One of the most successful social change movements in the world is a well kept secret in Canada – the place of its origins. I am referring to the Women's Institute which began in Stoney Creek Ontario in the 1890's. Today eight million women are involved from over sixty countries. We have forgotten how revolutionary and transformative they were and are. And few of us would know the names of their early leaders.
You can learn a lot by studying successful social change initiatives – those that are so well known they have evolved to become context, part of the background. It is tough enough to penetrate through the status quo. To go against the grain and to simply survive. It is tougher still, to be able to spread your ideas, to scale them up so they make an impact and endure.
95 years of the Women's Institute is a testament to endurance. The Women's Institute has achieved that elusive, treasured objective – to change the role of women from marginal to societal norm. They have gotten into the water supply.
The Young Foundation in London is the world's secretariat for contemporary social innovation. It is headed up by Geoff Mulgan. In their publication, Social Silicon Valleys, the Women's Institute was listed as one of the top ten social innovations in the world. This rural invention ushered a first wave of feminism into the mainstream. Subsequent groups and waves were able to drink from their guidance and achievements.
And yes, despite its current low profile there was a founder, Adelaide Hoodless (pictured above) who was jolted out of her comfortable life when her infant son died after drinking contaminated milk. And there were passionate leaders like Janet Lee who was elected to the first WI Board and Laura Rose their first paid organizer. They took up the organizational challenge of (a) survival and (b) responding to requests to help develop similar organizations elsewhere.
Only a very few social innovations are built around an individual. Florence Nightingale and Maria Montessori for example. Most however pass beyond that early personality – dependent stage. Indeed this is a critical element of getting your big world changing idea into the water supply – to be able to transcend time, place and yes personality to infuse into culture and society's institutions.
(1) Adelaide Hoodless also had a hand in forming the YWCA, Victorian Order of Nurses and National Council of Women. Pretty good instincts and staying power, I'm sure you would agree.
(2) This is the second in a series I am calling, In the Water Supply – a look at how world changing ideas become common place. Click the Water Supply Category on your right to access the others.