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A Force To Be Reckoned With
on 6 October 2011
Having loved Jane Robinson's previous books, particularly the excellent Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, I was looking forward to reading this book. Again, the author looks at history from a women's perspective - in this case she turns her attention to the Women's Institute. Described as the most important body formed in the UK in the 20th century, it has suffered from stereotyping and is seen as a group of, somewhat frumpy, women who bake cakes and make jam. In fact, the Women's Institute was founded in 1915 by suffragettes, academics and social crusaders, to give women a voice.
The roots of the Women's Institute actually begin in Canada, with Adelaide Hoodless, whose youngest child died from drinking contaminated milk. She wanted to give girls practical training in household science. She supported the Women's Institute all her life and died on the speakers platform in 1910. There were already early forms of the WI in England, all described in this excellent book. However, it was not until Madge Watt arrived in the UK from Canada in 1913, committed to establish the movement, that it really became widespread in England. It was a long road, but the autocratic, impatient and overbearing, Mrs Watt was determined. She wanted to transplant the WI from Canada to the Motherland, but struggled with the class system and trying to stop the wide range of women from "bickering themselves out of existence."
The WI was extemely important in both the World Wars. In WWI, when German submarines blocked imports into Britain, they were literally needed to help feed the country. There was a real risk of malnutrition and every ounce of food that could be grown had to be grown. With the men at war, the women became the greatest asset the Home Front had. They ploughed the land, bottled and canned fruit, knitted, taught First Aid, had a rabbit club to produce meat and skins (and not just any rabbits, patriotic ones!) and helped in numerous other ways. From 1917-1918 membership more than doubled and they began their own magazine in 1919.
Between the wars they concentrated on business, education and social help. Friendship and company were important in rural areas and they did much for the people in their communities, including agitating for playing fields for children to keep them safe from traffic, requesting public lavatories in places of interest frequented by visitors and adopting unemployed families in the depression.
In WWII it is said the WI tipped the balance between victory and defeat, which is a major claim. However, the vast efforts of the WI helped in many ways. Apart from the famous Dig for Victory campaign, the WI organised the evacuation of children, made jam (in one centre in Kent, five women were responsible for 1500 jars), housed billeted serviceman, provided foster homes for orphans, wrote to British prisoners of war, collected salvage and fed the Home Guard, among many other things. It is actually incredible what these women achieved and what a major asset they were for the country cannot be underestimated.
The book looks at the modern years too. The opening of Denman College, the WI's own adult education centre, the Special WI's set up in homes for the disabled or the mentally ill. The campaigns and activists among the members, the famous Calendar Girls and the slow clapping of Tony Blair, who underestimated the audience before him. In fact, it seems many people underestimate the Women's Institute, usually at their peril. These are a marvellous group of women, whose core spirit is cooperation, mutual support and a good cup of tea! They gave (and give) women an air of sanctuary in women meeting without men. At times, the author admits, the WI's has lost its way, but they have changed, adapted and continued. They have given women a voice and, when they speak together, they are heard.
This is a wonderful read. Interesting, informative and full of marvellous characters. I recommend it highly, as I would anything by this author. Lastly, I read the kindle edition of this book and the illustrations were included at the very end.