Jane Robin­son pays trib­ute to the ‘orig­i­nal so­cial net­work’ – the Women’s In­sti­tute – which this month cel­e­brates a cen­tury of chang­ing lives across the UK

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jane Robin­son is the au­thor of AForceto BeReck­onedWith:AHis­to­ry­ofthe Women’sIn­sti­tute(Vi­ragoPress,2011)

We cel­e­brate a cen­tury of the in­flu­en­tial Women’s In­sti­tute

Be hon­est: what comes to mind if you close your eyes and imag­ine a typ­i­cal mem­ber of the Women’s In­sti­tute? It is prob­a­bly a grey-haired lady of a cer­tain age dressed sen­si­bly – rather than smartly – in tweeds, pearls and a twin­set. She’s mildly Con­ser­va­tive, Angli­can and spends most of the time in a coun­try kitchen fra­grant with the scent of freshly baked cakes. Once a month she goes to the vil­lage hall for a chat, a cup of tea and a bor­ing lecture on the vicar’s re­cent hol­i­day il­lus­trated by a slideshow on a faulty pro­jec­tor. Any stu­dent of the past soon re­alises that his­tory is full of il­lu­sions. This is one of them.

The Women’s In­sti­tute ( WI) cel­e­brates its cen­te­nary in Bri­tain this year. Through­out its ex­is­tence the or­gan­i­sa­tion has kept ex­haus­tive ar­chives, both na­tion­ally and lo­cally; even the briefest scan through th­ese proves the usual stereo­type to be quite wrong. The WI was set up by political ac­tivists and ed­u­ca­tors to help women of all ages and back­grounds not only to bring up their fam­i­lies and im­prove their com­mu­ni­ties, but to get out into the world and make a dif­fer­ence.

It’s true, though, that in the early days most of its mem­bers were ru­ral house­wives be­cause un­til 1965, you couldn’t form a WI group un­less the pop­u­la­tion it served was below 4,000. Be­tween the 1970s and the 1990s many were at least middle-aged (with the ad­vent of work­ing moth­ers) and ob­vi­ously, if you want a cake baked prop­erly there’s no one bet­ter to ask.

But from its very first mo­ment, the WI was rad­i­cal, in­clu­sive and re­mark­ably in­flu­en­tial. You should be proud if any­one in your fam­ily was ever a mem­ber – she helped to shape our world.

One of the most com­mon as­sump­tions about the WI is that it’s Bri­tish through and through. In fact, its founder was a

Cana­dian, Ade­laide Hood­less (18571910) from On­tario.

Af­ter los­ing her in­fant son to an in­fec­tion caught from con­tam­i­nated milk, Ade­laide made it her mis­sion to teach as many peo­ple as she could about the ba­sics of food hygiene. At that time, 20 per cent of Cana­dian chil­dren died be­fore their fifth birth­days.

Ade­laide reck­oned that the best way to spread her mes­sage was through women. They were re­spon­si­ble for feed­ing their fam­i­lies and keep­ing them healthy. But how was she to reach them? Many On­tario men in the late-20th cen­tury be­longed to Farm­ers’ In­sti­tutes which held monthly meet­ings to dis­cuss the hus­bandry of stock and crops. Why not form a sis­ter or­gan­i­sa­tion, sug­gested Ade­laide, where farm­ers’ wives and daugh­ters could come to­gether to learn from one an­other and from vis­it­ing speak­ers about mat­ters closer to home? And so the WI was born, in Stoney Creek near Hamil­ton, On­tario, in Fe­bru­ary 1897.

Cana­dian be­gin­nings

“It won’t last long with­out a man to run it,” claimed an early critic. In­deed, the WI might never have started at all with­out the sup­port of a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the Stoney Creek Farm­ers’ In­sti­tute, Er­land Lee. With his as­sur­ance to col­leagues that the end of the world would not nec­es­sar­ily ar­rive if wives were al­lowed out once a month, the Women’s In­sti­tute move­ment quickly grew in num­bers and pub­lic aware­ness. Its ear­li­est days in Canada are com­mem­o­rated at Er­land Lee’s for­mer home in Stoney Creek, which has been turned into a WI mu­seum.

It took an­other 18 years for the WI to be ex­ported to the UK. Its mis­sion­ary was Mrs Al­fred Watt (1868-1948), bet­ter known as Madge. She was for­mi­da­ble: one of Canada’s first fe­male univer­sity grad­u­ates and a pas­sion­ate evan­ge­list for the WI. Wid­owed in 1913, she came to Bri­tain to en­rol her sons at board­ing school and to di­rect her con­sid­er­able en­ergy into es­tab­lish­ing the WI in the mother-coun­try.

A gar­den shed in Llanfair PG, An­gle­sey, hosted the first WI group in Bri­tain. Its minute book, held by the Univer­sity of Wales at Ban­gor, lists the com­mit­tee and some of the sub­jects mem­bers dis­cussed, rang­ing from ‘Sal­ads and Salad Dress­ings’ to ‘Child Wel­fare’ and ‘ The Eas­i­est and Most Hu­mane Way of Killing a Fowl’.

