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Feminist Success Stories - Célébrons nos réussites féministes

Karen A. Blackford
Marie-Luce Garceau
Sandra Kirby

Part V: Caring — Partie V : Question de soins et de services

Feminizing Social Welfare: The Needlework Guild of Canada, 1892-1995

Heather L. Garrett

Texte intégral

Feminizing Social Welfare: The Needlework Guild of Canada, 1892-19951

  • 1 A version of this paper was presented at the CSAA Conference, Carlton University, Ottawa, Ontario (...)

1The formation of women’s organizations was a widespread phenomenon in the mid-nineteenth century. Many of these women’s groups began in churches and were committed to charity work. It has been argued that toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was an increase in women’s organizations committed to social reform (Baines 1988). Some women’s groups which have been studied are the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the National Council of the Women of Canada (NCWC). Historians connect the groups’ emergence with a series of fundamental changes in the late nineteenth century: the entry of women in the workforce, lower fertility rates, expansion of towns and cities, immigration, industrialization, changes in transportation and schooling, and the migration of young workers into the city (Mitchinson 1982).

2It can be argued that one of the main consequences of the growth of women’s clubs was the extent to which they encouraged women to come out of the domestic, private sphere and into the public sphere. They also provided women with the chance to learn from each other. Although much of what was learned was an extension of their domestic role, the association enabled some women to develop skills that could be used in the public sphere, such as managing finances, organizing meetings, and preparing reports. These were skills they were unlikely to learn in the home. Almost all of these groups were restricted to women and provided them with a chance to develop friendships and take on leadership roles otherwise normally denied to them. Moreover, some of the groups such as the YWCA are still in operation today.

3One group which formed during this period and is still in operation today is the Needlework Guild of Canada. The Guild’s main aim was the collection and distribution of new handmade garments and household linens for adults and children. Similar to the original Needlework Guild of England, whose mandate was to make articles of clothing for state-run orphanages in order to “bridge the Island of Waste and the Island of Want,” the Canadian Guild used the goods it collected to meet the needs of state-operated hospitals, homes, and charities.

4This paper will show how the voluntary work engaged in by the members of the Needlework Guild of Canada exemplifies the feminization of the social system. It will be argued that this women’s reform group can be considered an example of the successful feminization of an institution in the sense that success means the following:

  1. providing women with a chance to meet and socialize outside of the domestic realm
  2. providing women with a chance to make use of domestic skills which gave them a sense of self-worth
  3. providing women with a chance to learn new skills and exposing them to new ideas
  4. providing a service to others in need in the absence of state agencies

5If successful feminization of an institution is defined in terms of breaking down patriarchal power relationships and class privilege, the Guild does not qualify. However, it was a product of its historical time, and its maternal feminism cannot be dismissed simply in the light of future events. By locating these women historically, it will be argued that the organization of the Needlework Guild enabled its members to undertake social reform successfully, as well as create a support network sufficiently meaningful to some women that it is still in operation today.

6To set the context, I briefly discuss the ideology of maternal feminism, followed by a brief history of the original Needlework Guild of England and of the Toronto Branch. Finally, evidence gleaned from Annual Reports, Minute Books from business meetings, and newspaper reports chronicling the work of the Guild over 100 years will be analyzed to show how its members were maternal feminists and how the group can be in this context considered successfully feminized.

Maternal Feminism

7The ideology of maternal feminism (Kealy 1979) is associated with the literature on the emergence of national women’s organizations. It incorporates the ideas from both social feminism (Kraditor 1968; O Neill 1969) and domestic feminism (Smith 1974). Maternal feminism draws from social feminism the idea that women should have the right to engage in social reform in the public sphere because of their special characteristics as women. The term social feminism was coined by O’Neill (1969) in order to distinguish extreme or hard-core feminists who were specifically concerned with women s rights from those women, called social feminists, whose main concern was social reform. This term has been closely linked to women’s role in the suffrage movement.

8From domestic feminism, maternal feminism draws the claim to greater women’s autonomy inside the family, but not beyond it in the public realm. The term “domestic feminism” was developed by (Smith 1974) in his work on the limitation of family size and sexual control during the Victorian era in America. He argues that it is inappropriate in understanding women’s historic position to separate public and private in this period since so few women had the opportunity to participate in the public sphere at all.

