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Community Improvement


Ella Church at school with class in BowdenAnother common characteristic of the early women's organizations was their focus on the improvement of community life. Often this focus was split into three main categories: moral reform, health care and education. Moral reformers wished to cure the ills of society - in their eyes, the main ones being liquor, gambling and prostitution. Organizations, like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Alberta Temperance and Moral Reform League, were specifically devoted to moral reform; however, many other women's organizations joined the bandwagon and attached moral reform to women's political rights. 

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Heritage Trails #452  - Controlling Liquor in Alberta

At the time when the new province of Alberta passed its Liquor Ordinance in 1907, it also brought into effect provisions for "Direct Legislation." And as historian David Leonard points out, it didn't take long for the United Farm Women of Alberta to rally support for Prohibition.

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The most infamous moral reform campaign was Prohibition. In a rigorous campaign in which they accrued many signed petitions and demonstrated the cost of drinking to society and to the Alberta government, women moral reformers managed to overcome the strong anti-Prohibition forces and win the support of government in 1915 in forbidding the consumption of alcohol for recreational purposes. Many of the same women involved in the Prohibition campaign were involved in the suffrage campaign and women's enfranchisement in Alberta in 1916 followed quickly on the heels of Prohibition. The rationale behind both campaigns was the same - that women's role as the moral guardians of their household should translate to public sphere and, thus, women should be granted more influence in this sphere. By the end of the decade, it appeared as if women were achieving both these goals.

Volunteer nurses during the influenza epidemic.  Glenbow ArchivesThe other way in which women organizations sought to develop their communities, was by improving health care and education. As we will see in the sections on both these topics, health care and education facilities were slow to develop in relation to the population boom in Alberta. Where they fell short, women were often left to deal with this gap, providing home remedies to the ill and home-schooling to their children or acting as one-room schoolteachers. Therefore, women's organizations campaigned for government to introduce more hospitals and schools to remote areas and, also, to provide more training for women in both areas. The Victorian Order of Nurses helped to establish nursing schools for women and find job postings for them. 

The education campaign often focused on youth. Adolescence was thought to be a crucial time in an individual's religious and moral formation. Many also believed that an emerging commercial culture combined with teenagers having more free time was increasingly exposing them to temptation of a demoralizing nature.  Women's organizations focused on improving education within schools and providing youth with beneficial activities in their leisure time. For example, the Red Deer Quota Club worked to bring cultural activities into Red Deer, such as sponsoring musical recitals, theatre, opera and ballets, and encouraging schools to take their children to attend these activities during school hours. Girl Guides troops, many of which existed in central central Alberta since the late 1910s, focused on providing extracurricular activities for girls that taught them obedience, honesty, charity and an appreciation of nature. The education campaign, however, also focused on women; organizations promoted political awareness of women and the opening of post-secondary fields specifically designed for women, such as domestic science.

During the World Wars, this effort to improve their communities extended to the nation as a whole. Many of the organizations, despite their usual promotion of peace, contributed to the war effort. They did so by recruiting volunteers to put together care packages for soldiers on the front, to work in military hospitals at home and abroad and to encourage women to conduct food and supply rationing in their homes. Many organizations, which took on adversarial relations with government during peacetime, threw their full support behind the government during the wars. For most of these organizations, however, the war effort was the last leg of their existence.

The early 20th century was the heyday of women's organizations. Numerous groups sprang up to allow women a social outlet and a venue to express and campaign for the political and social issues that concerned them. They won many successes and served to increase women's participation and influence in the political sphere. After the World Wars, however, many of these organizations disappeared. Women did not seem to have as much time for them as they increasingly took on the double duty of being housewives and joining the workforce. In a sense, they also became outdated; university-educated women who expressed more feminist leanings dominated the new women's organizations of the 1960s and 1970s. They often criticized many of the old organizations and activists for reinforcing women's subservient relationship to men and her traditional role in the domestic sphere. Another criticism of these old organizations was that they only represented the interests of middle-class white women, not of women of ethnic minorities. 

Sources and Suggested Readings:

  • Cole, Catherine and Ann Milovic.  "Education, Community Service, and Social Life: The Alberta Women's Institutes and Rural Families, 1909-1945."  Standing on New Ground.  Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne.  Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1993.

  • Holt, Faye Reineberg.  "Women's Suffrage in Alberta."  Alberta History 1991 39(4): 25-31.

  • Langford, Nanci.  Politics, Pitchforks and Pickle Jars: 75 Years of Organized Farm Women in Alberta.  Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1997.

  • McManus, Sheila.  "Gender(ed) Tensions in the Work and Politics of Alberta Farm Women, 1905-29."  Telling Tales.  Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000

  • Von Heyking, Amy.  "Red Deer Women and the Roots of Feminism."  Alberta History 1994 42(1): 14-25.

  • Wilson, L. J.  "Educational Role of the United Farm Women of Alberta."  Alberta History.  1977 25(2): 28-36.

  • Alberta: Home, Home on the Plains -  An introduction to the early settlement history of the province. Learn about the various cultural groups that came to Canada and Alberta to make their homes and settle the West.



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