Be­cause of its con­sti­tu­tion, there was no so­cial hi­er­ar­chy (on pa­per, any­way) – ev­ery­one was equal. This was con­sid­ered a revo­lu­tion­ary idea, and took some get­ting used to. It meant the lady of the manor was ex­pected to rub shoul­ders with the farm labourer’s wife, per­haps for the very first time; and a 14-year-old with a granny who could re­mem­ber the Crimean War. It em­braced ev­ery­one, from the aca­demic to the il­lit­er­ate and from roy­alty to scullery maid. As one early mem­ber put it: “We are yet bound to­gether in one great and un­break­able sis­ter­hood.”

One of the first WIs in Eng­land was at Sin­gle­ton in West Sus­sex, where the ladies held meet­ings in the back room of a lo­cal inn. This was a prag­matic choice – one of them was the land­lady – but it aroused much sus­pi­cion. What kind of an out­fit was this, to tempt wives and moth­ers away from the kitchen to se­cret ses­sions at the pub?

For many Bri­tish women ( Scot­land’s ver­sion of the WI, the Scot­tish Women’s Ru­ral In­sti­tutes, started in 1917), the WI was their first taste of prac­ti­cal democ­racy. No woman had a par­lia­men­tary vote un­til 1918; Madge and her sis­ter pi­o­neers had to ex­plain to or­di­nary mem­bers what vot­ing meant and how it worked, to equip them to elect their branch’s pres­i­dent and com­mit­tee mem­bers. “An in­sti­tute is not ruled,” said Madge, “but rules it­self... Men may laugh at the ‘ lit­tle woman’ but the time will come when that lit­tle woman with­out ty­ing her­self to rail­ings, or knock­ing off po­lice­men’s hats, will, sim­ply by mak­ing her views known through­out the in­sti­tute, be able to de­mand and get health­ful im­prove­ments in vil­lage life, up and down the land... Use that power to its full.” This was heady stuff. Power? For women?

In fact, it was part of the WI’s pur­pose, en­vis­aged by its founders in Bri­tain, to pre­pare ‘or­di­nary’ women for the sort of power they would un­de­ni­ably hold once they be­came en­fran­chised. Sev­eral of the lead­ing lights be­hind the WI move­ment in Bri­tain were also fer­vent suf­frag­ists.

In the in­ter­ests of in­clu­siv­ity, the WI has al­ways been strictly non-de­nom­i­na­tional and avoids party pol­i­tics like the plague. That’s why the un­for­tu­nate Tony Blair was slow-hand­clapped in 2000: it wasn’t that the mem­bers at the WI’s AGM that year were all Tories, but the fact that he was us­ing their meet­ing as a plat­form for party pol­i­tics that up­set them. They con­sid­ered this both dis­cour­te­ous and pa­tro­n­is­ing. Re­li­gion and pol­i­tics can be di­vi­sive, and the WI has al­ways pre­ferred to con­cen­trate on what unites them.

A gar­den shed in Llanfair PG, An­gle­sey, hosted the first ever WI group in Bri­tain

From that point of view, the WI was founded in Bri­tain at ex­actly the right mo­ment. Dur­ing the First World War, the coun­try needed all the food it could get. Thanks to the Ger­man U-boat block­ade there was a real risk of mal­nu­tri­tion, if not star­va­tion. The WI read­ily vol­un­teered its mem­bers to serve on the Home Front as pro­duc­ers of meat, veg­eta­bles, fruit and pre­serves. They ran rab­bit, pig and poul­try clubs; agri­cul­tural co-op­er­a­tives and mar­kets; pre­served soft fruit in new-fan­gled can­ners or jars; made pick­les and chut­neys; and – of course – boiled vats and vats of jam.

Those who didn’t cook ran classes on how to be a tin­ker, mend­ing saucepans and buck­ets; or a cob­bler, re­cy­cling old mo­tor­bike tyres for work­men’s boots and more el­e­gant bi­cy­cle tyres for ladies’ shoes. They dried ferns to stuff dolls and wisps of wool from the hedgerows to spin into yarn and went out into the fields to gather sphag­num moss to dress wounds and thistledown to fill quilts. This was the first age of na­tional ‘make do and mend’.

Af­ter the war, like ev­ery­one else, the WI turned its at­ten­tion to­wards build­ing a ‘coun­try fit for he­roes’. Cam­paign­ing has al­ways been at the heart of the WI, ever since Ade­laide Hood­less’s at­tempt to make sense of her son’s death.

In 1920, the ever-prac­ti­cal WI cam­paigned for a ‘Bas­tardy Bill’ to give fi­nan­cial and moral sup­port to a wartime legacy of sin­gle moth­ers and their il­le­git­i­mate ba­bies. Il­le­git­i­macy was never men­tioned in po­lite com­pany. It was par­tic­u­larly coura­geous, there­fore, for a newly-es­tab­lished group of women – ea­ger to be taken se­ri­ously – to fight so pub­licly for the rights of so­ci­ety’s out­casts.