9Drawing on Kealy (1979), I adopt the perspective of maternal feminism in this paper:

Building from the term “social feminist” and incorporating the important role played by domestic ideology, “maternal feminism” refers to the conviction that women’s special role as mother gives her the duty and the right to participate in the public sphere. (Kealy 1979, 7)

10The key tenet of the ideology is that not only married women but all women possess the special characteristics and virtues that qualify them for reform of the public sphere. It is also assumed that women are normally superior to men because of their special characteristics. Hence, only women can effectively address those uniquely “domestic” problems fostered by industrialization such as poverty, crime, child welfare, child labour, infant mortality, working girls, public health, intemperance, prostitution, morality, social purity, housing, juvenile delinquency, concerns with food and milk contamination, demand for education, and perceived lack of cultural standards. Thus, as Brandt (1985) notes, women’s reform organizations developed in response to the lack of success in handling societal problems experienced by state agencies headed by male governmental officials (Brandt 1985).

11This public reform activity was legitimated because it was built upon the existing, accepted tole of women in the domestic sphere. Brandt notes that “the acknowledgement of women’s special attributes made maternal feminism seem reasonable and acceptable because it provided a respectable, non-threatening rationale for female activism” (1985, 87). The Needlework Guild can be examined in the context of the ideology of maternal feminism.

Origin of the Needlework Guild

It might amaze many women to be told that there are women, bringing a little new life to birth, who shiver every night in cold beds.... But a motherly, tender-hearted woman, able to project herself into the lives of others, came to realize these things and so she founded the Needlework Guild in London Eng., as long ago as 1883 (Mail and Empire, November 14, 1927).

12The original Needlework Guild was founded in 1882 in Irwene, Dorsetshire, by Lady Giana Wolverton. Lady Wolverton founded an orphanage that became a refuge for hundreds of children who were orphaned in the 1882 mine disaster in Wales. She soon found that the needs of the orphaned children were greater than her institution could provide. The funds were too limited to pay for clothing for the children and “nakedness or near-nakedness remained” (MacArthur 1955, 23). She turned to her close friends, asking them to provide clothing for the orphans in her charge.

13Since Lady Wolverton apparently could have afforded to pay for the clothing herself, why did she call upon her middle-class friends? In his book on the Needlework Guild of America, MacArthur suggests one reason:

Lady Wolverton might have herself supplied the emergency needs of the influx of orphans. That might perhaps have been the easier way. She could have provided ample money. Just to give money, if one has it is the easiest way to “give to charity,” and as even the giver knows, the coldest way. It provides for human needs but leaves the spirit of the recipient empty, and with-holds the heart of the giver. (MacArthur 1955, 22)

14There was another reason. It seems that she noticed that many of her friends were unhappy with their lives and had time on their hands. Though the cult of domesticity was as much or more ideology as reality, these well-to-do women were often confined to the private, domestic sphere (Cott 1977; Welter 1966).

15Moreover, according to MacArthur, Lady Wolverton regularly thought about “all the women she knew whose hands were so often idle, whose spirits were unhappy, whose lives were filled with boredom” (MacArthur 1955, 23), and she worried as much about “the women whose hands were NOT idle, whose hands were, indeed, very busy, doing both useful things and very aimless, time-filling things” (MacArthur 1955, 23). Knowing that many of her friends would have clothing in their homes suitable for the orphans, or if they did not, could easily make the clothing themselves, she recognized the opportunity to serve both the ‘less fortunate’ and her middle-class friends.

16Apparently, Lady Wolverton shared the common upper-middleclass concern with the problems of those ‘less fortunate’ than herself. She wrote, “If only a little bridge could be thrown from the Island of Waste to the Island of Want, how both would benefit!” (cited in MacArthur 1955, 23). The bridge was her effort to engage her friends’ help in providing clothing for her orphanage. Thus, not only was she able to provide clothing for those in need but also provide her friends with worthwhile and meaningful work which they could do in their homes. According to MacArthur, Lady Wolverton asked for her friends’ help in a precise way:

“I’m asking each of you,” she told her friends, “for two new articles of clothing. They must be new. They must be exactly alike. They must not be expensive. They will be better for the children for whom they are intended, and even better for you, if you make them yourselves. As the work of your own hands they are part of you.”
“But why two garments?” Lady Wolverton was asked
“What does the child wear,” replied Lady Wolverton, “while what he has been wearing is being laundered?”
Thus the slogan which has since been used by millions of women — and of men and children — came into existence: “one to wear, and one to wash” (MacArthur 1955, 24).

