Shire Book of the Month: The Women’s Institute by Susan Cohen

The Women’s Institute is a radical organisation and always has been.  That took me by surprise as well.  Susan Cohen’s book ‘The Women’s Institute’ is a real eye-opener and is full of unexpected facts that should serve to blow away any lingering prejudice that the WI is all about Jam and Jerusalem.

The first WI was set up in 1915 in Llanfair in Wales and was inspired by the Canadian WI which was already well established.  The original mission was to harness the skills of country women and to encourage them to play a more active role in village life and to give them opportunities to share activities in a social context with other women. The Great War was already on and there was a great deal that needed doing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the initial movers and shakers in the WI were suffragettes for whom the Institute was an excellent tool in furthering the cause of women.  Country women were often very isolated and there was little opportunity for socialising or personal development and the WI offered the chance to broaden their horizons from politics to practical skills, from art classes to charabanc tours.

The WI catered for women from all walks of life and everyone was equal; the scullery maid would sit at the same table as the lady of the manor and everyone had a voice.

A fine example of WI needlecraftf the manor and everyone had a voice. This situation would have been unheard of in any other context and is another example of the radicalism of the WI. Initially though, women had to be nominated and seconded by someone already in the group which could be quite nerve-wracking.

I asked my friend Mrs Grable why she had initially joined the WI.  She told me that, as a young mother, she was quite lonely at home all day on her own and the WI offered an opportunity to get out of the house and socialise with like-minded women and learn some new skills.  It was also a great way to meet her neighbours and they encouraged each other to go.  She has now been in the movement for forty years and it still has the same appeal, although the activities have expanded considerably since the 1960s.

During the WW2 the WIs were significantly involved in all aspects of war work including organising evacuees, food production and canning projects as well as fundraising and knitting socks for seamen.

The modern WI has also had a major impact in changing the law and leading campaigns including libraries, food labelling, domestic violence, mental health and global poverty and Cohen tells a wonderfully illustrated and evocative story of the importance and relevance of the Women’s Institute and its activities from its inception to the present day.  Perhaps it could broaden your horizons?

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9 Comments

Filed under History, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Shire Books, Slider

9 responses to “Shire Book of the Month: The Women’s Institute by Susan Cohen

  1. Toffeeapple

    An interesting post, I hadn’t realised the extent of the remit either. I did try my local branch but I didn’t feel comfortable there at all, it possibly isn’t my kind of thing. Will you be joining?

  2. wartimehousewife

    I think there are quite a few new branches opening up, Toffeeapple, and sometimes it’s a matter of finding the one that suits you. I’ve wanted to join for ages but just haven’t had the time. Mrs Grable’s group was on my doorstep before I moved but she thought that her group might be a bit old for me! Once my …. ‘project’ …. is up and running I’m definitely going to look into it.

  3. Sue

    It’s something I’ve often thought about. My grandmother was a very active member. I can make jam and sing Jerusalem; it’s the dried flower arrangements I’m not so good at. But flippancy aside, I do know all about the WI’s radical history and admire it tremendously.

    I’d love one of those badges.

  4. Dr Susan Cohen

    I’m delighted that so many people are enjoying the story of the WI. I certainly found it very interesting to research and write, and was overwhelmed by the generosity of those who donated images, many of which were very personal to them.

    • wartimehousewife

      Welcome Dr Cohen! What a lovely treat to have one of the authors join our merry band. I enjoyed reading the book enormously and found it extremely interesting and informative. I was listening to a radio programme a while ago which was discussing the enormous contribution that organisations like the WI and other volunteers made to the community and it threw out the idea of what would happen if they all just stopped doing it. No volunteers in schools, hospitals, community projects, meals on wheels, day centres etc. The conclusion was that the country would grind to a halt.

      I’m also looking forward to getting my nose stuck in to ‘The District Nurse’ (also written by Susan Cohen everyone). These social histories are so fascinating and it’s these stories about ordinary people that tell the real story about how societies operate.

      Do you have any more in the pipeline?

      • Dr Susan Cohen

        Thank you for the generous comments. Seems to me that the WI is , and always has been, part of the so-called Big Society, along with any number of other voluntary organisations up and down the country. Their contribution is invaluable but vastly under recognised.

        I am currently finishing of the manuscript for a history of the Boy Scouts for Shire, which will be out early next year.

      • wartimehousewife

        Ah, we shall look forward to it. We’re very keen on Scouting at the Wartime Housewife.

  5. Stephen Barker

    The Jam and Jerusalem image is rather old hat, having gven talks to a number of WI’s only one sang Jerusalem, doing two verses. As the membership was shall we say on the mature side, the references in the second verse to ‘spears of burning gold and arrows of desire’ was a little disconcerting. Speaking to someone else I know she said that the WI she is a member of only sings Jerusalem if somebody from the county office is visiting. She also said that they conduct their meetings with a glass of wine. So it takes all sorts.

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