“Now, the First Thing you do is Take an Onion”: The Early Years of the Sackville Local Women's Civic Council
by Frances Ross
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Community volunteer icon Frances Read Smith, now 92 years young, recalls the early days of her marriage, when she became involved in the Local Women’s Civic Council (LWCC) in Sackville, New Brunswick. Often its meetings would run late and the women would return home later than they would usually begin cooking supper. In leaving the weekly meetings, the members would call out to each other, laughing, “now don’t forget, the first thing you do is take an onion!” Smith recalls how she would, before even taking off her hat and coat, head to the stove, put a pad of butter in a pan, and add a chopped onion. When the women’s husbands returned home for supper, they would come into the house, smell the wonderful aroma emanating from the stove, and exclaim, “dinner smells lovely!” Preparing supper in the kitchen, the woman would smile to herself, her little secret kept safe; the meal would be late on the table, but so long as the family smelled something wonderful cooking, the late-to-end LWCC meetings begged few questions. Smith was such an active woman in the community that she laughs to remember how, “my husband would joke that the only food I did not put onions in was angel cake!” (1)
As illustrated in this story, the experiences of the women behind the LWCC are demonstrative of power and gender relations, particularly in relation to women’s organizing activities and domestic roles. In my research, I did not come across any accounts or sources that discounted the work of these women, and instead often found that they were supported by their families and the town, at least formally. (2) However, as illustrated in the “take an onion” story, their organizing was allowed only so long as it did not interfere in their domestic activities. It remained a peripheral activity to the main political municipal structure (as preferred by the organizing women) and legitimate insofar that it was seen as a socially-acceptable activity for the women to organize around the idea of civic pride. This was not an activity that challenged the patriarchal system of private and public organization, such as fighting for women’s political access to the vote.
At the turn of the twentieth century, in the era before Frances Read Smith was mobilizing the town around social issues with the LWCC, economic, political and social developments were greatly enhancing community civic life in the small, rural town of Sackville. Led by the economic growth from the Fawcett and Enterprise Foundries (as the primary employers in this town of 2000 people), the Town of Sackville was incorporated in January of 1903. (3) During this time of transition the LWCC was established and, according to local historian Bill Hamilton, “they were a group of civic-minded women who lobbied and pressured town council.” (4) The LWCC offers some reflection of women’s participation in the public sphere of town life. The significance of this woman-centered community is contextualized by juxtaposing the local experiences of the LWCC with the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC). The NCWC was the premier umbrella organization that mobilized middle-class, and most often Protestant, women across the country to “support the extension of women’s domestic roles into the larger society.” (5) This organization was unique in its approach - united across religious faiths and social classes, women-centered in its membership and supportive of local projects (for eg. quilt-making).
An Archival, Primary-documents Approach
As part of Dr. Marie Hammond Callaghan’s seminar in Canadian Women’s History, this research project was intended to examine the early activities of women’s formal organizing before suffrage. Primary research came from the Mount Allison University Archives, in particular the LWCC minutes and relevant newspaper clippings. In addition, personal, candid and very enlightening interviews with Frances Read Smith (whose family was very involved in the LWCC since its inception in 1910) complemented these rich documentary sources. Drawing upon two methodologies for primary research was very useful. With so many documents stored in the LWCC fonds, Frances Read Smith’s recollections allowed me to quickly and directly access the relevant information in the archives. As well, I was able to contrast the archival documents (such as newspaper articles or meeting minutes) with her own recollections of events. (6) To contextualize this history, I drew upon secondary research sources in Canadian women’s history (such as the seminal works by Alison Prentice et al) as well as local historian Bill Hamilton. (7) Such a variety of sources allowed LWCC stories to come alive, expanding the social history of the women of Sackville and their social mobilization in the years before they were granted the right to a political voice with the right to vote.
