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Margaret "Madge" Roberston Watt

​​​​​​​March 8, 2022 marks  International Women's Day! 

​Of the many remarkable women who have called Simcoe County home, there is perhaps none more appropriate to recognize for International Women’s Day than Margaret “Madge” (Robert​son) Watt. Born and raised in Collingwood, Ontario, Madge went on to lead an extraordinary life – one that was motivated by a determination to educate and empower women both in Canada and abroad. ​

Margaret Robertson Madge Watt in 1918
Margaret Robertson “Madge” Watt, ca. 1918  Source: Public Domain 

 Margaret Rose Robertson was born on June 4, 1868 to Henry Robertson Q.C. (1840-1923) and Bethia Rose Robertson (1844-1893). She was the eldest of two daughters, and both of her parents were actively engaged in community work. This ethos of community service would be one that Madge adopted in her own life. 

Madge was a talented student, and began her studies at the University of Toronto in 1887. She graduated with a Master of Arts degree in 1891. With strong communication skills and a dynamic personality, Madge found early success as a writer and editor. Following the completion of her studies, she moved to New York City and served as editor of the popular magazine Ladies Weekly. Her time in New York was cut short, however, when her mother took ill. Madge returned to Collingwood in 1893 and, after the death of her mother, she married Dr. Alfred Tennyson Watt (1868-1913).  ​

The Watts relocated to just outside of Victoria, British Columbia, where Dr. Watt served as the Medical Health Officer and Superintendent of William Head Quarantine Station. It was at this point, as she adapted to a more rural lifestyle, that Madge’s involvement with the Women’s Institute​ (WI) began in earnest. She was an early adopter of the movement and was a founding member of the Metchosin Women's Institute​. She also served as secretary of the Women's Institute Advisory Board for British Columbia.  

Following the death of her husband in 1913, Madge and her two sons left British Columbia for England. With the onset of the First World War in 1914, Madge recognized the benefits organized, rural women could bring to the war effort. She successfully established a Women’s Institute presence in the United Kingdom (UK). She imparted many of the tenets and practices established in Canadian Women’s Institute branches to these new members. Under Madge’s direction, the WI’s played a key role in wartime agricultural production. Through their efforts food production and distribution was optimized to such a degree that it surpassed England’s supply requirements.  In 1919 Madge was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her role in establishing the WI in the UK. 

Associated Country Women of the World logo

The Associated County Women of the World logo

Throughout the 1920s Madge continued to advocate for the Women’s Institute and, more generally, for the sustained empowerment and organization of rural women within their communities. Through her work with the International Council of Women, she became one of the founding members of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW). Established in 1933, the ACWW is an international, non-governmental organization, which works to coordinate and represent the interests of women-led member institutions. In a speech given at an international conference of rural women held in 1930, Madge Watt was quoted as giving the following statement: 

 “Country women have begun to realize that their best contribution to the welfare of their families and their countries is not to stagger on under burdens too great for their strength, which result in invalidism and premature death; but, through co-operation with one another, to secure that due care for their health as mothers which is their right, and those reasonable opportunities for education and recreation, and development of their talents, which every human being should be able to claim.​”

Madge Watt, 1930 
Source: ​History of the ACWW​ 

 Madge Watt served as the President of the ACWW until 1947, when the ACWW was granted Consultative Status with the United Nations. Through its work with the United Nations, the Food & Agriculture Organization, and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) the ACWW continues to empower women and support women-led initiatives throughout the world today. ​ ​

Simcoe Area WI Officers including Madge Watt, 1944 ​971-15   Simcoe Area WI Officers, 1944​
Simcoe Area T​weedsmuir WI Vol. 1, 1925-71, pg. 157​

Throughout her life, Madge Watt maintained a connection to Simcoe County Women’s Institutes, speaking at a number of Area Conferences. The Mrs. Alfred Watt Memorial Women’s Institute was founded in 1953 near Collingwood, and was named in her honour.

Madge Watt died on November 29, 1948, in Montreal, Quebec. She was 80 years old. In 2007 she was designated a Person of Historical Significance​ by the Canadian Government. A plaque commemorating the designation was installed in Colwood​​, British Columbia in 2015.  

To learn more about the Women’s Institute ​in Simcoe County, check out our post For Home and Country: Exploring Women’s Institute Records at the Simcoe County Archives​ on the Archives blog.  ​

Works Consulted​​

  •  "What we do," Associated County Women of the World. 2021. https://www.acww.org.uk/what_we_do.html 
  •  "The History of the ACWW," Associated County Women of the World.​ 2021.  https://www.acww.org.uk/our_history.html
  • Ambrose, L. M., Hall, Kristin. “A new woman in print and practice: The Canadian literary career of Madge Robertson Watt, 1890-1907." History of Intellectual Culture, 2007, Vol 7, No 1.  Archived 2015-01-12 at the Wayback Machine. https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/hic/article/view/68945/53387​
  • Ambrose, L.M. A great rural sisterhood Madge Robertson Watt and the ACWW. University of Toronto Press, 2015. 
  • Fenner, Ruth. "A Canadian Woman of the 20th Century Who Has Made a Difference." South Vancouver Island Women's Institutes blog, 1999. http://www.svanciswomensinstitute.bc.ca/awatt.html
  • Fenner, Ruth. "Madge Robertson - before she became Madge Watt." British Columbia Women's Institute blog, April 19, 2018. https://www.bcwi.ca/blog/madge-robertson-before-she-became-madge-watt.
  • Simcoe County Area Women's Institute. Simcoe Area WI Tweedsmuir Vol. 1, 1925-71. Simcoe County Area Women's Institute fonds. Simcoe County Archives, Minesing, Ontario.
  • West Simcoe District Women's Institute. West Simcoe District WI Tweedsmuir, Volume 2, 1958-78. West Simcoe District Women's Institute fonds. Simcoe County Archives, Minesing, Ontario.