Saturday, July 25, 2009

Nineteenth Century Housewives


Yesterday we visited the Erland Lee Museum in Stoney Creek. It’s the home of a settler who did very well for himself, with artifacts from the 1850’s onwards. He was also instrumental in the advancement of women . You see, this is the house where the Women’s Institute was born.

Now I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Women’s Institute. However I do have a tremendous interest in their history, not least of all because they were one of the things that changed the lives of women, and housewives in particular, all those years ago.

You see, back in the day, a lot of housewives really did not know much about homemaking, looking after children or hygiene. Many of those who lived in rural areas had little or no education. One of these ladies was named Adelaide Hoodless. Adelaide was devastated when her baby son died, and even more devastated when it transpired that the reason for his death was that (unable to nurse him herself) she had fed him on unpasturised milk. Adelaide decided not to wallow in self pity, but rather to make it her life’s work to try to educate other rural women against making this same mistake. One day, she was speaking at a conference attended by Erland Lee. He was a broad minded man, and Mrs Hoodless’ story caught his attention. He invited her to speak in Stoney Creek, at a meeting also attended by his wife.

On hearing Mrs Hoodless speak, Erland’s wife Janet got the idea to form a society to help educate and support women. Together with her husband, she decided to invite friends, neighbours and associates to a meeting with the idea of forming just such a society. On February 19th, 1897, the Women’s Institute was born in the Lee’s dining room. It’s primary purpose was to inform, educate and inspire women - almost all of whom in those days were housewives. From its early days, when basic skills like soap making, basic hygiene and care of children were taught, the Women’s Institute evolved to teach its members about the arts, sciences and music. Many people may not know this, but it was from these early beginnings in Ontario that the world-wide women’s institute was born. Today, when most women are already educated, most meetings of the Women’s Institute may be a far cry from the originals, but as I understand it, most feature a guest speaker, to educate and inspire.

As housewives in the 21st century, we have so many more advantages than nineteenth century housewives. Although society today may try to categorise us, look down or impose stereotypes on us, at least we do not have to content with the challenges those ladies did. However it is inspiring to look back and see how women working together could improve their own lives, their position in society and how they were seen in the world.

Housewives today can do the same thing, by giving themselves credit for what they do, allowing themselves to develop within their roles and broadening their horizons wherever they can. We too can improve how society perceives us and our role by empowering ourselves, moving forward joyfully and celebrating twenty-first century housewifery for the valuable career that it is.

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