Petition of Mrs. S. Bowman and Others

Petition of Mrs. S. Bowman and Others

"Petition of Mrs. S. Bowman and Others." Letter to Municipal Council, Halton County. 15 Aug. 1913. Oakville, Ontario. From the collection of Halton Region Heritage Services, 1978.48.15.3. 

This petition from the Palermo branch Women’s Institute (WI) is one of a number of documents and photographs in Halton Heritage Services’ collection relating to WI branches throughout Halton Region. Now a worldwide organization, active in more than seventy countries, the first branch of the Women’s Institute was founded in 1897 in Stoney Creek, Ontario.

WI activities have varied greatly over the years, but all – whether they are related to household management, education or community safety – have been in support of the Women’s Institute motto, “For Home and Country”.

Today, the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario are “a not-for-profit charitable organization with affiliations around the world, working with and for women in Ontario.” The organization works to: “initiate programs to strengthen families and communities, interpret and record local history, advocate for change and hone leadership skills”.

Many communities in Halton Region were home to a branch of the Women’s Institute. Halton Heritage Services holds records from nineteen branches active in the Region since the turn of the century, including Palermo, Acton, Ballinafad, Scotch Block and Limehouse. These records include everything from minute books to membership lists and programs, reports, account books and photographs. WI members kept detailed records, which along with their work on preserving local history through the Tweedsmuir scrapbooks, provide a rich source of information for researchers and historians.

While often overlooked or pigeon-holed in historical scholarship, the WI offered a rare vehicle for early 20th century rural women to have a political voice. Furthermore, it provided sometimes isolated rural women with educational opportunities, a social outlet and space to carve out new identities.  The WI proved an educative and activist organization and while there are issues surrounding the diversity and inclusiveness of the group, it had an important impact on the lives of women and their communities throughout the 20th century.

This petition regarding road conditions at 2nd Line and Dundas Street is evidence of the WI’s local activism. Ninety-eight members of the Palermo Branch expressed their concerns about the “deplorable condition of the public highway” and requested that the Municipal Council grant sufficient funds to complete road construction and repairs that season, demonstrating that concerns about construction and road conditions are not unique to modern drivers and travellers. This petition is notable in that was submitted on August 15, 1913, more than 4 years before (some) women won the right to cast a ballot in Canada. Obtaining ninety-eight signatures on such a petition is no small accomplishment, considering that the entire population of Trafalgar Township (of which Palermo was a part) was only 3,968 in 1911 and that travel throughout the area, as evidenced by the women’s petition, was no easy task.

Women's Institute Branch Photo

Image from Halton Heritage Services', 1981.19.1.

The accompanying photograph from Heritage Services’ collection (1981.19.1) shows sixty-four members of a local Women’s Institute Branch, 1912-1914.

The Women’s Institute often worked quietly, but effectively, advocating for important initiatives including the pasteurization of milk, the inclusion of music and family studies in the school curriculum, banning the sale of mineral-based detergents and the establishment of Brock University in St. Catharines.[1]

The Palermo Branch of the Women’s Institute disbanded in 1957, alongside many other branches which closed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s due to declining membership.  More recently, however, the organization is experiencing a bit of a renaissance; new branches in Canada and the UK are holding meetings in pubs, organizing how-to workshops on topics like home renovation and focusing their activism on modern social issues.

[1] Gomori, Alyssa. Message to the author. 28 Aug. 2015. E-mail.