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Violet McNaughton: the Mighty Mite Reformer From Saskatchewan

Photo by The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan’s website | CC BY 2.0

Violet McNaughton deserves recognition as one of Canada’s greatest and most formidable adult educators and co-operator of the twentieth century bar none. For sixty of her eighty-nine years, this 4’10” mighty mite reformer was involved in educating others, with time left over to make quilts and strawberry jam. She learned her techniques of organizing and teaching working in Kent, England in the late 19th century as a school teacher (at age seventeen, she even bought a school and ran it for a few years). By the time she arrived in Canada in 1909 she already had embraced the values of co-operativism, women’s and reform movements. She plunged into the tide of reform surging across Canada from sea to sea. This adult educator shared much in common with her sisters in the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom and many other reform movements. Radical changes could be achieved non-violently and co-operatively. This required learning how to co-operate. No advocate of radical separatism, McNaughton believed that each gender had to play its part, sometimes together, sometimes in their own associations. “Organize, organize, organize”! That was her mantra.

Like pesky Father Tompkins of Nova Scotia’s legendary Antigonish Movement of the 1930s and 1940s, she believed that people had the capacity to self-organize. For her, the first step was awareness and understanding of the issue; the second required making a decision for action based on their understanding of the issue; and, thirdly, to act in such a way as to improve their own and the lives of others in the larger community. This was an expansive and generous vision, a form of deliberative democracy in practice. Sheila Steer, who has written a thesis on Violet, states: “This unshakeable belief in the ability of education to shape the society in which she lived, together with her belief in the equality of women and the need for a society based on co-operative principles, provides both the force and rational for her numerous activities.” Vision generates projects; projects find the methods. McNaughton was like a mighty windmill generating almost endless projects. We can only touch on a few.

Three organizations, created between 1913 and 1920, owe their existence largely to her. Like other feminists of her day, Violet responded to the problem of isolation and loneliness by imagining the possibility of an auxiliary to the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association (SGGA). She wasn’t opposed to the Homemakers’ Clubs, or the work churches did in providing socializing and educational opportunities. Her eyes were fixed on creating co-operative economic structures for all, and an auxiliary (Women’s Grain Growers Association) would enable the SGGA to mobilize the energy of men and women. With the assistance of the radical journalist Francis Beynon, the WGGA was created at the annual meeting of the SGGA (the first farm organization to do so) in 1913.McNaughton’s speech proclaimed that women’s weapons were organization.

Her second significant initiative emerged from her belief that those many groups then working for suffrage needed to be consolidated. The franchise for women would improve their social conditions—in fact, essential for tackling problems like prostitution, forming consolidated schools or lack of sufficient medical aid. However, economic change had to precede social and cultural changes. If women’s work was sheer drudgery and they remained ignorant of bookkeeping and finance they remained helpless. So she formed the Provincial Equality Franchise Board in 1915. Saskatchewan became the second province in Canada to grant women the vote.

The third organization McNaughton helped launch was the International Council of Farm Women in January 1919. Like other feminist educators and moulders of public opinion, she wanted farm women to have the right media to express themselves nationally. The needs of women and children could not be muffled or repressed. McNaughton didn’t always find the farm movement (the SGGA) hospitable to her desire to have the WGGA and the SGGA to create a special study branch where they could gather to study subjects like international relations. This was active education for citizenship. But the “intellectual development of the masses” was overshadowed by the economic interests of the SGGA, though Henry Wise Woods, legendary leader of the United Farmers of Alberta, was amenable to using the locals for study.

It was hard slog. By the mid-1920s, interest in both the SGGA and WGGA had waned. McNaughton wondered how women could not be interested in the problems within their local, regional, national and international domains. Violet’s educational vision accentuated the need for radical transformation in the self-understanding of women’s labour. They had to value themselves, otherwise nobody else would. Yes, they were wives and mothers and housekeepers, but they were also producers in the economic sphere. McNaughton never fully subscribed to the popular idea that women were more nurturing and self-sacrificing than men. For her, this had only bred inferiority complexes amongst women.

McNaughton exemplifies the way feminists took up their pens to educate ordinary women. In April 1916 she became the editor of the Saturday Press and Prairie Farm, a small weekly which she used to challenge and chide the established paper, the Grain Growers Guide. Her paper soon evolved into a forum for discussing issues vital to achieving a better world. She sought to re-educate women to take up their responsibilities to build this new world. She carried reports of women’s organizations (and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which she ardently supported), thus creating a network for communicative action. Later she would write for The Western Producer, an influential farm journal.

She found her journalism an effective pedagogical vehicle. There is much more to the story of this tireless and brilliant strategist and adult educator. At the heart of this woman’s vision was the luminous idea that women and men had to “live a life” as well as “make a living.” But to “live a life” material needs had first to be met, which happened through co-operative study and action efforts. Ideally, this would leave sufficiently free time for women to develop their “higher selves.” A potent vision of human flourishing is the corner stone of her work as an educator and activist. Perhaps she might return for a visit. We need some help these days, Violet.

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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