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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 29 June 2012
As a WI member I am often asked about the Jam and Jerusalem culture. This book dispels the myths and the ideas some younger people have. The book is fun to read and full of information. Right from the "A Dozen Ways to Kill an Institute" comedy drawings and how not to be a good member list right at the very front, (Every WI member will recognize people in that list) the book is a pleasure to read. I enjoyed it immensely and found answers to questions I still had, even as an office holder in my own WI. The WI IS a force to be reckoned with and inside the pages of this brilliant book you find out just how strong that force can be. I recommend it to all WI members and anyone who wants to know more about the past, present and possibly the future of the WI.
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on 24 November 2012
I took this out of the library in order to research some information about Gertrude Denman and the formation of the Women's Land Army. By page 10 I had ceased reading it for research purposes and read it for pleasure! Not that my research was unrewarded - its just written in such an engaging, frank style (the occasional authorial "asides" are particularly entertaining)- that I more or less forgot to take notes along the way. Am I, as a mere man, allowed to say that I really enjoyed learning about the determined (and sometimes formidable) women who created the WI? Before I realised it, I was nearly 2/3 of the way through, having read on far beyond the point at which my research dictated that I should stop. Its not often that I read something so funny that I have to stop and laugh out loud, then tell other people in the room what has amused me, yet I did it several times with this book (the Nellie Melba "jelly" anecdote is already a firm favourite, no pun intended)

If Jane Robinson always writes like this, then her other books will be on my "wish list" very soon!
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on 8 January 2012
I found this book to be quite unexpectedly funny and inspiring. The early pioneers of the WI were amazing women with vision, energy and egaliterian attitudes which I had not realised underpinned the movement. It informed my appreciation of membership today and I would recommend it as a good read.
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on 17 November 2011
Being a WI member I had read about this book and I am quite pleased I bought it Have heard good results from other members
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on 7 January 2013
Although I am a WI member I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in social history, the two world wars and womens role throughout the 20th century. It is easy to read, humorous and thought provoking, especially if the reader only thinks of the WI as making jam and singing Jerusalem. I hope it inspires those women who read it who are not members to going along to a WI meeting and see just how great our organization is.
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on 7 January 2012
An excellent, informative and amusing view of the history of the Women's Institute. The biographies of the founder members in both Canada and the UK were most interesting. This book also highlights the principles of the movement and brings you up to date with current thinking. Most enjoyable.
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on 4 August 2013
Having recently joined the WI, I wanted to find out something of the history.This is an interesting insight and written with clear affection and humour. A good read
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on 26 May 2013
This book is a comprehensive history of the W.I. I thought I knew all about it, but have learned so much from just browsing. It is well written, and puts the facts in a very interesting way.
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on 29 November 2012
An excellent book about the WI movement. I actually hear Jane speak and decided to put her book on my wish list for Christmas and bought it for one of my daughters to give me.
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