Contextualizing the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC)
Women were politically active in their communities long before they had formal access to a political voice through voting. As Prentice highlights, the 1880s consolidated years of activity in the women’s movement. (8) However, the women’s associations popular at this time were highly marked by class divisions with a “general broadening of middle-class women’s reform aspirations and activities.” (9) The founding of the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) marked the beginning of a very active and concerted effort to organize the locally mobilized women through Local Councils of Women. (10) The focus of this umbrella organization was to “encourage and support the extensions of women’s domestic roles into the larger society.” (11) Although at the time the NCWC perhaps did not view its efforts as ‘feminist,’ today we can see how its approach reflected several varied strands of feminism, especially under which the idea of maternalism remained predominant:
"… infused with the language of domesticity, it called upon women to define a public role for themselves as women, sisters and mothers so as to improve society, and particularly to alleviate the suffering of women and children… activist women started from an awareness of the vulnerability of women at home and at work. They saw their maternal responsibility for children as the motivating force behind their reforming zeal. Motherhood became more than a biological, but a social function, which, if re-invigorated, could serve as a buttress against destabilizing social forces." (12)
This reformative (as opposed to transformative) approach did extend women’s activities from the private home into the public sphere; however, traditional gender roles were assumed and reinforced by this idea of maternalism. This development was limited due to the fact that women were still expected to maintain feminine characteristics of domesticity, just as Frances Read Smith’s onion story indicates.
Not only was there concerted women-based political action on the national scene, but on the provincial scene as well. Gail Campbell highlights the active period previous to the establishment of the LWCC by tracing women’s involvement in petitioning the New Brunswick government for the vote during the mid nineteenth century – the era in which the mothers of the LWCC founders would have grown up. Campbell examines how these women petitioned on moral grounds and were often very aware of their situation outside of the official political realm: “the political awareness evinced by the women who joined such organizations is viewed as a new departure which saw women becoming active outside the domestic sphere for the first time." (13) Women’s political agency was developing and expanding at this time. For example, with their involvement the temperance movement, women were brought into the political sphere and, over time, slowly expanded the tasks that women were “allowed” to partake in.
A Unique Beginning: Establishing the Local Women's Civic Council, Sackville Branch
In the early 20th century, women in Sackville were still strongly divided across class and religious lines; there were community-based civic groups in the town, but they were primarily organized under the auspices of churches, and the churches were highly indicative of social class. The women behind the LWCC were motivated to begin their organization to allow women to meet regardless of these religious and class barriers and to provide a venue for relationships and greater activity outside the home. (14) Many of the archival documents note the informality of these meetings. In the afternoon of January 29 1923, “nine members sat cozily around Mrs. Reads fire” for the meeting. Although the Council was formal insofar as meetings were recorded, positions were elected, and decisions were made democratically, this organization was also informal in the friendships that developed from their activities. (15)
With a broad spectrum of religious representation in its membership, the LWCC, Sackville Branch was relatively free from the confines of religious limitations that marked the NCWC at this time: “religious or broadly defined moral or spiritual societies dominated the membership and policy development.” (16) As local historian Bill Hamilton fondly notes, “while there were other women’s organizations in the town, the vast majority were dedicated to temperance and church related activities. The LWCC was unique in being unrestricted as to membership; so long as you were interested in ‘bettering the community’ you were welcomed to participate, unlike the by-invite-only membership of the Once in a While Club.” (17) However, it must be noted that although this organization did not bar potential members because of their economic, political or social associations formally, there was a 25 cent membership fee to join. This was likely too much for many women from the lowest economic classes, or whose husbands or families did not grant them the money to pay (as women – without paying jobs – often had limited access to actual currency) making this an informal barrier for many women. (18)
The secular membership of this local organization made it different from even the NCWC. “Despite its official constitution as a non-sectarian organization, the NCWC and the majority of its members promoted and followed the strongly held religious beliefs of the Protestant middle-class majority.” (19) Particularly in the small town of Sackville, your religion marked your social status. Frances Read Smith recalls the days when you could almost mark a Sackvillite into their job, and resulting social class, based on where they went to church; economic class directly translated into religious stratification (or vice versa). The Baptists were the working class with some of the executives of the foundries, the Catholics were the blue collar workers, the Anglican “richies” owned or ran the foundries or fishing industries, and the United Church claimed the college crowd. (20) The LWCC provided the first formal avenue for women to gather across religious and economic boundaries to enhance women’s agency within the community.
