farm. Members spend time making knitted bears for Alzheimer’s patients, comfort pillows for mastectomy patients and turbans for cancer patients, as well.
Women’s Institute projects reflect an external focus as well. Through a program called ‘Into the North’, members supported two communities in northern Labrador, Hopedale and Sheshatshui, by providing baby and child-care items and funds to support educational programs.
WINS was at its peak in the early 1950s, with close to 150 branches and thousands of members across the province. Though numbers have been dwindling since then, and most members are now aging, the group is committed to making sure they are around for at least another 100 years.
“We are always on the lookout for new members,” says Richards, who is in charge of public relations as well as her duties as president-elect. She is excited about a newly formed group in Hants County, which has the active involvement of many young members.
She also targets recruitment efforts towards families who home school, early retirees, First Nations communities and families of military personnel. These strategies have helped Nova Scotia become one of the only provinces to actually increase membership in recent years. Efforts are ongoing to rebuild existing chapters and encourage new ones where interest and enthusiasm exist. And although most members are women, men are also welcome to join the Women’s Institute.
“It’s a great way to meet others in your community and learn new skills,” says Richards, a former insurance agent who lives in Upper Onslow. “I went to my first meeting in 2001 or 2002 and have been there ever since.”