Forgotten feminism

As it celebrates its centenary, Antonia Charlesworth says the Women’s Institute is an overlooked feminist organisation – but with an uncertain future

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As a suffragette Edith Rigby was jailed seven times for actions such as planting a bomb in the Liverpool Corn Exchange, pouring acid on the green of a golf course and setting fire to the stands of Blackburn Rovers Football Club.

She was also the founding member and president of Hutton and Howith Women’s Institute, the first in Lancashire. Preston-born Rigby, along with Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Robins, were just some of the significant feminist figures in an organisation more often associated with jam making and singing Jerusalem.

This year the WI celebrates 100 years. With 212,000 members across 6,600 WIs it is the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK. But despite its strength in numbers (it has more members than any of the three main political parties) the struggle with its image over the years has led to an ongoing identity crisis it will need to deal with to ensure its survival.

The primary aim of the Women’s Institute was to revitalise rural communities

In her book The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The Women’s Institute as a Social Movement, which is being updated and re-issued to coincide with the centenary, Maggie Andrews argues that the WI is far more than those stereotypes – it was, from its founding days, a significant feminist organisation, overlooked because of its focus on domesticity.

“When I wrote the book 20 years ago feminism saw itself as completely separate from the notion of domesticity and I was trying to argue that it wasn’t as straightforward as that,” she says.

Formed in 1915, the primary aim of the WI was to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved with producing food during the First World War. Despite this, the WI aimed to be inclusive and so did not directly support the war effort. Today it remains strictly non-party political and non-religious.

A further example of its advocacy of women’s issues was Lady Denman, a significant figure in the organisation after whom the famous WI residential college is named. Denman also acted as a prominent voice for birth control.

As the largest women’s movement in the post-suffrage era, Andrews points out, the WI was a natural outlet for feminist activities – and this happened subtly and continually for decades. “They were very behind women’s issues and they looked at things in terms of gender,” she explains. “In 1950 they had a campaign to get purchase tax removed from kitchen utensils. For women in the home these were their workman’s tools. Their version of feminism was that they were equal but different.”

As well as concerning themselves with women’s health, through campaigns for analgesics in childbirth and safe sex for example, many of the projects the WI undertook were entrepreneurial as members strived to earn their own money. By setting up markets and industry the WI redefined domestic labour as skilled, and provided scope for rural women to gain status and validation from their involvement. In the 1920s it established a toy company selling Cuthbert Rabbits, supplying to big stores, but ultimately found it difficult to maintain a production standard nationwide and ended up with various misshapen bunnies that couldn’t find a home. Despite it never becoming a huge industry, these projects allowed many women in the WI to buy items such as a Hoover or washing machine, making their domestic lives easier.

“They were concerned with improving the lives of women and their version of feminism was deemed acceptable because it was domestic and non-threatening but in many ways their efforts were belittled as women sitting in a quiet corner making jam.”

But the issues the WI campaigned for were by no means small – one longstanding campaign from the 1930s-1950s, when the organisation was at its height of popularity with over half a million members, was for access to piped water in rural homes. When the aim was met, however, it became a contributing factor to a demise in the organisation’s popularity. Running water in villages coincided with many people getting cars and so an influx of wealthier people into rural communities made the areas, and the WIs by extension, more middle class. This loss of a healthy social mix was matched by a lack of diversity in age as younger, more liberated, generations of women rejected the domesticity of their mothers.

By the 1960s the WI had lost its cool. Second wave feminism challenged much of its activity and in turn the the WI distanced itself from feminism, becoming uncomfortable with its hostile image. Furthermore, Andrews points out, there became many more spaces for women in wider society. Bars and pubs were no longer men’s territory while working meant less time for meetings.

“Feminism has been reworked and it’s now OK to be overtly female.”

In recent years the WI, previously exclusive to rural areas, unofficially opened up to towns and cities in a bid to recruit more members. In 2013 this was officially amended in the constitution. This, along with a renewed popularity of traditional domestic hobbies such as crafting and baking, has contributed to a huge resurgence in WI members over the last decade that Andrews says she would not have predicted.

