The Women of Richmond Hill
While the men of Richmond Hill used the new Horticultural Society to strengthen links between greenhouse owners and town businesses, the women of the village saw the Society as a long overdue opportunity to exert some influence of their own. After remaining behind the scenes and largely invisible in the public life of nineteenth-century Richmond Hill, local women by the 1910s were beginning to be influenced by national and international campaigns for expanded women's rights.
Throughout most of the long nineteenth century, the only formal public networks available to Richmond Hill women were their various church groups. But those organizations were of the "ladies' aid" or "women's auxiliary" type, dedicated to running bake sales, serving tea, and cooking annual church suppers, while the real church business remained in control of male-only parish or congregational governing bodies.
At the same time, church groups divided women along sectarian lines and worked against interdenominational co-operation. Not till the early-twentieth-century campaign for "Local Option" - that is, a local prohibition on the sale of intoxicating liquors - did Richmond Hill women find a forum with the potential to cross denominational boundaries. They joined with Protestant clergymen and temperance-minded businessmen to fight for Local Option. Together, the temperance men and women persuaded council to pass a Local Option bylaw in February 1906 and to defeat an attempt to repeal the bylaw six years later.
The Women's Institute (or WI) proved to be the most open in its appeal and the most diversified in its interests, and it quickly became the major vehicle for women's interests in Richmond Hill. From the founding of the first WI in Stoney Creek in 1897, the movement spread quickly throughout Ontario in the early years of the twentieth century. Its merging of such traditional concerns as family values and rural living with a contemporary interest in public affairs appealed to farm and small town women emerging from a Victorian past into the upheavals of the new century.
The Richmond Hill Women's Institute held its organizational meeting on January 27, 1913, at the Masonic Hall. The agenda was certainly no barn burner as far as women's issues were concerned. Like later meetings, this one centred on domestic subjects. Dr. Lillian Langstaff shared new ideas on health and home economics with her talk on "Facts about Flies." Miss A. Trench was chosen president, Mrs. J. Switzer vice-president, Bertha Palmer secretary-treasurer, and Miss H. Pentland district representative.
May 10: Paper on "Nursing" by Ella McLean12
Beyond its monthly programs, the Richmond Hill branch supported the "Votes for Women" campaign of the provincial and national Women's Institute, and locally, the Institute pushed women into a more active role in village life. In 1917, the WI succeeded in having two women directors added to the Fair Board, in order to "revise the prize list in connection with fine arts and women's work." 13 It combined forces with the Horticultural Society to improve the municipal park. It lobbied Council on litter and safety issues, and led campaigns for public rest rooms and arena attendants. It also launched fund-raising campaigns for a First World War memorial in 1922 and for a library building four years later.
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991