The Curse of a Married Man’s Life

Sarah Rigby

  • 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, ISBN 0 85315 833 9

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.

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