The LWCC provided women a venue to mobilize around community issues, allowing them to put themselves, their concerns, and their ideas into the public sphere. A lifetime LWCC participant, Frances Read Smith recalls why her grandmother and her friends were initially motivated to start the LWCC; besides breaking down religious and class barriers within the town, it gave women an access to power in their community, particularly considering the way in which “women were almost subservient labour, you know.” (21) Local historian Bill Hamilton explains how, in his digging through the archives while writing At the Crossroads (a book on Sackville’s history), he was surprised to discover a group as active and effective as the LWCC in such a small town. He was taken aback by the role women had in the community through this group; “this was well before women had the vote!” (22) It is interesting that the primary local historian did not know of the LWCC before his investigation, and also that he was surprised at “finding it”. This highlights the way in which women’s history has been marginalized, and we remain surprised at finding examples of women exercising agency in an era we associate a complete lack of women’s political agency. This reaffirms the importance of researching women’s history in order to draw out stories such as these and document them as being as important to the historical narrative as politics and war.
Many women wanted to be engaged in issues of community importance, but without being politically recognized through the vote they had no access to this venue. Thus many women saw the LWCC as a chance to do “political good” in the town. An LWCC member herself, Smith notes that the “LWCC was an act of sheer defiance – women were second class citizens at this time.” (23) Smith goes on to highlight that “the isolation and drudgery of daily chores” led many women to become publicly engaged in the group. (24) In line with the mission of the NCWC and the confines of maternalism, these women “asserted their right and responsibility to be ‘housekeepers’ of the public realm;” (25) many of the issues that the LWCC was engaged in involved the greening of a more inviting town as well as coordinating projects for local schools, churches and orphanages. Having children themselves (or neighbours/friends) in the local schools, the women knew what was needed beyond what the school could supply. Many of the activities of the LWCC involved building a community support network.
The Legacy of the LWCC in Sackville
The Mount Allison University Archives is rich with LWCC documents highlighting how the council was structured and how meetings and activities were organized. In the “Constitution and Bylaws” archival document, the LWCC recorded that its activities would be focused on town improvement and, through cooperation with the Town Council and Board of Trade, support community-led initiatives and town beautification. (26)
The town of Sackville was soon building upon the women’s initiatives, and in 1919 the LWCC and the town council joined efforts to “utilize the park at the corner of Bridge and Weldon Streets… officially named Memorial Park and was designated as the site for Sackville’s war memorial.” (27) From turning a derelict construction site into a community garden, now Memorial Park, to coordinating the planting of hundreds of trees for Arbor Day, the women were building public venues in which they enjoyed spending their weekend and family time. (28) Smith notes that “they never thought that we would be so stubborn; at first I think they thought we would just go away, but we just kept on working and soon they were struggling to keep up!” (29) Investigating their impact on the community during these early years, Hamilton notes that “on all issues of public interest [the LWCC] quickly became a positive force within the community.” (30) The women were in touch with what was needed in the town, and often used their own independent initiatives to spearhead additional support and funding from the town council, especially on issues that the council would otherwise have had no motivation to focus on, such as providing public green spaces in the town.
With the onset of the Depression at the turn of the 1930s, the LWCC picked up its activity to support the community during these bleak economic times. This increase in activity illustrates how the activism of the LWCC was driven by the idea of maternalism; at a time in which the country and “their sons” were in danger, the women organized to support these ideas by providing the “comforts of home”. By making quilts and sending care packages of jam to the troops, they were upholding the idea that women’s place is in supporting the men, whether they be political figures or their husbands, brothers and sons. (31) Frances Read Smith recalled how the LWCC spent many hours preparing cases of jam to send overseas to the troops to “revitalize their spirits.” This is an illustration of women’s role as reserve labour in a time of war. Although they were only granted political rights following WWI, their continued lack of equal access to employment meant that many Canadian women remained in female job ghettos, including domestic and clerical jobs. Yet, women’s labor had been required in order for the country to remain at war.
