The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The Women’s Institute as a Social Movement 
by Maggie Andrews.
Lawrence and Wishart, 176 pp., £12.99, June 1997, 0 85315 833 9
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When my grandmother was 16, she told her headmaster that she wanted to study science at university. This did not go down well. Though she had always come first in science in her (co-educational) class, the headmaster was adamant: he was not teaching Higher School Certificate maths to girls. Or chemistry. Or physics. She was allowed to do biology, but apart from that had to choose arts subjects. She managed to persuade the local university that, were they to enrol her, she would teach herself everything she should have covered at school – which she somehow did. My grandmother was 16 in 1932, and whenever I start to think of feminism as unnecessary or irrelevant, I remind myself of how recent that is and how much has been achieved since then.

The thesis of Maggie Andrews’s somewhat troubled book is that the Women’s Institute is ‘a significant feminist organisation’. She has not set out to write a history of the WI: there have, apparently, been several of those. This is a conscious attempt to produce a political account of the forces which formed, and then changed, the Institute, and is intended to reveal ‘a different perception of feminism in the past’. Andrews is aware that this might sound contentious, acknowledging in her Introduction that it would be hard to reconcile ‘the notion of the Women’s Institute Movement as all about “Jam and Jerusalem” ’ with the ‘tabloids’ perception of feminists as “hysterical shrews” or “Dungaree Dykes” ’. She is probably too conscious of this discrepancy and backtracks constantly to justify her claims, punctuating the narrative with anxious asides: ‘It is not easy to see the feminism in this’; ‘At one level a concentration on domestic skills for women ... can be seen as part of a reactionary ideology, but this is too simplistic’; ‘the NFWI’s perception of womanhood may have been primarily domestic, but it was not a passive domesticity.’

It is difficult to see why the tone has to be so guarded. Andrews admits that the WI’s founders did not have overtly political ambitions for the organisation and that its executive body has always been reluctant to associate itself directly with feminism. Her main point seems straightforward: the WI network is feminist, first because it provides a male-free environment in which women can discuss issues and learn new skills, and secondly because its concern has always been to improve the lives of women in small but significant ways, campaigning for such things as improved council housing, rural water supplies, sick pay for housewives and equal pay. She calls it a practical, not a theoretical feminism, and is clear about the distinction. But a sense of strain is often apparent in the book, as though she were tugging at the facts in an attempt to create neat categories. This is a shame, because what she says about the Women’s Institute is interesting.

The Canadian Women’s Co-Operative Institute was founded in 1897 as an agricultural organisation with strong links to the Board of Agriculture in British Columbia. It was intended to improve female agricultural workers’ wages and conditions and to encourage home-based industries and co-operatives. It caught on in America, then in Europe, and in 1913 its executive officer, Mrs Watt, decided to promote the movement in Britain. She spent nearly two years holding open meetings and trying to interest politicians, women’s groups and female university students, but there was little real response until the First World War began, when Watt started to write and speak about the ways in which a national network of institutes could benefit the production of food.

In 1915, the British Agricultural Organisation Society, a group sponsored by the Government with the specific aim of encouraging co-operative farming, took up the cause. Nugent Harris, an AOS governor who had already tried to persuade farmers to let rural women join local co-ops and agricultural societies, proposed that the Canadian Institute should be used as a model for a British rural movement, organised by the AOS itself and called the Women’s Co-Operative Guild. The motion was carried at the Society’s AGM, and three Institutes were set up in Wales, followed by one in Singleton, West Sussex. Mrs Watt and Nugent Harris toured the country, holding meetings. In 1916 and 1917 many more Institutes were formed and a national executive appointed. At first only rural villages with populations of up to five thousand were thought eligible sites for Institutes, but in 1920 it was decided that mining villages which were ‘rural in character’ should also qualify. The population rule caused trouble – villages expanded and small towns demanded branches – but until the Eighties, it was firmly adhered to.

Branches were to be independent, but were expected to uphold the principles of democracy, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Andrews lists the official objectives of the organisation: ‘1) stimulating interest in the agricultural industry 2) developing co-operative industries 3) encouraging home and local industries 4) studying home economics 5) providing a centre for educational and social intercourse and for all local activities’. The Canadian movement had stressed that ‘a nation cannot rise above the level of its homes; therefore we women must work and study together to raise our homes to the highest possible level,’ and for a long time the British version clung closely to this principle. There was a motto, ‘For Home and Country’, which became the title of the Institute’s national magazine. From the Twenties on, consciousness-raising articles appeared in it, spurring members on to develop an interest in politics, explaining how elections were run and how government worked – how politics, in fact, was just another form of housekeeping. In 1921, local Institutes were advised by the central body that it was their ‘recognised duty ... to educate their members in the powers of the parish councils, rural district councils and county councils with a view to getting local women on all these bodies’.

