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Placing Women in Local Historical Narrative



Now more than ever, there is a desire to ensure that the history of our community is more balanced and that it includes the stories and voices of those who have not always been heard. In the case of a rural village in Ontario like ours, it has traditionally been men who are credited for its’ success. While their dedication is not in question, this historical article challenges this narrative by shifting the usual focus to explore what the early women of Whitchurch-Stouffville were contributing to the founding and success of the community. By no means will this article cover our entire story, but will rather seek to encourage a more inclusive approach to thinking about our past.

Pre-Settler Era

The late sixteenth century Huron-Wendat community known as the Jean-Baptise Lainé site located in central Stouffville was a matrilineal society. This population of 1,500 to 2,000 Huron-Wendat members excelled in trade and diplomacy and were considere expert farmers and fisher-hunter-gatherers, and the women of the village played a large role in creating this reputation.

While duties were divided with men, the societal structure within the community and daily operations were organized by the women. Duties included taking care of children and families, farming, cooking, sewing and tanning leather, making pots, cleaning fire pits and gathering food. The success of this remarkable civilization depended heavily on the equal participation of all members.

They raised excellent leaders and were revered by the French for their generosity. Out of all sites across Southern Ontario, this one is considered to be the largest and most complex, and managing the resources and successes here would have been demanding.

Within the longhouse, families consisted of the women, her sisters or daughters, and their husbands and children. It’s important to understand that women had major influence on male leaders within the community, and that women were considered the family guardians and were responsible for protecting village traditions. Ultimately, much of what we know from Indigenous oral tradition about the First Nation populations, we know because of the women’s dedication to tradition and storytelling.

Heather Bastien (1932-2017) is a wonderful example of this dedication, often regarded as one of the greatest Aboriginal cultural heritage champions in Canada. Bastien’s efforts resulted in the protection of dozens of significant Huron-Wendat villages and burials in Southern Ontario, which is the Traditional Territory of the HuronWendat. Moreover, four laws in Ontario were reformed as a direct result of her tireless campaigning for Indigenous rights and recognition in Canada.

Early Settlers

Whether by the Huron-Wendat or subsequent Indigenous groups, the women and girls of the pre-settler era had sown prosperous communities and farmland by the time Abraham Stouffer emigrated here in 1804. The Founding of Stouffville plaque on Main Street demonstrates the earliest formation of the town as we know it today having been due to Stouffer’s ingenuity, stating “In 1805-06, Abraham Stouffer (1780-1851), a Pennsylvania Mennonite, acquired 400 acres of land in this area. By 1824, he had built a saw and grist-mill on Duffin’s Creek, near which a hamlet developed and, in 1832, a post office named Stouffville was established.”

This account of our namesake is absolutely true, but does leave much room for interpretation for the early years of settlement in the first quarter of the century. Let’s imagine what his wife Elizabeth Reesor could have been experiencing at this time, as surely Stouffer couldn’t have founded a village and established a homestead and thriving mill business alone. The work of women was essential to the survival and long-term success of any prosperous farm operation, so naturally they were pretty important to Stouffville.

Upon their arrival after a six-week trek, the land was heavily forested. It was not an easy journey, working tirelessly at home for the social and cultural betterment of the community. Let’s first consider that the Stouffer’s, a Mennonite settler family, were already in the midst of raising a large family when they journeyed to the area, and young mothers could have been simultaneously pregnant and nursing during the early years of settlement.

For the matriarch of the family, this meant a very busy life as household chores in establishing a homestead were unending. There was bread to be made and the cooking was all done from scratch. Mending and sewing clothes was a constant task. Once old enough the children would contribute, but taking care of babies and younger children was a time-consuming job in the backwoods of the nineteenth century. Diapers and clothing all had to be made by hand, no ready-made formula or baby foods were available, food scarce and without choice, yet young women raised a hardworking and intelligent generation of farmers, builders and professionals.

It was lessons such as the importance of dye and remedy gardens, or the recording of recipes and making soap from stove ashes that contributed towards a prosperous community. When we think about the successes of our pioneers in the beginnings of our community, let’s consider that the women were very busy and present in this establishment. It’s not new to hear it takes a village to raise a child – by the Stouffer’s, Reesor’s and many other families who neighboured them, we can corroborate that it also takes a child to raise a village.

Victorian Era

At the time Stouffville entered the Victorian Era (1837-1901) with the rest of Upper Canada, what is now Ontario, women were still viewed as part of the domestic sphere, expected by society as a whole to tend to the economics of the household while men were perceived to be more ambitious and better suited for the public sphere.

