Madge Watt was a woman of great intelligence, tenacious energy and a determination to develop a great rural sisterhood of women.
This we learned from Professor Linda Ambrose’s excellent lecture on the life of Mrs Watt, a wealthy Canadian who emigrated to England in 1913 and helped to found the Women’s Institute movement in Britain during World War One.
Over 50 women and men were in attendance, having come from all over the country. There were representatives from WI branches as far afield as Grimsby, Ross on Wye and Staffordshire, as well as members of the Women’s History Network from a range of English universities.
Professor Ambrose herself fitted in the lecture during a research trip to Britain from Laurentian University, Ontario. She began her lecture with a brief geography lesson for the audience so that we could place both her and Madge Watt’s homes on our mental maps.
Madge Robertson, as she was known before she married, was born in Collingwood, Ontario, in 1868, into a wealthy and well-connected family. Her father was a lawyer, a freemason, and a pillar of the local establishment, whilst her mother was an active member of a number of women’s committees, the Presbyterian church board, and a number of international missions. Although Madge herself did not leave a private archive, Professor Ambrose has been able to reconstruct a great deal of her family’s actions through the documents of these committees and reports in the local press.
Madge’s father ensured that she was sent to the University of Toronto. She entered the university in 1886, only 2 years after it began to admit women undergraduates. She became a student journalist, contributing to both university and city newspapers, writing at this time under a pseudonym. Professor Ambrose described how these articles were sharp, assertive, witty and challenged the established ideas of how women should live their lives.
Madge graduated in 1889 and briefly worked as a teacher, but hated it, so returned to the university, graduating as the first woman MA in 1890. She returned to journalism, working in Toronto, and then headhunted in 1892 to work in New York. She managed to get appointed as the editor of Ladies Weekly, a magazine that sold thousands of copies across Canada and the USA.
Still in her 20s, this role granted Madge a platform for encouraging women to consider subversive new ideas. As editor, she had the power to decide who advertised in the magazine, she controlled the content and wrote the editorials; in short she had the scope to set a new agenda for womanhood and domesticity.
Professor Ambrose found that she often used humorous stories to make serious points, encouraging women to teach their sons to sew, to ask for a fair wage for work done, to seek education and training even in the home, to campaign for the vote and most subversively, to negotiate the terms of their marriage.
Around this time, Madge was being courted by Dr Alfred Watt, whom she had met at the University of Toronto. They were regularly mentioned in the Varsity newspaper gossip columns, yet Madge appeared to be happy to continue making her way as an independent woman. However, in 1892, when Madge was 25, her mother died. She later wrote “my mother’s death meant the end of my lighthearted writing”. She put the “childish things” of journalism behind her and accepted Dr Watt’s marriage proposal, taking the name Madge Watt, by which she is know to so many.
Dr Watt was a well paid young man, since he managed the British Columbia Quarantine Station on Vancouver Island, and earned over $300,000 in today’s money. Here, Madge began to live the ‘rural’ life, growing fruit and flowers, making jams and cakes, whilst enjoying regular excursions into the town for committees and concerts and to support a range of organisations including the College of Music, Council of Women and Women’s Press Society.
In 1897, as this was going on, Adelaide Hoodless and Janet Lee were busily founding the Ontario Women’s Institutes. There is some dispute over who was truly responsible for the birth of the Canadian WI, but Professor Ambrose believes firmly that Janet Lee took the lead, although Mrs Hoodless was clearly the better publicist.
Naturally, Madge got involved, launching the British Columbia Women’s Institutes in 1911. She seems to have enjoyed the busy-ness of it all – organising, lecturing, writing – encouraging women to take their lives into their own hands, just as she had through her journalism.
This period of happy industry was abruptly brought to an end in 1913 by the tragic death of her husband, Dr Watt. As the officer in charge of the Quarantine Station, it was Watt’s responsibility to confine on arrival all and any ship’s passengers who had come into contact with infectious disease, regardless of race or class. Unfortunately, the first class passengers on board a ship that arrived with 2 smallpox-infected Chinamen in steerage, did not want to abide by these precautions and walked out of the Quarantine Station.
The situation was exacerbated by the politics of the time (Watt had been appointed by one political party, his assistant by another), and the doctor’s own precarious mental health (he had recently lost his brother very suddenly, and now his own son was ill). As the politically motivated enquiry into his actions was underway, Watt ignored medical instructions to take bedrest and jumped from his window to his death.
This shocking and sudden suicide did little to dispel the clouds of suspicion attached to Watt’s name at the time. Madge felt that the only action she could take was to close down her life in British Columbia and take her sons to Sussex, England, for a brief period of recuperation.
The Watt family moved in with her friend, Mrs Godmin. Madge needed to find paying work – she had lost her entitlement to Watt’s life insurance because of his suicide, and when war broke out in August 1914, she found herself cut off for the foreseeable future. She used her connections in England to secure a posting for her eldest son, Robin, as aide-de-camp to the General of the Canadian Forces. Her younger son was enrolled in a boarding school.
Madge decided to make herself useful. She could foresee the privations that would be caused b the German naval blcokade, and she knew from her experience of the Canadian WI how effective a force organised rural woman could be. After a great deal of effort, she was hired by the national Agricultural Committee, to organise women to plant Victory Gardens in city parks and to begin creating WIs.
In England, Madge found the audience less receptive of her confident and forthright manner, and sometimes barely tolerated as a colonial upstart. She was laughed at and her ideas not taken seriously – a state of affairs most unfamiliar to her. Still she persisted, and in 1915, founded the first WI branch in Llanfairpwll, in west Wales, far from the mockery of the Home Counties.
She continued to organise new branches throughout the war, and we know that on 21 November 1916, she was present in the Masonic Hall in Pershore, for the inaugural meeting of the Pershore WI.
Professor Ambrose concluded the lecture by considering how Madge Watt should be remembered today. In her native Canada, Madge is revered as a great achiever, and the founder and inspiration of a powerful women’s movement. In Britain, however, Professor Ambrose has found that Madge was regarded by the leaders of the National Federation of WIs and some of her contemporaries as a thorn in their side – ungovernable, outspoken and often excluded.
It seems unfair that such an energetic and driven woman should be dealt such a dud hand by her British associates. Professor Ambrose makes a very fair case for a revision of these views. We all look forward to reading more in Linda’s latest book: A Great Rural Sisterhood: Madge Robertson Watt and the ACWW
The lecture concluded in true WI style with cake, tea and lots of discussion. Many thanks to Professor Maggie Andrews for organising the event and Professor Linda Ambrose for such a thorough and inspiring lecture.