Recovering the Stories and Reconciling the Versions: Rural Women’s History, Biography, and Interpretation

By Linda M. Ambrose

Laurentian University, Sudbury, ON, Canada


For an author, after years of research and writing, nothing compares to the feeling of holding that new book in your hands for the first time. Just a few weeks ago my latest book, A Great Rural Sisterhood: Madge Robertson Watt and the ACWW (University of Toronto Press, 2015), finally landed in my mailbox. I was overjoyed! That book was almost fourteen years in the making and no matter how you count it up, that’s just a really long time!

I can offer you lots of reasons about why it took so long, but you’ve heard them all before: academic life gets busy, the peer-review process is slow, and it’s very hard to find and keep that elusive thing called “work-life balance.” But in my case, or rather in the case of my subject, this project took a long time not so much because of me, my reviewers, or my publisher. It wasn’t me! Really. Mostly it was her!

Madge Robertson Watt was a Canadian who lived from 1868 to 1948. She was the founder of the British Women’s Institutes, the largest voluntary organization of women in the UK, which is marking its centenary in June 2015. Watt was also the founding president of the Associated Country Women of the World (1933), a group that still operates in more than 70 countries and boasts over 9 million members.  She is one of only a few Canadian women ever to have been recognized officially by the country’s heritage community as “nationally historically significant.” Impressive, wasn’t she? Yet despite all those achievements, before this recent book, her biography had never been written.

And now I know why. People warned me about this before I began: she was hard to find and difficult to interpret.

It was no easy task to locate sources about Watt because she left no complete collection of personal papers. In my travels to go through archival sources, I literally travelled far and wide to destinations in England, Wales, Australia, Canada and the United States. She did not leave her own papers. Yet when it came to Watt’s many different roles as coed, journalist, clubwoman, lobbyist, organizer, educator and international president of rural women, she left paper trails everywhere. Even so, locating those sources was only half the battle.

Once I had assembled the pieces of her story, the larger task still loomed ahead of me: how should I interpret her life and work? In Canada, especially among rural women’s groups such as the Women’s Institutes, Watt’s celebrated legacy has taken on folkloric proportions. She’s a bit of a national hero to rural women especially in Ontario and British Columbia, the two provinces where she grew up and became established in working with rural women. And although she left her mark in many other parts of the world, the praise there is noticeably more muted.

I found it curious, for example, that the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in the UK hesitated about whether or not to take on the role of organizing a memorial service upon hearing the news of their founder’s death. In the end, they decided not to do so. Why would the group she founded hesitate to celebrate her life?

And while Canadian members of the ACWW were proud to declare Watt was the “founder” of the ACWW, members from other parts of the world are quick to point out that Watt was actually only one of many women who worked to establish the organization. Therefore, they suggest, she should more accurately be referred to as the “founding president” of the movement, but not its “founder.” That’s more than just semantics.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, when the Women’s Institutes were about to welcome the world to an anniversary celebration in the late 1990s, they went to the extraordinary measure of locating Watt’s gravestone in a Montreal cemetery and replacing the original marker her family had chosen with one that the group felt more appropriate. The replacement tombstone, adorned with symbols of rural women’s groups, declared her life was important because of her role in founding their international organization.

So, what’s a historian to do with all these curious contradictions?

In the end, I was able to reconcile the competing versions of Madge Watt’s story by explaining her to myself like this: Madge, that intrepid woman who was so instrumental in bringing groups of rural women together to cooperate, was extremely difficult to get along with. At ease with proposing grand schemes about organizing entire countries and continents of women, on a personal level, Watt found that cooperation and compromise were hard to do. How ironic!

Moreover, as a Canadian woman without money or title, she was not readily accepted in the circles of the British elite where her proposal to import “made-in-Canada” ideas about social organization were slow to find acceptance. She did succeed, eventually, with her proposal to establish Women’s Institutes in the UK as a wartime strategy for food security. And for that she was rewarded with the designation, “M.B.E,” “Member of the Order of the British Empire.” Yet when she tried to exert her influence and repeat her act of “reverse colonialism” after the Great War, British clubwomen were not amused.

Madge Watt left a trail of significant organizations and accomplishments behind. True. But at the same time, wherever she went, she also seems to have left a legacy of broken relationships, overspent accounts, and misunderstandings. Those who were closest to her were the most muted in their praise.

Writing a biography is never a simple task. For me, an academic historian, writing the life of a woman as influential, controversial, and complex as Madge Robertson Watt was particularly challenging.

But there it is! What I love about history in general, and women’s biographies in particular, is this: when archives challenge accepted views, the competing versions of the same story beg to be reconciled. And that’s where we historians come in. Taking up the various lines of inquiry, we set about the task of untangling the multiple strands of the same story. In the process we begin weaving the threads back together in a revised, usually more complex and hopefully more nuanced, version of the past. In the end, we hope to arrive closer to the truth of what happened, why it happened that way, and why it is recounted in multiple ways.

Madge Robertson Watt’s biography was overdue. Clearly, she was a woman of influence and the roles she played had significant impact on rural women in North America, Britain, and around the world. The story of her life work in connection with transnational rural women’s organizations deserves to be told. Historians need to know this history. Rural women need to know this history. Policy makers need to know this history. Today, the Women’s Institutes are the largest voluntary organization of women in the United Kingdom and the ACWW continues to advise the United Nations in the interest of rural women worldwide. But recovering the story of this remarkable woman behind these groups is only the start. More important, for historians and for rural women, is the task of interpreting her life and leveraging what we learn to understand and shape the experiences of rural women in the twenty-first century.

Editor’s note:  Which other rural women deserve further study?  What archival collections should scholars be exploring?  We’d love to hear your nominations and suggestions!

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