The activities of the LWCC also focused on supporting the local community during wartime and economic depressions. At meetings “quilt-making become a common activity [the results of which] were either donated to needy families or raffled off as fundraisers for other worthy projects.” (32) “Santa Claus Boxes” were started at this time by the LWCC when they “accepted donations of clothing, toys and other useful items for distribution to needy families.” (33) The women decided that the boxes should include practical items such as clothing and books as well as fun items such as toys and candy. (34) The LWCC also began the highly successful milk project in which the women bought milk for the students in the public schools, assisting the many students who came from poorer, undernourished families. (35) This project caught the attention of the Rotary Club (an all-male association) which directed some of its fundraising toward supporting the LWCC in this effort. (36) Although this indicates that the LWCC was fostering connections across community organizations, it also highlights the ways in which the women of the LWCC were being reinforced (or reinforcing themselves) in the gender ideology of their maternal role in their public-sphere activities. The Rotary Club had a more powerful fundraising voice in the community as it was run by local business owners and political leaders, and was thus endowed with more financial resources. (37) Although it was by their choice that the LWCC decided to accept these funds, this gift-giving is indicative of the restrictive maternalistic agency of the LWCC, as it operated on the margins of town politics, particularly when compared to the all-male Rotary Club.
With the incorporation of Sackville into a town there was increased political space for active civic life in the community; yet without the vote, the women of Sackville had little formal political agency under which they could organize. Consequently, the successes of the Local Women’s Civic Council illustrate the tenacity of the women in securing for themselves an active and political voice in issues they were concerned about. From supporting the students in school with the milk program, to creating welcoming community spaces with town gardens, to providing the comforts of home to ‘their men’ fighting in wars abroad, these women successfully mobilized their own resources as well as those of the town council around issues that they deemed important. There were similar community-building activities going on nationally under the NCWC and although the LWCC did not directly mirror this organization, its aims were very similar. The activities of such organizations highlighted how women were actively engaged in redefining public spaces by incorporating women into these spaces. In legitimizing the knowledge and skills of these women in relation to serving their community, the LWCC became an effective tool to open political as well as social space for the women of Sackville to exercise their agency – drawing especially upon maternalist locations. By mobilizing community resources around local issues, the women of the Sackville LWCC pushed the boundaries into a proscribed public sphere.
1. Interview with Frances Read Smith, Sackville N.B., 10 February 2005
2. Mount Allison Archives (hereafter MAA), Women’s Civic Council, Sackville Branch fonds, 8520/1/9. “Newspaper clippings re: Women’s Civic Council, 1918-1978,” 4 April 1910, ‘Women’s Civic Council Formed,’. As found in a Tribune newspaper clipping, “the purpose of this organization is to unite all the ladies of Sackville in an effort to beautify the town, to discuss matters of common interest, and to assist any movement which tends to the improvement of the town. Every lady interested in the welfare of the town is requested to be present. There will be an annual membership fee of twenty-five cents.”
3. History: Incorporation,” Town of Sackville, <http://www.sackville.com/community/history/index.html>; William B. Hamilton, At the Crossroads: A History of Sackville, New Brunswick, (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2004): 115-20.
4. William B. Hamilton, “Historical Detective.” Alumni Online. Mount Allison University. <http://alumni.mta.ca/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid+128>.
5. Alison Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History, Second Edition (Scarborough: Thomson Nelson, 2004): 201.
