The History of the Young Ladies of Baddeck Club

Excerpt from Historic Baddeck by Jocelyn Bethune 

Sitting in the morning room at a U.S. senator's home with a handful of other Washington D.C. women, Mabel Bell is inspired. The very notion that women are informally meeting to discuss current events and learn about the world around them is a foreign one, and participating in it was empowering.

 

“It seemed to me that if women at the heart of things, with all the sources of information offered them by a large city, felt the need of coming together and talking over things among themselves – how much greater must that need be, how much greater the benefit...to women, who like ourselves were so far from things and so dependent on our own resources for all our information and entertainment”, she wrote of that 'Eureka' moment in the U.S. Capitol years later.

 

It was the beginning of a progressive era in women's rights, one that would culminate almost thirty years later with the right to vote.  But until then, most women were marginalized.  A polite woman would never voice an opinion, especially a controversial one, in public.  In fact, decorum of the strait-laced Victoria Era prescribed that a well-mannered woman would not even speak in public.

 

So the very notion of forming a club where women could learn about the outside world was audacious and more than a little bold.  “When our name was under discussion, I remember longing to call it just the Baddeck Club and not daring, lest the men might object to the women taking possession of the village name...We were not women suffragists then,” Mabel Bell recalled in 1911 during the club's 20th  anniversary celebrations.

 

On a cool autumn evening in 1891, Baddeck women and young ladies gathered at the Bell’s home The Lodge to form a women’s club; one that would “stimulate the acquisition of general knowledge and promote sociability”. The women were expected to conduct research, write papers, and then present the information to the members.  The idea was embraced by Baddeck women, who were soon learning about life in Siberia or the move to present a modern Olympics in Greece.  But gathering information for presentations in rural Cape Breton was not an easy task.

 

“Another obstacle confronted us, how were we to get the material for our papers.  The public library was not then started.  We were such a little village, (far) from the nearest railway station...There were no big maps.  We made them on wrapping paper and hung them on curtains to illustrate current events.  None of us had ever spoken in public before and it required real pluck to begin...”

 

During the Club’s 30th anniversary in 1921, Mabel Bell recalled: “among my dearest memories are meetings with the people of Baddeck.”

 

After Alexander Graham Bell died in August 1922, the club was renamed the Alexander Graham Bell Club.  While some members sought to name the club in honour of its founder, Mabel Bell declined the tribute. Meetings have been held continuously since 1891, making it the longest running women's club in the country.

 

Post-Script for Theatre Baddeck by Jocelyn Bethune, February 2015

 

The Young Ladies Club had a profound effect on the village of Baddeck and beyond.

 

The club’s need for encyclopaedias, periodicals, newspapers and magazines spurred the creation of the Baddeck Public Library in 1891 – the first public library on Cape Breton Island and only the second in the province of Nova Scotia.

 

Many of the ladies of the club were mothers of school-aged children. They knew firsthand what few materials existed in the local school. Soon, the wrapping paper maps and other items prepared for a Bell Club audience found their way into classrooms at the Baddeck Academy. Inspired and encouraged by Mrs. Bell, these young mothers of Baddeck realized they could be advocates for their children’s education and in 1895 formed the first Home & School Association in Canada.

The Young Ladies of Baddeck Club about to perform in a play, circa 1910.

(L-R) Ella Watson, Miss Hazel Morrison (later Mrs. Manchester), Mrs. Malcolm McLeod, Miss Bessie MacAskill (later Mrs. Gerald Dunlop), Sadie (McLeod) Currie, Louise MacDonald.

image from Historic Baddeck by Jocelyn Bethune (2009)

image from Historic Baddeck by Jocelyn Bethune (2009)

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