Forming Her Activism


Betty was deeply influenced by two things her mother passed along to her. When Betty graduated from the one-room school she attended to the end of grade nine, her mother conveyed a comment made by her teacher in the last year of Betty's schooling there: "I don't know what they'll do now," said the teacher, "because they always depend on Betty to say what game they play." On another occasion at a community event in Gagetown, a resident who noticed Betty setting off purposefully across the Hall remarked to her mother, "That young lady knows where she's going." For Betty, these reflections of her youthful development underlined a sense she had that she was "born a natural leader."

Betty's mother, grandmother, and three aunts were all schoolteachers, and as a child she decided to follow in their footsteps. Also the daughter of a successful farmer, it would only be later that Betty viewed her choice through another lens:

If I had been a boy, I would have studied Law and gone into politics. In my time, I was a farmer's daughter and putting me through college was out of the question—that was not heard of at all. They'd let you train for a teacher or a nurse. I started courting when I was seventeen, so I looked forward to marriage. I knew there was no sense in me thinking about going back to university after I went for a few summers without getting my degree.

Communities with one-room schools simply expected that their teacher would join the Women's Institute, and almost all rural communities had a WI. When Betty was transferred to Juniper in 1943 and joined the WI, she was embarking on a process of serving on committees and gaining experience in planning educational programs for her local district and ultimately the province. It fell to education conveners to plan programs that featured expert speakers on topics of interest to rural women, and Betty understood that by doing this they were making knowledge available "that was beyond our own means to provide." It is significant that the WI across Canada has been referred to as "the rural women's university."

In the early days of her WI work, one of Betty's favourite tasks was to promote and participate in the provincial government's rural beautification program:

I worked hard on that program and pushed for it, back in the eighties. Anytime I was Area Director and went to a district meeting, I would tell them all about what they had to do.

Government support for beautification projects was ushered in by a visit from a staff person from the Department of Agriculture in the spring, whose job it was to record details of gardens and farm properties. He would return at the end of the summer to assess their development, and the Department together with the WI awarded prizes. Regrettably (from Betty's point of view), it was a program that got cancelled long ago, although she notes that Prince Edward Island has managed to maintain a strong rural beautification program.

The legacy of the Women's Institute

You have to have the government on your side to get anything done. You try to persuade them of the necessity and worth of your project. I'm persistent!

Contributing to Betty's experience of layered community action was her learning about her WI forebears in Canada. The Federated Women's Institute and local Women's Institute branches together could boast a long list of achievements for community, regional, and national improvements: it was a legacy that inspired Betty. For instance, one-room schools in Canada had scant support from government and the WI supplied everything from books to water coolers, blackboards, and hot lunches. In terms of making a difference more widely in the schools, the WI lobbied successfully to have music put on the school curriculum; they were active proponents of literacy; and they helped establish sex education in the schools.

Health and safety

Adelaide Hoodless founded the WI after recognizing that the death her son was caused by ignorance of food science, and that other rural women were uneducated in the safe preparation of food. Pushing for the pasteurization of milk was a key issue behind the establishment of the WI in Canada.

Other health-promoting policy and practice initiated by WI members include such critical items as placing stop signs at railroad crossings; requiring breathalyzer and blood tests for motorists; using fluorescent tape on railroad cars; painting the white line in the centre of provincial highways; making it mandatory for traffic to stop when a school bus is stopped; and getting legislation enacted on dimming car lights at night when meeting a car from the opposing direction. It was the WI that ensured car owners must purchase liability insurance as a condition of getting their license, and the WI that helped to get mandatory TB testing in place for those who handle food.

Significant improvements to public safety were propelled by the WI across Canada and required highly organized, steadfast efforts by rural women. Some examples include gaining hospital benefits for nursing homes; getting poison containers clearly marked; introducing medical and dental inspection in the schools; and banning the sale of mineral-based detergents.

Always civic-minded, the WI encouraged building of war memorials and commemorative war services. In 1903, it was the WIs who were responsible for the opening of the McDonald Institute at the University of Guelph to teach specialized household science and economics.

At the provincial level, Betty noted three legacy achievements of the NBWI that required prolonged effort: (1) In 1936, the proposed purple violet was finally adopted as the New Brunswick official provincial flower; (2) The WI Home for Seniors was established in Woodstock; and (3) a provincial park was founded in Queenstown. Betty's local WI persisted with government authorities over a period of years before an important pump was replaced in this park, and to this day they continue to monitor maintenance of park signage and amenities, including recently installed toilet facilities. And it was Betty's WI that won government assistance to build a playground park for children at the local service building in Queenstown.

Pathway to leadership

Betty embarked on a steady trajectory of leadership within the WI, beginning by holding local positions of secretary and then treasurer, and finally assuming the presidency of the Queenstown branch for three different terms. She once found herself simultaneously serving as president of both the district and the local branch, at the same time as serving in the role of education convener for the province. Being elected to one of four area director positions led to membership on the provincial Board. Through a governance structure of open elections, Betty moved from executive positions to achieving the provincial presidency, which she held from 1990 to 1993.

Serving on the NB Government's Agricultural Advisory Council on the Environment from 1990 to 1996 meant that Betty had a platform to articulate the concerns of WI members; additionally, she disseminated information from government on matters such as manure spreading, farm animal contamination of water sources, roadside cleanup (much more widely accepted today), and forestry management issues. In general, Betty regarded this work as intensive education on environmentally sensitive methods of sustaining agriculture.

I was born with an interest in people and a need to help. Just naturally, I’m interested in what’s going on in society and have a concern about pertinent issues.