Tragedy Turned This Victorian Wife Into a Domestic Crusader

Tragedy Turned This Victorian Wife Into a Domestic Crusader
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Why you should care

Because she helped Victorian women clean up their act.

The rules of refined courtship, Victorian-style, were practiced to perfection by many a young lady in late-19th-century Canada. Miss Adelaide Hunter happened not to be one of them.

Instead of batting her eyes, Miss Addie gave her well-heeled suitor, according to the man himself, a “bat on the nose” — an approach that won his heart and transformed the Ontarian farm girl into a Victorian socialite and, ultimately, a world-renowned domestic campaigner.

The death of her youngest child fueled a lifelong dedication to domestic science education — helping wives and mothers apply science to support their family’s health.

Rising above her class did not appear to be on Addie’s list of priorities. “I’d rather ride a wheelbarrow with a man I love than a yacht with one I didn’t,” she told her daughter Muriel, according to Cheryl McDonald in Adelaide Hoodless: Domestic Crusader. But rise she did … by smacking John Hoodless, the well-to-do son of a furniture magnate, during what historians speculate was a heated discussion. She might have won the argument, but he won her hand in marriage, before they settled in Hamilton, Ontario, to raise a family. This was the 1880s — a time when Victorian moms had to guard against the threats of diphtheria, tuberculosis and what they referred to as the deadly “summer complaint” if their children were to reach adulthood.

Sadly, this last disease, caused by drinking contaminated milk, claimed Addie’s fourth child in 1889, when he was just 14 months old, and the tragedy changed the course of her life. “It was a typical female response: ‘Was it something I did or didn’t do?’ ” says Maggie Wilson of the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead National Historic Site, referring to the likelihood that Hoodless blamed herself for her son’s death. This fueled a lifelong dedication to domestic science education — helping wives and mothers apply science to support their family’s health.

Cue feminist eye rolls. True, Hoodless was anti-suffrage and a proponent of traditional female roles. But this was two decades before the vacuum — meaning housework was bloody hard. Done poorly? It could be deadly.

Already involved with public life as a socialite, Hoodless soon became president of her local YWCA, where she pushed for and taught home-economics-style classes. After attending a national conference in Chicago in 1893, she was inspired to launch a national Canadian YWCA. Letter-writing campaigns and speeches about boosting women’s scientific know-how of household management put Hoodless on the government’s radar at a time when leaders feared unhappy rural women would drive their husbands from the farms and into the cities. They therefore applauded Hoodless’ efforts to make homes clean and safe: If women were happier with rural life, they figured, “the breadbasket of the nation would then be safe,” says Wilson.

Adelaide hunter hoodless, canadian advocate for women and children

Adelaide Hoodless was an activist for the Victorian home front.

Source Public Domain

In 1897, the Ministry of Education asked Hoodless to pen the Public School Domestic Science textbook — a tome covering hygiene and frugality that became known as the “Little Red Book.” That same year, a talk Hoodless gave about women applying science at home, just as men did on the farm, grabbed the attention of Erland Lee, a leader in the Farmers’ Institute. He asked Hoodless to speak at his group’s ladies night, where she suggested that women get together to socialize and discuss domestic science. A week later, a crowd of 101 showed up, forming what became the first branch of the Women’s Institute, which spread throughout Canada and, in 1915, to the U.K., where it’s still going strong.

Though Hoodless helped found the Women’s Institute, she didn’t stay involved, says social historian Joanna Rickert-Hall. Hoodless, she says, was a “seed planter” who preferred to channel her energies into education. Just after the turn of the century, Ontario introduced domestic science education into its schools … so Hoodless turned her sights to university-level coursework.

An indefatigable networker, Hoodless lobbied Sir William Macdonald, a wealthy tobacco manufacturer, for money to launch a university-level effort. When he responded, according to Wilson, with something like “If I do it for Ontario, I’m gonna have to do it for Quebec as well,” Hoodless said she saw no problem with that, and soon enough, Macdonald was funding programs in both provinces.

In 1910, Hoodless died suddenly during a speaking engagement a day before her 53rd birthday, leaving an impressive legacy of advocating for change. Her imprint is visible today in the Women’s Institute’s focus on family and community and a host of legal changes the group campaigned for and won over the years, from slow speed zones to railroad-crossing barriers.

For feminists who would take issue with Hoodless’ home-centric objectives, Rickert-Hall says, her “focus on the strength within the family” was progressive for its time and should be heralded still for its timeless importance.

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