Courtesy Ruth Fenner
All of us have shadows. Some people cast longer and more enduring shadows than others. Once such person was Mrs. Alfred Watt, who during her life filled many roles. But the principal ones were those of visionary and builder.
Born Margaret Rose Robertson in Collingwood, Ontario, she was educated privately and later attended the University of Toronto. She met and married Alfred Watt, a medical doctor, and they moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where Dr. Watt served as Medial Health Officer and Superintendent of William Head Quarantine Station near Esquimalt.
Mrs. Watt was a member of Metchosin Women's Institute and secretary of the Women's Institute Advisory Board for British Columbia. In 1913 Dr. Watt died, and Mrs. Watt and her two sons, ages 17 and 7, moved to England to provide for their education. With her she took her devotion to the Women's Institute. At the outbreak of World War I, she realized what a benefit a rural women's organization could be to England. With a small group of like-minded women, she interested the Department of Agriculture in London. When the first English Women's Institute was established in 19151916, it was patterned on the style of the groups in British Columbia.
The first project undertaken by the Women's Institutes in Britain was to increase the food supply in this war-torn country. The result was an increase of from 35 to 60 percent of the requirements. For her efforts, Mrs. Watt was awarded the title Member of the British Empire.
But this was only the beginning. Starting in 1919 Mrs. Watt endorsed the idea of having an international body for rural women. Throughout the decade of the 1920s, the subject was discussed. Lady Aberdeen and others thought a rural branch of the International Council of Women would suffice, but Mrs. Watt wanted a truly independent organization. At a Conference in 1930 in Vienna, few changes were made, but at a subsequent meeting in 1933 in Stockholm, Sweden, the Associated Country Women of the World came into being. Mrs. Watt had achieved her goal, and she was elected President, a role she filled until 1947.
During this time, Mrs. Watt travelled the world spreading the world about the Women's Institutes and promoting the sharing of obligations and the need to help one another.
Through her efforts in establishing the Women's Institutes throughout England and Wales, she almost single-handedly brought in more members than we can imagine and by bringing together the Lady of the Manor and the gardener's wife in a single organization, she helped to hasten the demise of the class system.
Internationally, she brought rural women together into a common organization with shared backgrounds, shared concerns and shared goals. Without Mrs. Watt's dedication, we would not have successful projects like the ones delivering clean water in African villages, sewing classes for young women, livestock projects that bring independence and prosperity to families in under-privileged countries. Through this organization, women everywhere have become more aware of, and concerned about, the living conditions for people around the world.
Mrs. Watt and her son Sholto developed the magazine The Countrywoman, the publication of the Associated Country Women of the World, and the means by which members on six continents learn of the happenings of their sister organizations. No doubt she had input to the developing of the badge and logo that are today recognized in every corner of the world.
One could call Mrs. Watt the mother of the New Age. A hundred years ago, women were confined to the home - du ties were deemed to be solely to home and family. It was enough that the women saw that the family was fed, housed in clean surroundings and had clean clothing available. The fact that these women were given no outlet for creativity, for compassion for others was of no concern at the time. And the world was poorer for it.
Much has been made of the women who demonstrated to enfranchise women and were jailed for their efforts. The world heaps praise on Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton and Agnes MacPhailall worthy women, indeed, but it overlooks the one woman whose lifetime world has probably influenced more achievements, more woman-to-woman support and has caused a greater international gravitation towards world peace than all of those previously mentioned. How is it that this woman goes unknown?
Through the window of time that has passed since Mrs. Watt was President of the Associated Country Women of the World, we gain a perspective on her influence and contributions.
Today the Associated Country Women of the World have non-governmental status at the United Nations. Our representatives speak for us at meetings in New York, Rome, Geneva and other centres where this world body meets to decide how to help the world's less fortunate citizens. We have come a long way, baby!
Perhaps Mrs. Watt did leave behind a written legacy that we are overlooking: While her own writings are few, she requested Dr. Ruby Green Smith of Cornell University to write the following Goals for the Associated Country Women of the World:
"To cultivate international understanding and friendship; to create appreciation of talents and achievements of people in all countries; to study their varied contributions to culture, and to the beauty and wealth of One World.
To maintain the highest ideals of home life, to share growing knowledge of homemaking at its best; to place service above comfort, to let loyalty to high purposes silence discordant notes, to be discouraged never; to let international neighbourliness supplant hatreds.
So to guide children that their minds may be clear, their spirits happy, their characters generous, and their goodwill so genuine that Peace on Earth, for which the people yearn, shall come to pass.
To pledge allegiance to righteousness in relations between countries, and to build a better civilization, through fidelity to the United Nations, with abiding faith
in the promise of more abundant life to all Peoples."
Madge Watt's life's efforts have cast an enormous shadowone of benevolence, example, and concern for her fellow citizens. Her shadow will continue to influence the lives of many millions, as long as there are women and men everywhere who emulate her ideals and live by those same precepts.
Ruth Fenner, 1999
[This essay won first prize trophy for the Senator Cairine Wilson Citizenship Project at the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada Convention at Brandon, Manitoba, in June, 2000.]
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