6. To note, I did not find any significant discrepancies in this comparison.
7. Lastly, this women’s history seminar expanded into the community through local presentations on our local women’s history archival research projects, as well as through the hosting of a discussion “We Were Here: Stories from our Sisters” during International Women’s Week that featured three women highlighting the changes in Sackville women’s lives over the past ninety-plus years.
8. Alison Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History, 200.
12. “Maternal Feminism,” Time Links: Manitoban History 1910-1920, (1998)
13. Campbell, Gail, “Disfranchised but Not Quiescent: Women Practitioners in New Brunswick in the Mid-19th Century,” Separate Spheres: Women's Worlds in the 19th Century Maritimes, Eds. Janet Guildford and Suzanne Morton, (Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1994): 51.
14. Interview, 10 February 2005.
15. Interview, 10 February 2005.
16. Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History, 202.
17. Hamilton, At the Crossroads, 133.
18. MtAUA, Women's Civic Council, Sackville Branch fonds, 8520/1/9 “Newspaper clippings re: Women's Civic Council, 1918-1978,” 4 April 1910.
19. Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History, 202.
20. Interview, 10 February 2005. Interestingly, Smith noted that even within the United Church itself, the church to which she attended, seating within the church was (informally) organized upon your relation to the university (long-time professor, new professor, student, staff), or economic status within the community. I was unable to find such references in the archival documents to these ideas (of the stratification of classes through the churches); perhaps this is one benefit of having the ‘informal voice' of an interview (rather than solely relying on formal documents that may not record such social data – and thus less important by conventional historical methods), although perhaps I too readily rely on one source of information here, having no other document (oral history or otherwise) from which to base these assertions.
21. Interview, 10 February 2005.
22. William B. Hamilton, “Historical Detective.” Alumni Online. Mount Allison University. <http://alumni.mta.ca/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid+128>.
23. Interview, 10 February 2005.
25. Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History, 201.
26. MtAUA, Local Women's Civic Council, Sackville Branch fonds, 8520/1/5, “Constitution and Bylaws.”
27. Ibid, 152.
28. Hamilton, “Historical Detective.”
29. Interview, 10 February 2005.
30. Hamilton, At the Crossroads, 133.
31. Interview, 10 February 2005.
32. Hamilton, At the Crossroads, 164.
33. Ibid, 164.
34. MtAUA, LWCC, Sackville Branch fonds, 8520/1/1/2. Since then this project has expanded into the town with the popular Christmas Cheer project, an annual community undertaking in which, over the 2004 holiday season alone, had 60 volunteers redistribute food, clothing and gifts to 96 families in the Sackville area (Interview, 10 February 2005).
35. Interview, 10 February 2005.
36. Hamilton, At the Crossroads, 164-5.
37. Interview, 10 February 2005.
Campbell, Gail, “Disfranchised but Not Quiescent: Women Practitioners in New Brunswick in the Mid-19th Century,” Separate Spheres: Women's Worlds in the 19th Century Maritimes, Eds. Janet Guildford and Suzanne Morton, (Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1994): 39-66.
Hamilton, William B., At the Crossroads: A History of Sackville, New Brunswick, (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2004): 115-20.
“Historical Detective.” Alumni Online. Mount Allison University. <http://alumni.mta.ca/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid+128>.
“History: Incorporation,” Town of Sackville, <http://www.sackville.com/community/history/index.html>.
Interview with Frances Read Smith, Sackville N.B., 10 February 2005.
“Maternal Feminism,” Time Links: Manitoban History 1910-1920, (1998) <http://timelinks.merlin.mb.ca/referenc/db0015.htm>.
MtAUA, Local Women's Civic Council (LWCC), Sackville Branch fonds, 8520/1/1/2.
MtAUA, LWCC, Sackville Branch fonds, 8520/1/5.
MtAUA, LWCC, Sackville Branch fonds, 8520/1/9.
Prentice, Alison et al, Canadian Women: A History, Second Edition (Scarborough: Thomson Nelson, 2004).
Shaw, Rosa L., Proud Heritage: A History of the National Council of Women of Canada, (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1957).