All this sounds rather worthy and patronising, as though the upper classes had set out to ‘improve’ other villagers, and there is no denying that in the beginning there was more than an element of this. On the other hand, women had only just been granted the vote, and it was probably fair to assume that some knew very little about the electoral system. But there was a genuine difficulty in bridging the gulf between classes. An effort was made to bring working-class members onto committees, but few were keen to involve themselves. Lack of time was the usual excuse, but it is just as likely that they felt intimidated: these committees were almost entirely upper-class. In fact, until 1961 NFWI chairwomen had always been titled.

Andrews is keen to depict the Institutes as networks which united women of different classes, ages and religions. She cites a member who welcomed the WI as the first club she had been able to join in the village: ‘everything else is got up by the Church and the Conservatives and I’m Catholic and a Liberal.’ But though that kind of integration was clearly what most WIs set out to achieve, many failed, and with time tensions increased; the movement’s attempts to provide education, for instance, laid bare fairly sharp class divisions.

Some of the things that went on at meetings might seem predictable. There were dances and teas and fund-raising events; but, especially in the first ten years, there were also talks on topics related to small-scale farming: goat, pig, rabbit and poultry-keeping, rabbit-skinning, meat-curing, herb-growing, cheese-making, gardening. Andrews’s book includes an Appendix which extracts six months from the Baynes Hill Institute’s programme for 1919. On 14 May that year, the Institute invited ‘wounded soldiers’ to a garden meeting, where a talk on ‘Life in the Olden Days’ was given, followed by the president’s report, a talk on ‘May Day Customs’ and tea. There was a members’ stall and a competition for the best May garlands. It seems amazing that activities such as these could arouse the kind of anger which led husbands in Yorkshire to ban their wives from joining, and prompted someone calling himself ‘a mere man’ to write to Home and Country in 1928, complaining that ‘that damned Institute is the curse of a married man’s life’ – but this, Andrews would say, proves her point. The National Federation of Women’s Institutes’ AGM (quickly nicknamed ‘the Countrywoman’s Parliament’) was said in 1927, by the Western Morning News and Mercury, to be ‘a virile parliament of their own, in which the voice of a mere man’ – not him again! – ‘counted for nothing, except in an advisory capacity’.

Agriculture gradually diminished as a WI concern (though during the Second World War the preoccupation with food production re-emerged), and was replaced by a growing emphasis on education. Talks and lectures on political or historical issues were well-attended, and on a more practical level, the Guild of Learners, set up in 1920, became popular during the Thirties. Some Institutes already encouraged craftwork – some had even sold their toys and clothes to London stores – but the Guild was intended to regulate the standard of work across the WIs by imposing tests and arranging local access to good instructors. There were two levels of expertise for each craft: passing the first test indicated proficiency; passing the second was necessary to qualify as an instructor. By 1937, 37 crafts were authorised by the Guild.

The Guild arranged exhibitions which, in the way of things, were dominated by the work of its richer members, who had more time to devote to crafts and enough money both to buy materials and to allow them to make purely decorative items. Andrews quotes a member who in 1928 said to a handicraft expert, ‘You don’t want a lot of stitching in children’s things as they’re always in the wash-tub,’ adding pointedly: ‘but then of course you wouldn’t be expected to know that.’ In 1947, Denman College was established with the aim of furthering equal opportunities within the movement. The thinking was that the college would give ‘ordinary members’ a ‘special opportunity for seeing the scope and power of the WIs and discussing their future direction’. As it turned out, few ‘ordinary’ members had enough time free from children and domestic responsibilities to stay at Denman for the time it took to complete a course. What’s more, there were charges – 15 shillings a night, plus five for tuition. Some Institutes and local authorities were able to cover the fees, but the women still had to meet the cost of getting there. The founders had promised a nursery, but that never materialised. Again, most students were middle-class women without children or with grown-up families.

The NFWI had been granted £20,000 to fund the college on condition that they matched that sum. Local Institutes had been asked to raise £10 each over three years, but more than a quarter refused to do so, presumably because their members wouldn’t be able to attend the college. Many of the courses were practical – ‘fruit preservation’, ‘gardening’, ‘smocking’, ‘country housewives’ – and must have helped some members to save money. There were also specific NFWI courses – on training to become an officer within the organisation, for example – as well as more esoteric ones: ‘Books and Music’, ‘Feeding a Hungry World’, ‘The Victorian Age’. Later, the college arranged group holidays abroad (thought to be one of the few safe ways of travelling without men), Mother and Baby weeks and weekend courses during which children were allowed to camp in the grounds.

