An organization called The Women’s Institute, originated in Canada in 1913 and came to the Bass River area a decade later. At first it was a women’s auxiliary to the Farmer’s Institutes and, alike, they were concerned with the quality of rural life. “For Home and Country” was the Institute’s motto and their achievements were impressive. Farming and lumbering supported most families in the Colchester region composed of small villages beaded along the shoreline between Truro and Parrsboro. The isolation of some rural women is now nearly impossible to understand. The telephone was party-line. There was radio but certainly no television. A telegram was as close as anything to a long-distance message and it was usually the bearer of sad news. The Truro Weekly News and Family Herald may have come to a home as might a church magazine. Women probably had no money of their own and a few may have even agreed with the sentiment that girls required minimal schooling to become wives and mothers. Their access to a larger community was through their missionary societies or community organizations like Women’s Institute (W.I.). In their heyday such volunteer organizations as the Institute were great enablers.

For half a century following 1923, the visible and invisible hands of the W.I. aided and abetted community projects related to health, education and culture. Rachel and her colleagues arranged home nursing classes and made available fish oil capsules to be distributed at school. A school library was started. A music teacher was hired for the Bass River school and a newly-formed choral club competed in regional music festivals and developed talents that might otherwise have lain fallow.

In the days before publicly-supported medical care in Canada, the Institute organized well-baby clinics, well-woman clinics, inoculations, dental care and eye care. The Institute made sure that a travelling TB x-ray van made scheduled stops in the area. They even performed all the steps to procure a resident physician for the community, to the extent of arranging for a home for the doctor-to-be.

In Her Heyday

A Canadian delegate to the meeting of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW) Copenhagen, 1950. –Rachel Cooke Wilson Collection

No task seemed too large for these women who, together, moved mountains. Nor was it just Bass River or even just the Women’s Institute who kept moving back the goal posts of everyday expectation. There emerged during these decades a cadre of women who, through their communities, their clubs, and their churches, both individually and collectively, moved into larger worlds and enabled others to go with them. Nowadays we could say such women blazed trails. Did they consider themselves feminist? Not likely. True, it was most often women who recognized and did something for other women and children, a group most likely detained at the end of the line even by do-good organizations and aid agencies. They might not have given it words but those in the Women’s Institute probably recognized that women were the ones who could build community if they were motivated and shown how. Their efforts threatened no patriarchy because patriarchy also benefited.

Springtime 1959, in Bass River, a community meeting was called to discuss fire protection for the area. It was the seedling of an idea that grew to become a permanent Fire Brigade, equipped, housed, staffed and financed by the region. The seedling germinated within the Women’s Institute.

In the History of Bass River 5 the authors of the section on the Women’s Institute outlined the activities in and around Bass River. It was noted that from Bass River had come two presidents of the provincial organization, The Women’s Institutes of Nova Scotia. In 1936 Marion Fulton Lank represented Nova Scotia at the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW) in Washington, DC. And in 1950 Rachel Cooke Wilson did so at Copenhagen, DK. The Women’s Institutes of Nova Scotia honored the two by naming their Home Economics Scholarship for them in 1958 and in 1968. They, incidentally, happened to be neighbors.

Neither advancing age nor intelligence enables a person to understand her own times or her place in it. Even keepers of diaries are likely to write down record-breaking temperatures, flare-ups of arthritis and the day a whale washed up at Economy Point; hardly the stuff of history, yet, other than births, marriages and deaths, they are frequently the details that occupy our days. None is trivial. A birth, a marriage, a death; each is an intricate process of greetings, meetings and goodbyes. Nor was Rachel, as savvy as she was, able to understand her times.

We know she was a child of a new century, born into a tiny village and motivated to become qualified in the nursing profession. She accepted an unusual job which entailed travel, independence and perks that few of her fellow graduates enjoyed. She appeared way ahead of her time. Had Rachel been choosing careers at a later time in the same century she might not have chosen nursing at all but rather business or financial management. That’s where she was a natural, whereas the bodily contact required in health care was not really her forte. When a messy job needed to be done, she invariably held-back, leaving it for someone else to step forward.

The culture of her day, however, would always nudge her toward marriage. No matter how interesting or fulfilling her life, it would somehow be hollow without marriage, so everyday thinking went. But Rachel appeared to have it all. She continued working after marriage, something denied other married women but the difference between her and coming generations of working women was that her work was necessarily as a volunteer. She wasn’t alone. The work of many organizations and communities benefitted from the hours and years of volunteer work contributed by married women.