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.
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?