The Lee Family and the Founding of the Women’s Institute

Submitted by Mara Benjamin, Curator, Erland Lee (Museum) Home

The year was 1897 and the South Wentworth Farmer’s Institute was planning their annual Ladies Night event. The group’s secretary-treasurer, Erland Lee, had heard of a woman named Adelaide Hoodless, a speaker and advocate for women’s education, and invited her to speak at Ladies Night. Wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of Farmer’s Institute members were invited to come hear Adelaide speak on February 12, 1897. Those that heard her were impressed, but Erland knew that more could be done.

Erland and his wife Janet were so inspired by Adelaide’s words that they wanted to share them with more of their community. So, in the middle of February, when the snowdrifts were high and the wind was strong on the Escarpment ridge near their home, Erland and Janet climbed into their cutter sleigh to deliver invitations to another speech from Adelaide Hoodless.

On February 19th, 1897, one week after the initial meeting, over one-hundred women and one man, Erland Lee, gathered at Squires Hall in lower Saltfleet Township (now downtown Stoney Creek). Once again moved and inspired by Adelaide’s words, Erland and Janet Lee gathered with other speech attendants and friends in their home (now the Erland Lee Museum Home) to put their inspiration into action.

Sitting down at their dining room table, Janet penned the constitution for the first-ever Women’s Institute. Christina Smith, wife of fruit-grower and politician Ernest D’Israeli (E.D.) Smith and close friends of the Lee family, served as the first president of the WI. Erland and Ernest used their political and community influences to help the WI gain financial and social support from the municipal and federal governments.

Erland Lee Museum Committe | fwic.ca
The picture is of the Erland Lee Museum Committee (ELMC) sitting at the very dining room table where the original constitution was penned by Janet Lee. L-R: Barb Stones, Glenna Smith – Chair, Marian Austin, Linda Zelm, Linda Brooker, Virgina Blackman, Marg Ogar. Absent: Shirley Froman.

From 1897, the WI has grown, spreading across the world, and bringing community and inspiration to millions of women through the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada and further through the Associated Country Women of the World.

It is the intent of then Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario (FWIO) to preserve this historic site as a living memory of the origin of the Women’s Institutes. It will promote the awareness of the establishment, the history and the continuing story of the Women’s Institutes.

Much of the ‘heavy lifting’ of the ongoing preservation and upkeep of the Erland Lee Home is done by a small but dedicated group of volunteers under the auspices of the Erland Lee Museum Committee (ELMC).

This Committee is responsible for managing Marketing, Events & Programs, the Gift Shop, Fundraising and Grants, & Maintenance of the house and yard.

Ontario WI members support financially through their annual dues of only $3.75/member and we rely heavily on donations of likeminded members and the public who acknowledge the importance of preserving the history of the organization.

They understand that it provides a visual, historical record of how things once were for comparison against the present to better understand change.

Museums such as The Erland Lee Home can help us shape a better future by understanding the past and present.