17Lady Wolverton had, indeed, recognized an opportunity to bridge two social worlds. Initially, she was very successful in obtaining handmade garments for the orphanage. Her local success became an international movement: by 1892, other branches of the Needlework Guild (NWG) had been formed by word of mouth in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, France, Italy, Switzerland, the USA, and Canada.

The Needlework Guild of Canada, Toronto Branch

18The first meeting held to organize the Needlework Guild of Canada took place on December 1, 1892, at the YWCA in Toronto. The group was founded by Mrs. Irving Cameron and Mrs. J. K. Kerr, who served as the Guild’s first president. At this meeting, Mrs. Cameron gave a brief history of the object of the Guild, its work, and the successful growth of the Guild in England and the United States. The origins of the groups are chronicled in the Annual Report for 1935 in the following way:

It is interesting to note that the Needlework Guild was really started here by an American woman, a Mrs. Arthur Dodge of New York, who used to spend her summers at the Georgian Bay, and there she met and interested Mrs. Irving Cameron in the work. Mrs. Cameron got together a group of women here in Toronto to hear Mrs. Dodge speak on the work done in the States and so it was in this manner that our branch came into existence (Annual Report 1935).

19I have traced some of the members who were present at the first meeting using the Annual Reports of the Needlework Guild and biographical dictionaries edited by Rose (1886) and Morgan (1912).The search revealed that the backgrounds of the founding mothers were middle-to upper-class, with a common Anglo-Saxon heritage and religious affiliations which were mainly Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, or the smaller Protestant Churches. In these respects, the women tended to fit the model of those who were part of the late nineteenth-century suffragist and reform club movements. Like others in those movements, many were members of more than one group (Bacci 1983, 5).

20The commitment to prayer exemplifies the influence of the Social Gospel at work in the Needlework Guild (Allen 1975). Needlework Guild membership, like membership in other reform clubs, was a way to demonstrate social salvation through ‘good works.’ The Constitution of the Toronto Branch of The Needlework Guild states that the group is non-sectarian. In this respect, it is similar to the National Council of Women; however, as in the Local Council in the Toronto Branch of the Needlework Guild, prayer was a part of the meetings (Strong-Boag 1976). In fact, at the beginning of the Executive business meetings, prayers were given by various members of the Guild. For example, the minutes taken on April 6, 1898, state that “the secretary opened the meeting, reading short prayers.” This tradition still continues today as the Needlework Guild Prayer is printed in the Guilds most current Annual Report:

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help.
That in all our work begun, continued and ended in thee.
That we may glorify thy holy name. Amen.
(Annual Report 1993)

21The Minute Book reflects the depth of the religious commitment when the secretary was writing about which hospitals should be given articles of clothing from the Guild:

It is always a difficult matter to keep Personality out of a Work, such as the Guild. We have, naturally more sympathy for one Home or Hosp. than another but working as we all do, for the one dear Lord, we must lay aside any private wishes, or prejudices, and so bring a Blessing on our Guild (Minutes, November 21, 1901).

22The actual ‘good works’ which the women accomplished are outlined in the Constitution and the Annual Reports. The first object of the Guild was to “distribute new, suitable articles of clothing among the Hospitals, Homes and needy Institutions of Toronto” (Annual Report 1984). This has not changed much over the last hundred years. The rules of membership were elegandy simple: “All members were required to contribute two or more new garments every year” one for wash and one for wear (Annual Report 1894). In 1892, 456 articles were collected and distributed; in 1993, the number was over 5000.

23One aspect of the Guild’s work was the making of the two new articles of clothing. The rationale for the requirement reflects maternal feminist ideology; sewing clothes is one of women’s special capacities. Sewing for the Needlework Guild was synonymous with being a true woman (Welter 1966). Lady Wolverton expressed the ideology thus:

There must be thousands in England plying the needle’ — the most womanly of all occupations; to everyone I say, you are doing a Divine work; you are helping to carry out the divine mission to ‘clothe the naked’; you are benefitting, by association, thousands of your fellow-creatures; you are benefitting yourselves in the best possible way, by learning to be active, unselfish, sympathetic, and economical (MacArthur 1955.43).

24As for the virtues the Guild fostered, she was equally enthusiastic:

The virtues I see coming out of the Guild are, first, industry; second, the twins: Patience and Perseverance. Patience, for one garment finished, you begin another. Perseverance, because you will not begin Number 2 before Number 1 is finished. Third, another twin, Economy and Ingenuity. Perhaps you hardly call these virtues. To me Economy is a Divine virtue, and Ingenuity the use man makes of it. Fourth, Sympathy. Working for an object gives you sympathy with an object, and this is the Mainspring of the Guild (MacArthur 1955, 44).

