First UK meeting of the WI in 1915

Weighty Issues

4th September 2015

Often dismissed as ‘all jam and Jerusalem’, the Women’s Insitute – which celebrates its centenary this year – is in fact a powerful and influential force to be reckoned with. Kathy Walton describes its long and distinguished history of empowering women and campaiging for social change...

Comedienne Joyce Grenfell launched her career in the 1930s by mocking them (“pork pies, buns and a talk on care of the feet”); the BBC series Little Britain lampooned their baking competitions; and Tony Blair’s popularity started to wane from the day he was slow-handclapped by them in 2000. ‘They’ are, of course, the 212,000 members of the Women’s Institute, which celebrates its centenary this year and which many believe has done more to educate and inform women than any other institution.

For all the stereotyping of WI members as tweedy countryfolk with nothing better to do than make flapjacks or embroider samplers, the WI has, with much justification, been described as ‘the most important body formed in the UK during the 20th century.’ According to social historian Jane Robinson, the WI is “the original social network, with the power to change the world in an afternoon”. Edna Healey, wife of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, once praised the WI for possessing “more combined wisdom, experience and knowledge than exists in all the corridors of power.” And she should know.

As an interested party (I joined a WI craft class), I can’t help feeling that the organisation has hidden its light under its knitting-basket for too long. It’s worth remembering that when it was formed in 1915, British women couldn’t vote and very few were educated beyond elementary school. The WI gave them a voice and, despite the Institute’s insistence on remaining apolitical, its desire to make the world a better place meant that, very soon, politicians started to take notice. After all, it is, for example, largely thanks to WI resolutions that female genital circumcision was outlawed in this country; that school dinners were first served in rural primary schools; and that Long Vehicle signs were introduced on lorries.

From the beginning, the WI’s campaigning arm used its muscle to empower and liberate women and, many believe, it was instrumental in winning women the vote. In her very readable history of the WI A Force To be Reckoned With, Jane Robinson documents how an early WI officer, Oxford graduate and former suffragette Grace Hadow, recognised in 1917 (the year before women of property over the age of 30 got the vote) that the greatest task facing the Institute was to ‘equip women for responsible citizenship’. By the simple act of introducing secret ballots to elect their local committee members, Robinson believes that the WI gave women their first taste of democracy and showed them ‘the connection between their affairs at home and those of the nation and how they could influence both.’

It was the WI who urged us all to ‘plant a tree in 1973’ and before that, fought for public phone boxes in rural areas. They are currently agitating for clearer food labelling and for fairer prices for dairy farmers and can be credited with keeping alive traditional crafts such as basket making and willow fencing. Without them, rural pavements would not be tarmaced, many beauty spots would not have public lavatories and local playing fields might never have come into being. In 2000, Rylstone WI in Yorkshire famously removed their clothes (yes, Madam, that calendar) to raise money for a sofa in the visitors’ room at their local hospital – and ended up raising £3m for cancer research.
It was also the WI’s idea that mothers should receive child benefit (which ushered in the Family Allowances Act of 1945), while the National Health Act of 1948 owes much to WI stalwarts who, a decade earlier, set up mother-and-baby clinics to reduce deaths in childbirth and campaigned for more district nurses. Tony Blair may have earned WI derision by delivering an overtly political speech at their 2000 AGM (and even less forgivably, by patronising his audience), but as he and other politicians before and since have discovered, you ignore the WI (whose membership outstrips that of the three main political parties) at your peril.

While we like to think of the WI as very British institution, however, it actually started in Ontario, Canada in 1897, when farmer’s wife Adelaide Hoodless addressed a meeting of women and asked if they would like to form a sister group to their husbands’ farmers’ institute. Adelaide’s idea was for women in remote farmsteads to have somewhere to socialise and learn the rudiments of domestic science. It was as much a personal crusade as a community one; at the time, 20% of Canadian children died before their fifth birthday, often from drinking contaminated milk, and having just lost a baby son, Adelaide was convinced that educating women was the key to saving infants’ lives. Every hand in the room shot up – and the first Women’s Institute was born.

By 1915, fellow Canadian and devoted WI member Madge Watts was spreading the word over here. With the support of the Agricultural Organisation Society (which wanted to boost food production during World War I), Mrs Watts extolled the benefits of the WI to a group of women in a shed in the Welsh village of – wait for it–Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (Llanfair PG for short) on Anglesey, with the stirring and remarkably prescient words: “You will grow and grow and with that growth will grow your power. Use that power to its full.”

Initially, the WI flourished in rural communities, where women were often lonely: the Institute offered friendship, fun and the opportunity to learn new skills. These included bottling copious amounts of jam from surplus fruit during both World Wars and, in 1924, adopting a specially written arrangement of the hymn Jerusalem as their unofficial anthem, thanks to its links to the fight for women’s suffrage.

‘Jam and Jerusalem’ still drive the WI, as (almost) lifelong member and activist 93-year old Olive Clarke OBE, from Cumbria, explains: “There’s a great deal to be said for home made food and domesticity. That is my ‘jam’, while for me, ‘Jerusalem’ incorporates the visionary aspect of the WI and all our resolutions over the years,” she says.
Mrs Clarke’s proudest moment came in the 1970s when, as chair of Westmorland WI, she was asked to help promote cervical smear tests for the first time. A new county medical officer felt that if the WI got behind the idea, cervical smears would become ‘respectable’. “He came into the office and asked us, if he provided a caravan in the villages and a lady doctor, would the WI take up the scheme?” recalls Mrs Clark. “It was all so new and there was a certain modesty about such things in those days, but nevertheless we queued up [to] enormous attention from the press and public. But look what we achieved for countless women. It was our finest hour.”

If you are thinking of joining the WI, you’ll be in good company, especially as the Institute has attracted many younger and urban members since that calendar. Even the Duchess of Cambridge is rumoured to be joining.

On 2 June this year, the Queen (a member of Sandringham WI) held a garden party at Buckingham Palace to mark the WI’s 100th birthday, where, according to Chorleywood member Gloria Thompson, “everyone queued up in an orderly fashion for the marquees” and the food was delicious. “We had miniature finger sandwiches, tiny circles of smoked salmon and cream cheese, tiny asparagus wraps and tiny triangles of vanilla sandwich and cheesecake.” Two days after the garden party, the Queen, Princess Anne and the Countess of Wessex attended the centenary AGM at the Royal Albert Hall.

“The whole day was fantastic,” says Penny Pugh, chairman of Chorleywood WI. “It was amazing to be in the presence of so many inspiring women and to see how passionate they feel about some issues. The royals looked so at ease, just as if they were having fun with five thousand friends.”

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