Tonight: I toast the Women’s Institute on BBC Two
Thanks so much for watching if you’ve visited me after tonight’s programme! Here’s a little more about it, from an article I wrote in this week’s Radio Times…
‘I recently found myself making jam in a village hall, the quintessential Women’s Institute activity, with a group of Hampshire ladies who included the “Chutney Champion” of the New Forest.
Who knows who I might be mixing my preserves with were I to join the WI in Norfolk.
It’s been reported that the Duchess of Cambridge is planning to join the WI near her home of Anmer Hall, an action that’s been read as reflecting her “normal”, middle-class values.
But there’s something pretty extraordinary about the institution that has also counted Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, and the Queen among its members.
One hundred years old this September, the WI has managed to be both part of the establishment, and, at the same time, a deeply subversive organisation.
Which helps explain how I also came to spend a sunny Saturday with the Shoreditch Sisters, a WI branch whose 20-something members identify themselves as feminists. We joined a noisy protest against the treatment of asylum seekers at the Harmondsworth Removal Centre.
But both the cake-bakers and the troublemakers have something in common: a belief that women deserve a club that inspires, comforts and campaigns on their behalf. What intrigues me most is the WI’s long lineage as a radical campaigning body, which often gets overshadowed by its reputation for competitive chutney-making and other such domestic activities. Well-behaved women rarely make history, it’s often said, and the founders of the WI could be very badly behaved indeed.
Take the story of Edith Rigby. In 1913 the country seemed to be at peace, but beneath the surface, a civil war was raging, as the Suffragettes turned to increasingly desperate measures in their fight to win the vote.
On 7 July 1913, Edith – a Suffragette from Preston and a friend of the Pankhursts – might have been seen lugging a keg of paraffin up to the hilltop holiday home in Lancashire of Sir William Lever, soap magnate. She laid a trail of paraffin round the wooden structure, lit it, and ran away down the hill.
As she got into the getaway car, the driver remembered that she was grinning.
Edith turned herself in to the police the next day. Using the dock as a platform, she asked the world whether Sir William’s burnt-out house was more important as just one of his many “superfluous” homes, or as “a beacon lighted to King and country to see here are some intolerable grievances for women”.
Edith was sentenced to nine months in prison, went on hunger strike, was released and finally fled the country.
But in 1918, after the Suffragettes had finally won their fight for the vote, Edith was back living in a village close to the scene of her crime. And she’d become a founder member and President of a new group that would in its own way continue the fight that the suffragettes had started. It was the WI.
Originally founded in Canada to improve the agricultural and domestic skills of pioneer frontierswomen, the WI only took hold in Britain in the depths of the First World War.
The need to boost food production on the home front resulted in Canadian WI member Madge Watts addressing a meeting of potential members in a garden shed on the island of Anglesey in 1915.
It was a small beginning, but it’s stirring stuff to read her speech to those assembled. “You will grow and grow,” she said, “and with that growth will grow your power – use that power to its full.”
And if you look at the resolutions passed at the AGMs of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes over the past 100 years, you’ll find a potted history of what’s been on women’s minds: from improvements in rural housing to education about venereal disease.
Perhaps the WI’s finest hour came in the Second World War, when members led the charge on the home front, feeding and housing millions of evacuees.
But some of them felt that their voluntary, unpaid work was taken for granted. A surprising consequence of the WI shouldering of the considerable burden of the extra housework caused by evacuation was an AGM resolution, in 1943, calling for such work to be remunerated.
“Women are important,” the resolution ran, “not just important as housewives and mothers and girlfriends and ‘sewers-on-of-buttons’ but vital and essential if we are to win this war… let one good thing that comes out of this disastrous calamity be fair pay for women.”
It would take another 30-odd years for the Equal Pay Act to be passed, but in making the case for it, the WI were way ahead of the women’s movement of the 1970s.
In fact, many of the same issues raised by the Women’s Libbers were completely familiar from WI campaigns: the provision of nursery care, and contraception. But the difference lay in the “F” word. Many WI members would have been offended if you called them “feminists”. But the Libbers would have been offended if you didn’t.
The WI did achieve a radical change in its public image in the 2000s, when members got naked – by creating a saucy calendar to raise several million pounds for leukaemia research (their story told in the popular Calendar Girls) – and got angry.
Their slow-hand-clapping of Tony Blair, when he broke Institute rules by making an overtly party political speech at a national conference at Wembley in 2000, captured headlines everywhere.
Is there still a need, you might ask, for a movement that’s purely for women? Well, today’s 200,000-plus members – that’s on a par with Labour, Britain’s biggest political party, by the way – would tell you that there is.
In its centenary year, one of the resolutions it considered for its AGM was this. “As we mark 100 years of the WI, we deplore the unacceptable level of gender discrimination that still exists.” They called for the removal of “barriers preventing today’s women and future generations reaching their full potential”. Who can argue with that?
To the formidable ladies of the WI, I say this: I’m proud to have wielded the jam-spoon with you.’