25These maternal virtues were not only confined to the Guild, of course, but to the wider society through the Guild’s distribution of quality clothing to state hospitals, homes, and charities.

Feminizing Social Welfare

26Does the Guild exemplify the successful feminization of social welfare? According to Lady Wolverton, the two main objectives of the Guild were to provide ‘benefit to workers’ and to ‘benefit from work.’ Although clearly founded on a maternalistic ideology, the Guild had at least five significant social and political consequences for its middle-class members.

27First, it enabled women to meet other women outside their homes and develop new social networks and friendships. For example, tea was often served after the meetings and the women socialized. As the minutes reflect for April 28, 1909, “the meeting adjourned, after a very sociable cup of tea, kindly provided by Mrs. Blackwood.”

28Second, it enabled these middle-class women to make wider use of their domestic skills, engendering a sense of self-worth and status. In the early days of the Guild, the heightened sense of self-worth drew on the religious link between salvation and ‘good works.’ Moreover, when the women sewed together, the older generation transmitted domestic skills to younger women and deepened friendships:

Older women know when younger ones do not know, but wish to know. They smile, and explain, naturally and simply, and two people of different ages — or comparable ages — become friends for all the rest of their lives. If they are already friends, their friendships deepen because of the inspiration of their concerted effort (MacArthur 1955, 57).

29Third, the Guild enabled women to learn new organizational skills that drew them out of the domestic sphere. As the Annual Reports show, even in a relatively simple organization, there were a variety of formal procedures and practices to be followed, such as taking minutes, collecting articles, managing finances, organizing and running meetings, distributing articles, and advertising for the Distribution Day.

30Fourth, it exposed the women to a wide network of other women’s organizations such as the WCTU, YWCA, IODE, Local Council of Women, Aberdeen Association, and the Women’s Welcome Hostel. The Annual Reports and Minute Books show that the Guild Executive was offered the use of the WCTU rooms for their distribution meetings (Minutes, November 21, 1900); that it provided the WCTU with clothing in 1899 and 1900 (Annual Reports 1899, 1900); that it supported the IODE in 1914, and that held its annual distribution for 1914 at 599 Sherbourne Street, the Headquarters for the Women’s Patriotic League (Annual Report 1914). The Minute Book also records the discussion surrounding entry into the Local Council of Women in 1905. Speakers were often invited to Executive meetings, exposing women to new ideas and reform issues, though normally limited to those compatible with the maternalist ideology of the time. At one meeting, representatives from institutions that had received packages of clothing discussed how the Needlework Guild had helped their particular institution:

Miss Campbell gave a vivid picture of distress amongst the poor where her work lies chiefly with unprepared mothers and newborn babies (Minutes, April 28, 1921).
Miss H. D. McCollum re-iterated the same appeal, and also showed how the decency of being able to wear clothing such as that furnished to her society by the Guild for many years past, often saved the self-respect of growing boys and girls who otherwise would have slunk away into undesirable or depraved bypaths (Minutes, April 28, 1921).

31Finally, the Guild provided a service to others in need, a service which the state was not providing. This is reflected in this excerpt from the Guilds 100th Anniversary Speech by Madelaine Bain:

Toronto, 100 years ago, was a very different place than it is today. The population was under 200,000 and mainly Protestant of British stock. There was no OHIP, no baby bonus, Old Age or Canada Pension, no unemployment insurance. If you didn’t work, or were ill, there was very little government assistance. However, there were many people, men and women, with a dedicated sense of social responsibility, many of the social agencies in Toronto today which are funded by Community and Social Service were founded by people who felt they had a duty to help those less fortunate than themselves. (Annual Report 1993).

32As Baines (1991) notes, women’s groups like the Needlework Guild were the forerunners to contemporary social welfare institutions. The Needlework Guild is still in operation, providing a service to those whom they see as needy, and for whom the state is providing. As Bain noted in her 100th Anniversary speech, Toronto now has “good government-funded social agencies, but in these days of recession, these agencies have a hard time supplying the most basic needs, and rely on volunteer efforts.” She also stated that “as long as there is a need...the Needlework Guild will be there” (Annual Report 1993).

