Linda Ambrose has written the first full-length biography of Margaret (Madge) Robertson Watt and brought worthy attention to a significant figure in the history of rural women’s movements internationally. Watt [End Page 317] has been hailed as a hero for establishing Women’s Institutes in Britain and the Associated Country Women of the World (acww). In addressing Watt’s mythic status, Ambrose is keenly aware of the difficulties inherent in interpreting historical heroes. One of the book’s central themes is the mutability of chameleon-like historical figures; while Watt was beloved by some as a passionate rural women’s activist, she was remembered by others as a difficult personality whose work was driven by a desire to remain in the limelight.
Ambrose spent over ten years conducting travel-intensive research to gather scattered sources in Canada and abroad. The result is a careful study of a woman, born in Collingwood, Ontario, in 1868, who became a transnational figure by the time of her death a century later. The complexity of Watt’s life story is revealed by the contradictions she possessed. Watt was committed to female empowerment, yet deeply aware of traditional notions of respectability, and she believed women’s primary responsibility was in the home. An enthusiastic imperialist, Watt also recognized the importance of international collaboration, despite being “a frustratingly uncooperative co-worker and a surprisingly relentless self-promoter” (4). In addition, although Watt cast herself as an expert on rural life and rural women, her background and overall life experiences exhibited a tenuous connection to the rural. Watt had a town upbringing and was among the first female graduates at the University of Toronto and the first woman to complete a graduate degree in 1890. She had a successful publishing career in Toronto and New York and extensive connections to the upper echelons of society. Furthermore, Watt’s propensity for luxurious travel and finding residence among society’s elite meant that she moved in privileged circles to which few rural women would have related.
The six main chapters of the book are split into two parts, which Ambrose separates by a critical divide in Watt’s personal life. The first part investigates Watt’s family influences and education, her career as a writer and editor, and her marriage and move to British Columbia where she performed “a variety of roles including wife, mother, writer, socialite, club woman, and advisor to government” (70). In these chapters, Ambrose establishes the context in which Watt developed her ideas about public service and the skills necessary to be successful in her activism. The “New Woman” themes that Ambrose investigates during Watt’s school years and journalism career are also contrasted with her more traditional beliefs about women’s domestic responsibilities, which influenced her conviction that rural women should profit from work done in the home or on the farmstead and that this work should be supported and expanded. It was the life-altering event of her [End Page 318] husband’s suicide, however, that signalled what Ambrose describes as Watt’s “second half of her life” and its devotion “to working with rural women and establishing a legacy of organizations that continue to touch the lives of countless women across the globe almost a century later” (96).
The second part of the book begins with Watt’s sojourn in Sussex, England, which was initially meant to be a temporary visit to recover from the tragedy of her husband’s death, but became a six-year stay because of the First World War. During the war, Watt solidified her reputation as an organizer of rural women by establishing the Women’s Institute movement in the United Kingdom. After the war, Watt used her celebratory status as a war hero for organizing women’s work in the countryside for patriotic ends to develop an extensive lecture circuit and build international networks of women who assisted in her dream of organizing rural women worldwide. The creation of the acww in...