This separation of gender roles into complementary spheres was seen largely to deny women of political and social rights, though still women lived outside this predetermined fate, some even becoming involved in temperance unions. For local shop owner Maggie Lehman Wilson who owned a millinery (hat shop) on Main Street at the corner of Church Street South during the closing years of the Victorian period, operating a business was less common for a woman within the community at this time. Certainly, her dedication and others like her spoke directly to the fact that one could be just as successful.

As Stouffville exited the Victorian Era in 1901, so too did it find the progression of women’s contribution to our local history shifting to the forefront. In 1897, following the passing of her infant son due to the consumption of contaminated milk several years earlier, Adelaide Hoodless co-founded the Women’s Institute in Stoney Creek, Ontario, after coming to the staggering conclusion that her own education had not provided the knowledge to avoid such tragedy in the household. Having a far-reaching impact on rural women everywhere, it wasn’t long until our own community’s history would gain a new and very important chapter.

Inspired in the same way as Hoodless in 1897, Vandorf resident Gertrude Van Nostrand founded the Vandorf Women’s Institute in 1905, which was the longest running Women’s Institute in the history of WhitchurchStouffville, closing in 2018. This inception was followed by five other local branches beginning with Stouffville in 1905, Pine Orchard in 1913, Gormley in 1930, Bethesda in 1935 and Bogarttown in 1946. These six local branches were part of the larger movement that led to items such as including domestic science in public school curricula, the education of girls and women in household management, and ultimately brought together the life of girls and women at school, at work and in the home.

The dedication of these local women to family and community demonstrates not only the Women’s Institute motto “For Home and Country,” but it further benefits our community’s larger historical narrative as much of what we know about our past comes from our Tweedsmuir histories – large bound books that are collected and assembled by local Women’s Institute branches to preserve that community’s history, of which there were six in total.

Modern Wartime Era

This beneficial influence on writing community history leads us into the modern wartime era when our local Women’s Institutes, including women not affiliated with the Institute, expanded their definition of community to include those now overseas. The motto ‘Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without’ set the precedent for rationing items like sugar and butter, but also materials such as metals and rubber that could be used to make guns and tires for military vehicles as rationing was in effect for both World Wars.

Let’s also not forget the farm and industrial labour that needed to continue during times of war in order to keep the Canadian economy running, or the women who served, like Stouffville High School teacher Miss Ruth Miller, who was one of the first two girls accepted by the Toronto branch of the Royal Canadian Air Force (R.C.A.F.) during the Second World War. Miller was granted early leave after four years of teaching Mathematics and Science in order to answer the call to serve in the Meteorology Department of the R.C.A.F.

Women’s organizations also took on the responsibility of shipping clothing, quilts and bandages to send to men overseas as well as books, newspapers and treats to keep spirits lively in the trenches. Some of these organizations, including the Women’s Patriotic League, even put together send-off and welcome home parties for servicemen in the branch’s areas and, after the conclusion of the war, were leaders in creating war memorials. This provides yet another concrete example of the women of our community playing a pivotal role in creating and recognizing our history well into the current generations.

For Krista Rauchenstein, Curator/Supervisor of the Whitchurch-Stouffville Museum, recognizing the contributions of women to our community’s historical narrative is a key element to the institution.

“In the 50 years that the Museum has been collecting the history of our community, numerous people have worked to ensure that heritage is recorded. Museums have a real responsibility to help foster equity and inclusion in both story-telling & the gathering of information, and we’re always working to improve.”

Her sentiments speak to why it is important to recognize that we know what we know
because of the women who recorded or collected it.

“It’s important to highlight the contributions made by women to our history through things like journals, Tweedsmuir

History Books, and oral histories passed down through families. It’s also important to acknowledge the work women have done to document this history so that we are able to retell their stories. For international Women’s Day on March 8th we chose to highlight the hard work and inspiring legacy of Jean (Pipher) Barkey (1919-2011), a 4th generation ‘Stouffvillite’,” Rauchenstein shares.

“Jean worked relentlessly to ensure that the history of Whitchurch-Stouffville was well documented. Were it not for her, we may not have the rich collection of historical data we have today. She was in large part responsible for both books that we often turn to for research, Stoufffville 1877-1977 and Whitchurch Township.”

History is all around us, and it exists because we create it every single day, whether it be sharing an experience with a friend or keeping a pandemic journal. Collectively, we are going to be studied hundreds of years from now as a prosperous community of thinkers and doers. History doesn’t belong to any one person and so too does it lack significance when only one voice represents it. When the textbooks are written and plaques published, we need to be keeping in mind that history is her story too

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