In 1922, an­other cam­paign be­gan, this time for the in­creased aware­ness and treat­ment of sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases ( STDs). This was a prac­ti­cal con­cern for WI mem­bers: those men for­tu­nate enough to have re­turned from the Western Front of­ten brought STDs with them, picked up in sol­diers’ broth­els. Again, not a nice thing to talk about, but un­less some­one did, there was risk of an epi­demic.

So the WI stepped up to the plate, just as they did in 1924 when cam­paign­ing for more fe­male po­lice of­fi­cers. This wasn’t just a mat­ter of equal­ity in the work­place: WI mem­bers recog­nised that if a woman suf­fered do­mes­tic or sex­ual abuse, she was far more likely to re­port it to an­other woman than to some burly male cop­per.

Shock­ing dis­cov­er­ies

Be­tween 1939 and 1945, WI mem­bers re­vis­ited their First World War role. Just as im­por­tant as their prac­ti­cal ef­forts in food pro­duc­tion was the so­cial im­pact of their work with evac­uees.

In De­cem­ber 1939, a ques­tion­naire was sent to ev­ery WI sec­re­tary in the coun­try to be com­pleted by mem­bers who were look­ing af­ter evac­u­ated chil­dren and in some cases, their moth­ers. It asked whether the chil­dren suf­fered from head lice, skin dis­eases, bed-wet­ting and “other sim­i­lar in­san­i­tary habits”. If the chil­dren’s moth­ers were with them, WI mem­bers were asked if there were any “who lacked the knowl­edge or will to train their chil­dren in good habits”.

A to­tal of 1,700 in­sti­tutes replied, and their re­sponses, pub­lished in a WI book called Town Chil­dren through Coun­try Eyes (1940), was shock­ing. Chil­dren were re­peat­edly de­scribed as filthy, some­times rid­den with ver­min.

Of 849 chil­dren who ar­rived in Dorch­ester, Dorset, 229 had lice, 19 had skin dis­eases and 43 ha­bit­u­ally wet the

bed. One dis­traught WI mem­ber re­ported a fam­ily from Beth­nal Green for climb­ing on to the bed to uri­nate and defe­cate; an­other had to cut her charges free of the ragged clothes into which they had been sewn who knows how long ago.

The news wasn’t all bad, but over­all the pic­ture re­vealed by WI mem­bers in Town

Chil­dren through Coun­try Eyes was grim, and iron­i­cally for a ru­ral or­gan­i­sa­tion, it high­lighted the des­per­ate state of Bri­tain’s ur­ban slums with un­com­pro­mis­ing clar­ity.

So­cial ar­chi­tect Wil­liam Bev­eridge ac­knowl­edged his debt to the Women’s In­sti­tute, whose mem­bers were ar­guably the first to open Bri­tain’s eyes to the ur­gent need for a na­tional wel­fare state.

The Tony Blair episode in 2000 and the phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess of Cal­en­dar Girls in­vig­o­rated the WI at the be­gin­ning of the 21st cen­tury. It had been flag­ging a lit­tle in the decades af­ter the war, when many women who might have been mem­bers were now out forg­ing ca­reers or work­ing in pub­lic ser­vice – both of which the WI had been urg­ing them to do for years.

In this, the move­ment was a vic­tim of its own suc­cess. It gave its mem­bers the con­fi­dence to make a life for them­selves out­side the home, which meant they had no time to go to WI meet­ings.

Now, 100 years on from the first WI meet­ing held in the UK, there’s no stop­ping it. Num­bers are grow­ing, not just in ru­ral vil­lages but in­ner-city neigh­bour­hoods, pro­fes­sional work­places, univer­sity cam­puses, hospi­tals and be­yond. Its mem­bers (212,000 and ris­ing) still cam­paign, still sup­port one an­other, still value meet­ing each other face to face. Per­haps that per­sonal con­tact is even more pre­cious now, in the era of vir­tual re­al­ity, than ever be­fore. The WI was, af­ter all, the orig­i­nal so­cial net­work.

WI women try not to mind too much about the lazy old stereo­types, pre­fer­ring to cel­e­brate a re­mark­able her­itage. Cer­tainly, they have boiled jam and sung Jerusalem – but they have also made his­tory.

Women’s In­sti­tute mem­bers make jam for the war ef­fort, c1940 – but there is a lot more to the WI than this stereo­typ­i­cal im­age sug­gests

An op­er­a­tion be­ing ob­served at Univer­sity Col­lege Hos­pi­tal Med­i­cal Sdgfgfgfg­chool, Lon­don, 1898

WI mem­bers on a A pa­tient be­ing treated res­i­den­tial hand­i­crafts while un­der ether in 1846 course at Den­man Col­lege,

Ox­ford­shire, 1953

Pour­ing tea for mem­bers of the WI in 1961

Left: Mem­bers of Spring­field Women’s In­sti­tute in Es­sex make chut­ney at a lo­cal rec­tory in Au­gust 1941

WI mem­bers sell pro­duce at mar­ket stalls in Mal­ton, York­shire, c1942

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