33Considered in historical context, the Needlework Guild was part of the thorough feminization of welfare institutions in the nineteenth century. Moreover, whereas many of the women’s groups which emerged during the club movement of the last century are no longer in existence, the Needlework Guild recently celebrated its 100th anniversary:

The Needlework Guild of Canada, Toronto Branch, is 100 years old. All members have a right to be very proud of this milestone. We have planned three social activities which will give everyone an opportunity to meet other Guild members, renew acquaintances, and let the public know that we represent a group of people dedicated to helping the needy. (Annual Report 1991)

34Today, many of the women of the Guild knit blankets, booties, and bonnets following a pattern for Toronto hospitals with premature baby units. However, the group surely would not survive if it did not continue to fulfil a contemporary form of the maternal feminist aspirations of its members-finding part of their identity in serving those in need through ‘useful work.’



Allen, Richard, (ed). 1975. The Social Gospel in Canada. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.

Bacci,Carol. 1985. Liberation Deferred: The Ideas of the English Canadian Suffragists, 1877-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Baines, Carol. 1988. Women’s Reform Organizations in Canada 1870-1930: A Historical Perspective. Toronto, Faculty of Social Work: University of Toronto.

Brandt, Gail Cuthbert 1985. “Organizations in Canada: The English Protestant Tradition.” pp. 79-98 in Paula Bourne ed. Women’s paid and Unpaid Work: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Toronto: New Hogtown Press.

Cott, Nancy, F. 1977. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kealy, Linda, (ed.). 1979. A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880’s-1920’s. Toronto: Women’s Educational Press.

Kraditor, Aileen. (ed.). 1968. Up From The Pedestal: Selected Writing in the History of Feminism. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Morgan, Henry James. 1912. The Canadian Men and Women of the Time: A Handbook of Canadian Biography of Living Characters. 2nd ed. Toronto: William Briggs.

MacArthur, Burke. 1955. United Littles: The Story of the Needlework Guild of America. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc.

Mitchinson, Wendy. 1982. ‘The WCTU: “For God, Home and Native Land”. A Study in Nineteenth-Century Feminism’. Pp. 190-209 in Michael S. Cross and Gregory S. Kealy eds. Canada’s Age of Industry 1849-1896: Readings in Canadian Social History, vol.3. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

O’Neill, William L. 1969. Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Rose, George Maclean (ed.). 1886. A Cyclopaedia of Canadian Biography Being Chiefly Men of the Time. Toronto: Rose Publishing Company.

Smith, Daniel Scott. 1974. ‘Family Limitation, Sexual Control, and Domestic Feminism in Victorian America’. Pp. 119-137 in Mary Hartmann and Lois Banner eds. Clio’s Consciousness Raised. New York: Harper.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. 1977 “Setting the Stage’: National Organization and the Women’s Movement in the Late 19th Century’, pp. 87-103 in Susan Mann Trofimenkoff and Alison Prentice eds. The Neglected Majority: Essays in Canadian Women’s History. 1st ed. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Welter, Barbara. 1966. “The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860”. American Quarterly XVIII: 151-174.

Archival Sources

Archives of Ontario, F828 Needlework Guild of Canada Papers, Annual Reports, 1892-1990. MU 4696, Folders 1-8.

Archives of Ontario, F828 Needlework Guild of Canada Papers, United Littles, The Story of the Needlework Guild. MU 4697, Folder 12.

Archives of Ontario, F828 Needlework Guild of Canada Papers, Constitution. MU 4697, Folder 20.

Archives of Ontario, F828 Needlework Guild of Canada Papers, Minutes of the First Meeting of the Needlework Guild of Canada, Minutes of 1892 (read at 50th Anniversary, 1942). MY 4698, Folder 40.

Archives of Ontario, F828 Needlework Guild of Canada Papers, Minutes of Annual, Business and Distribution Meetings and Newspapers Clippings 1892-1918. MU 4698, Folder 41.

Archives of Ontario, F828 Needlework Guild of Canada Papers, Minutes of Annual Meeting, 1919-1927, Executive and General Meetings 1921-1927, Management Meeting, 1921 (includes newspaper clippings). MU 4698, Folder 41.

Needlework Guild of Canada, Annual Reports, 1991-1993. Personal Correspondence with Mrs. Elizabeth James, President of the Needlework Guild of Canada.


1 A version of this paper was presented at the CSAA Conference, Carlton University, Ottawa, Ontario in June 1993. I have appreciated the comments of Pat Armstrong, Karen Blackford, and Gordon Darroch on earlier drafts.


Part time Faculty, Department of Sociology, York University

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