“Twenty years ago it would’ve been unheard of that young, independent, bright women were spending their time making cupcakes but domestic things seem to have become a leisure thing – particularly cooking and crafting. Feminism has been reworked and it’s now OK to be overtly female.”

Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield all have WIs that appear to go out of their way to distance themselves from the tweed and twinsets image the WI has battled with – despite embracing many of the traditional activities. In Manchester, with a knowing nod to its kitsch appeal through its vintage branding, the WI has embraced the feminist spirit of the institute with a strong focus on sisterhood. In Liverpool and Leeds the Iron Maidens and Buns & Roses have cultivated their young, alternative image with names paying homage to their tastes. And in Sheffield, Seven Hills Women’s Institute proudly declares it is “less jam and Jerusalem, more bellydancing and Bellinis”.

Meanwhile, says Andrews, the rural WIs struggle to recruit young members and revitalise themselves.

“If you look 20 years ahead they have a bit of a challenge because there are a number of groups that are really quite elderly and at risk of dying out… It’s really obvious they don’t quite know who they are.” Despite this there are common themes running throughout meetings across the country and of course one shared experience among all members – womanhood.

“They may do domesticity, they may do golf or archery, drama or singing, it might be young and trendy,” says Andrews. “But for all of them it’s about female spaces and female friendship, which are as important as ever.”

Lucy Rider, 34 – president of Buns & Roses WI

admin-ajax“Six years ago four friends founded Buns & Roses, the Leeds city centre WI. They wanted an environment that was friendly and welcoming, to meet friends and learn new skills, and that’s still our overriding theme.

“We were the fourth new-wave WI and we aimed to have a young demographic but I’m pleased it has diversified and we now have members right up to their sixties, which gives us the opportunity to socialise with people we wouldn’t normally. Our topics are not traditional though. This year we are doing gin tasting, street dance and stage fighting among our activities.

“We currently have around 60 members but we have quite a transient group, given that we’re in the city centre, so people come and go. We meet outside of working hours and in a central location where people can order food if they’re coming straight from work, making it as accessible as possible for people, which is one of the major challenges the WI faces on a national basis.

“I think some of our members really value the time away from men and the group has helped massively with their confidence. Women who would never have got up in a room of 50-60 people and said anything will now do so comfortably, but we do welcome men to our workshops and social events.

“We’re excited to go into the 100th year of the WI with a lot of the really good original founding concepts but having moved them into the modern age, so this year we have already done embroidery but using conductive thread to make a light-up work with LED. We try and keep it interesting and modern.”

Lex Taylor, 25 – founding member of Manchester WI

Lex Taylor 2-rgb“When I was 21 I found myself living in Manchester, working full time, living with my boyfriend and not meeting anyone new. People’s immediate reaction to me wanting to set up a WI was ‘why?’. They had preconceived ideas about what it was but it is evolving. We are the next generation and for the WI to carry on we need to grow with it and keep it going so our mission isn’t to be different but to make it relevant.

“Within our meetings we cover a huge range of topics, alternating between educational and practical. In the past year we have had self-defence classes, talks from Greater Manchester Police about staying safe in the city and a talk from a gynaecologist who our members asked questions many of them felt they couldn’t take to their GP. Then we do more fun things like crafting and Lindy Hop dancing.

“The make-up of our members varies. There are 120 of us, from one to 60. We have managing directors, lawyers, accountants, students, artists, stay at home mums – a huge range of women. We get annoyed when people say we’re not typical WI members because there is no typical WI member. We are all different.

“I often get asked why I am running a women’s only group in this day and age when we should be equal with men. I have to say to them: ‘Because we’re not.’ We weren’t 100 years ago and we’re still not now. The group wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a need for it but, together, when we get behind a cause we are a powerhouse and can really make a difference.”

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