Its constitution stated that the NFWI would not involve itself in party political or denominational issues, so that the movement would be open equally to all women, but it was active in campaigning on other matters that had a direct effect on women’s lives. In its earliest days, suffragettes and feminists like Virginia Woolf were invited to speak, and later pressure was put on governments on a range of issues: equal pay, maternity provision, equal compensation for war injuries, the payment of Family Allowance to mothers not fathers, school meals, uniform telephone rentals, world peace and the need for women police. The NFWI’s main aims were to further causes which could be said to be for the ‘public good’ and, specifically, to improve life in rural Britain to stem migration to towns.

Rural facilities had always been a concern. In 1918, housing was a major priority for the Government which promised to build ‘homes fit for heroes’. Unfortunately, the promise coincided with the postwar rise in building costs so the houses didn’t appear, and there were rent strikes and disturbances in many cities. The 1919 Housing Act made local authorities responsible for providing homes, but no real pressure was put on them to act, and when they did, they concentrated on troublesome urban areas. The NFWI got to work and, joining forces with the Rural Housing and Sanitation Association and the Women’s Labour League, collected statistics about the number of new cottages needed in particular villages and the number needing repairs. Some Institutes were asked to present ideas to their local housing committees, and a 1919 letter in Home and Country suggested that ‘in places where the district council and the parish council consider no cottages are wanted, probably helpful letters from the Women’s Institute would convert them to better views.’ In 1920, the Minister of Health advised local authorities to consult women about housing proposals, and by 1942, two NFWI members had been invited to sit on the Government Housing Committee.

The Tudor Walters Report on housing, published in 1918, had said that it made economic sense to build better houses, and that the ideal was a three-bedroom house with hot and cold water, a bathroom, a front and back garden and a separate parlour. Many councils economised, most contentiously by removing the parlour, which working-class women felt to be indispensable as a place for the sick or elderly, or for visitors to sit. The NFWI in turn campaigned for parlours, for the most part unsuccessfully, to please their working-class members. The executive body acknowledged that they knew little about the way the rural poor lived, and sent out regular questionnaires. There was a proliferation of essay competitions, including a popular one called ‘The House I Should Like to Live in’. The most frequent requests were for piped water, toilets and boilers, though by 1943 electricity and sewers had been added to the list.

During World War Two, the Institutes tried to support local women who housed evacuees – the Government operation had been badly organised, despite the NFWI’s attempt to put it right before the war began. Children were imposed on households regardless of whether they could afford them, and no provision was made for the cost of their food, or for their lack of suitable clothes and shoes for the countryside. An article in Home and Country complained that although housewives were not paid for taking in children, no one else was expected to work for nothing: ‘they did not ask school buses to run free services ... or farmers to charge nothing for milk and vegetables, or cobblers not to send in accounts for mending evacuated children’s shoes.’ Many children, sent off on trains without toilets, arrived filthy and louse-ridden. Later on, homesick and distressed, they often displayed severe emotional problems. Clearly, there was a role for the local WI in all this. Andrews concedes that the Institutes did make jam fanatically during the war (it was said to contain otherwise unobtainable vitamins), as well as canning food, making and mending clothes, collecting herbs for medicines and growing vegetables, especially potatoes, onions and tomatoes, most of which were sent to hospitals and schools. The WI could not actively support the war or help prepare for it without violating its constitution – and also compromising its many Quaker members – but it did what it could to ease social deprivation.

After the war, perhaps because politicians seemed less willing to listen – equal pay was not implemented by the 1945 Labour Government, and there seemed no hope of sick-pay for housewives – but also because pressure groups were formed around issues the Institutes had campaigned on, the NFWI became much less involved in politics. Yet this was the period of its greatest popularity. There were seven thousand Institutes, and more than half a million new members joined during the Fifties. Education, social events and women’s rights, especially as consumers, were now its chief concerns. Fridges, hoovers, food-mixers and washing-machines had suddenly made housework easier and the NFWI, while welcoming this, lobbied for higher standards and lower prices. In 1957 the AGM asked the Chancellor to abolish the tax on kitchen utensils, noting that there was no equivalent tax on men’s tools. The tax was promptly removed.

In an Afterword, Maggie Andrews reveals for the first time that she has been working within particular dates – 1915 to 1960. She does, however, mention one or two current WI activities: in 1991 an AGM resolved to campaign for government funding for research into endometriosis, and in 1993 a conference on the conditions and rights of carers was held following a national WI survey on the subject. Denman College is still active, too, but otherwise it seems that the organisation is now primarily a social club, organising holidays and sports days, and get-togethers where, its pamphlets claim, women can ‘meet in a friendly atmosphere ... develop new interests and acquire skills of value to themselves and their families’. There are now about 300,000 members in Britain, and as Andrews points out, the WI is a valuable support and place of escape for women with young children, or for those living alone or without jobs in rural areas. But it could not be said that the NFWI still has a high profile, or much of a political voice, and there is something disappointing about the decline of an organisation which once had so much confidence and power, and such radical ambitions.

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