23 Jul The Women’s Institute – 100 years of confounding expectations
When the Rylstone Women’s Institute bared all in a charity calendar in 1999, they changed the traditional perception many people had of the Women’s Institute – that of jam making, Jerusalem and competitive cakes. These ladies came from a rural and often middle class background, enjoying their monthly meeting of talks, learning new skills and enjoying a cup of tea and cake as a break. However, their ideas to raise funds for a cancer charity, to campaign to highlight this disease and their novel way of posing, did show the values and strengths of many of the 212,000 women who belong to today’s WI.
As Lucy Worsley said in her recent BBC2 documentary Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers, these women have confounded expectations for the past century. They may appear “housewife like” in promoting their domestic skills, but at the heart of their organisation they are developing professional level skills in crafts, cookery and gardening. They campaign for national issues for women and rural areas and lobby Parliament. They are a powerful force and voice in 21st century Britain.
Often the members of the Women’s Institute have played to their image of the bossy, middle-class woman who always knows what’s best. Lucy Worsley comments that this combination of qualities had “allowed the ladies of the WI to become both the country’s backbone and its most surprising revolutionaries”.
In 1915, the Women’s Institute in the UK held its first meeting in a garden shed on Anglesey, where a leading Canadian member Madge Watts addressed their need to promote self sufficiency and home food production during the First World War. This forthright lady showed all the attributes of the future strong public speakers from the Institution as she encouraged the potential members: “You will grow and grow,” she said, “and with that growth will grow your power – use that power to its full.”
Interestingly, many of the early members had been active Suffragettes before the war, and the WI adopted their unofficial anthem Jerusalem as its own. It was also the first place that women were able to exercise their right of democracy to vote; in 1918 at their AGM they voted in to provide improved rural housing. Since then, their resolutions have been voted on by members each year – including on issues such as nursery care, battles against sexism, and in 1943, equal pay for women – thirty years before the women of Dagenham lobbied Parliament!
During the Second World War with rationing, the country was struggling to maintain food production. After many pregnant women and new mothers were evacuated, their gardens were left with rotting fruit. So, only six days after the start of the war, the Women’s Institute organised its jam production scheme supported by Lord Walton, the Minister for Food who organised the sugar donation. (This is where the jam making originated!) The local Women’s Institutes produced their official jam to their national recipes and each jar was tested for quality. They were producing half the jam for the country available on food ration during that time.
They also started pig clubs, and farmed rabbit meat and fur for the Russian allies. These women also led the housing and social care provision for three million evacuees. It was actually as a result of the women of the WI taking on this burden of the extra housework caused by evacuation which led to an AGM resolution in 1943, calling for pay for this “housework”.
“Women are important 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.”
The initial idea of the Equal Pay Act began at a Women’s Institute AGM!
In its centenary year, the members of the Women’s Institute are still confounding expectations with new institutes forming in urban areas, members learning Salsa, Jujitsu, meeting politicians, forensic scientists, authors and campaigners.
They are still battling on for equality just as their original Suffragette members were 100 years ago. One of the resolutions presented at this year’s AGM was for the removal of “barriers preventing today’s women and future generations reaching their full potential”. It would seem the WI is as applicable today as much as it was a century ago.
To find out more about your local Women’s Institute, visit their official website.