I’m not exactly a reader of fiction but I do read crime novels and watch detective series with pleasure, especially the English ones. I am especially amused with the ones set in rural areas. You know, Miss Marple and Midsomer Murders were always my personal favourites. Occasionally I would find some references to the Women’s Institute (WI), an organization which I actually knew nothing about. And yes, the picture I was mentally building was quite a stereotypical one: the Institute was comprised of spinster middle-aged women, who always wore extraordinary hats and spent their time knitting and exchanging recipes of cakes and jams, while dissecting other people’s lives, exercising that kind of surveillance that is meant to preserve order and social hierarchies, as well as morality and good manners.
Let us recall that in the first decades of the twentieth century, the attentions of social and political reformists were almost exclusively focused on urban populations and on the consequences of the industrial revolution (growth of the suburbs, poverty, and lack of sanitation, housing and schools). The countryside, on the other hand, seemed the idyllic place where health, fresh air and appropriate behavior were paramount. Nobody seemed to remember the grueling pace of rural work, with no holidays and the impossibility of setting a rigid number of daily working hours; and if you were a woman, to this intensive labor, you would have to add house chores, taking care of children and preparing family meals. And often all of those were performed in the deepest isolation.
In 2011, Jane Robinson published A Force to be reckoned with. The History of the Womens’s Institute (paperback, London, Virago Press, 2012, 294 p.). This book tells us the story of a movement imported from Canada which grows in Britain since 1915. This book connects and crosses, in a rather interesting manner, biographies of a few personalities (both women and men) with the social strength of an organization which first and foremost goal was to give voice to women living in the countryside.
With no political party, no religious affiliation, no support or subsidies, and resolutely trying to ignore social cleavages (as far as possible) the WI developed a cellular structure that worked as a network and wisely matched local concerns with national causes and interests. The formation of the National Federation of WI (1917, FNWI), which meets in a National Assembly once a year, was a decisive instrument both in the dissemination and articulation of local initiatives and in organizing national campaigns. These meetings, both local and national, provided the first experience of democracy for women; in the UK, despite the suffrage movement of the early twentieth century, the full electoral equality between women and men would only be achieved in 1928.
The WI monthly meetings follow a ritual that has remained unchanged: firstly administrative and regulatory issues are addressed. Proposals of local interest are discussed (local Post Office operations, roads maintenance, organization of a party or a raffle to raise funds) and national initiatives and/or supporting initiatives to international activities are debated (e.g. raising funds for the Freedom From Hunger campaign, establishing a farm in Uganda, settling a cooperative in Botswana or getting agricultural equipment for a farm in Trinidad). Then a conference takes place, and it can address subjects from the proper way to cook a jam, child welfare or how to kill a chicken causing the least possible suffering; demonstrations of how to knit without seams or the perfect way to make a patchwork quilt can be followed by classes to learn how to weld, a conference about a trip to Switzerland, Russia’s news or maybe an art history class. Education has always been a major goal for WI. Ultimately and perhaps the most important part of the meeting: taking some time for tea and biscuits is the perfect occasion to discuss, talk, exchange ideas, recall a certain issue. It was, and it still is, above all, an opportunity to feel and show some solidarity, to promote common interests, to create an opinion, to resolve a conflict.
Throughout the twentieth century, WI always refused state support for they do not want to compromise the freedom of an organization with political or religious agendas. That does not mean that WI hasn’t committed to national causes: their well-known and recognized implication during the two great Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) was outstanding both when it comes to food production and sheltering children and families who fled from bombed cities. Over the years WI promoted successful campaigns: cleaning public spaces (Keep Britain Tidy), promoting the reuse of materials and refusing waste all seem to indicate in a pioneering manner what we today would like to call an ecological consciousness.
Jane Robinson’s book is not a pinkish romance naively singing the achievements of women. It does not hide the tensions and difficulties, or the ups and downs of the movement. But if you take a look at the motions adopted at the most recent meeting of FNWI (Brighton, June 11, 2016) you’ll understand the dynamism, the timeliness and the strength of this movement which we all should reckon with.