It seems there is more to the Women’s Institute than many in Britain would first imagine.
Everyone knows they spent the war making jam, that the sensational Calendar Girls were WI members and that they more recently, and surprisingly, slow-handclapped Tony Blair.
Over 215,000 women in the UK belong to the WI and their membership not only crosses class but has recently begun to recruit huge numbers of young women.
Jane Robinson’s fascinating trawl through WI history reveals the movement was founded in 1915, not by worthy ladies in tweeds but by the feistiest women in the country, including suffragettes, academics and social crusaders who discovered the heady power of sisterhood.
A specialist in women’s history, Robinson is quick to point out that the WI has long suffered from a stereotypical image in which the organisation’s worthy but frumpy members merely bake cakes and sing Jerusalem.
This is far from the truth, we soon discover. The WI’s ‘think globally, act locally’ ethic has placed it at the forefront of change from practical improvements on a village scale to far-reaching national campaigns.
Surprisingly, the roots of the WI lie not in Britain but in colonial Canada and, more specifically, in one woman called Adelaide Hoodless from Ontario whose youngest child John died aged just 14 months from drinking contaminated milk.
Convinced that this was due to a general lack of knowledge amongst mothers about the science of hygiene, she began the first of many crusades.
In 1897, Hoodless and nine others officially founded the Women’s Institute with the aim of teaching women the importance of a practical domestic education and ‘how to be most useful at home.’
Back in England, there was already a similar organisation in London’s Mayfair but it had a very different membership and vision from the one founded by Hoodless. Made up mainly of suffragists and professional women, it was more of a ladies’ institute than a women’s institute.
The driving force behind the official WI in Britain was undoubtedly the autocratic, impatient and overbearing Madge Watt, a tough nut Canadian who left her homeland with her two sons in 1913 to escape the scandal of her husband’s suicide.
Initially she fought a bitter battle with both the British class system and what she termed the nation’s ‘bloody-mindedness.’
The very first official WI was set up in Llanfair PG in Anglesey, and Watt’s advice to those early members seems as pertinent today as it was 100 years ago. ‘If you become dull the young will not join, and your members will decrease.’
Of course, the WI really came of age during the two world wars when its stalwart members helped to keep the country fed.
They ploughed the fields, picked and bottled fruit, made and knitted clothing, taught the basics of first aid and bred animals for meat.
In between, they ran social campaigns, opened their own adult education centre, Denman College in Oxfordshire, and set up homes for both the disabled and the mentally ill.
Their success has been their ability to adapt and change. The ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ image may persist but these resilient, influential and determined band of women should never be underestimated. ‘Women have a voice,’ observes Robinson, ‘and whenever they speak together, they are heard.’
(Virago, hardback, £20)