PETER FROST celebrates 100 years of campaigning and activism by a much-underrated women’s organisation.
OK, let’s get the jokes over with. Everyone knows the Women’s Institute is just about making jam, wearing big hats and posing for nude calendars.
Oh yes, and singing Jerusalem.
Well, I’ll own up: I just love William Blake and Hubert Parry’s amazing anthem. I’ve sung it at communist comrades’ funerals, on protest marches, hiking to the site of the Kinder Trespass and (whisper it quietly) I’ve even sung it at a meeting of my local WI.
My talk to the WI was on the Kinder Trespass and the battle for access to the countryside. The WI members’ attitude was spot on, heartwarming and encouraging. My speaker’s fee was a delicious date and walnut loaf baked by one of the members.
We sang Jerusalem, and then Ewan McColl’s Manchester Rambler — the song McColl wrote for the Trespass. They knew all the words. We finished the musical spot with some amazing jazz piano improvisations from a 93-year-old member.
My evening with them completely changed my mind about the WI, although to tell the truth I’ve always been a regular customer for their mulberry jam on sale at the WI stall at our local market.
Even this dyed-in-the-wool atheist has some sympathy with the handwritten label on the jar. It says in neat italic script: “God could undoubtedly have made a better tasting berry but God undoubtedly didn’t.”
The first Women’s Institute was formed in 1897 in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada. And then as WWI got underway in 1915 Britain got its first WI.
The very first branch was in Anglesey, Wales. The village was Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch — you couldn’t make it up. I bet the needlewomen who sewed that very first WI banner wished they lived in Ely.
Many of the early leaders and members were active in the women’s suffrage movement. They understood the need to encourage the fuller participation of women in public life.
Three years later, in 1918, there were nearly 200 WI branches. Their first resolution urged local authorities to take advantage of the government scheme for state-aided housing.
In 1920 they won one of their first great victories for women. They campaigned for the Bastardy Bill that sought to make unmarried fathers responsible for the upkeep of their illegitimate children.
At the same time the WI urged its members to stand for parish and district councils. By 1920 the WI had its first MP. Margaret Winteringham (below with Lady Astor) was secretary of the WI in Lindsey, Lincolnshire. She was only the third female MP in Britain.
In 1922 the WI urged more public health education to prevent venereal disease — an amazingly bold move at such an early date.
In 1924 they adopted Jerusalem as their anthem. They have been singing it ever since.
The year 1933 saw the call for all WI members to support local efforts to deal with mass unemployment and distress it caused.
Other political campaigns sought to improved water supplies in villages, for the preservation of ancient buildings and for better medical care of pregnant women in rural areas.
In 1938 as war clouds gathered the WI made early plans for wartime evacuation of children.
Later a WI report became a major part of the argument that lead to the 1945 Labour government setting up family allowances.
During WWII Lady Denman, head of the WI, was asked to head a re-formed Women’s Land Army.
The Ministry of Food allocated sugar to WI preservation centres in order to make jam. Members gathered wild rose hips to make vitamin C-rich syrup to replace almost unobtainable imported orange juice.
Some better-off WI members donated their unwanted fur coats to Clementine Churchill’s Aid to Russia fur scheme. “Give your Sable to Uncle Joe Stalin” was the slogan.
As early as 1939 the WI was demanding that, when peace came, equal facilities for full education at all levels should be provided in town and country and that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work.
In 1947 WI campaigns won the right for rural midwives to use pain-relieving analgesics and the right for parents to visit their sick children in hospital.
In 1954 the institute started a national anti-litter campaign. It would lead to the Keep Britain Tidy Group. By 1956 members were protesting against the withdrawal of country bus and rail services.
As early as 1960 the WI was voicing concern about the use of toxic sprays and urging more stringent controls on chemicals such as DDT.
In 1961 it pledged to support the Freedom from Hunger campaign.
In 1962 the WI expressed concern about the dangers of nuclear radiation, joining with other women’s organisations to demand a reduction in nuclear testing.
In 1972 it called for a full free family planning service and for more nursery education.
Just one year later it demanded a national policy for recycling and reducing waste. It was well ahead of its times with such radical policies.
For its diamond jubilee it nailed its colours firmly to the mast. The WI said it “believes in the principle of equality of opportunity and of legal status for men and women and pledges itself to work to achieve this.”
In the early 1980s the all-women peace camp at Greenham Common changed British politics forever.
When some media portrayed the protesters as a witches’ coven of hard-left criminals and a threat to family values, protesters declaring their long-standing membership of the WI painted a very different picture.
The 1986 AGM pushed for more public information about Aids. In 1993 the WI became founding members of the Fair Trade Foundation.
In 2000 they famously gave Tony Blair the clap — a slow handclap, that is — when he tried to turn his speech at its AGM into a party-political broadcast.
By 2001 it was campaigning again, this time to save rural post offices.
All this year the WI is holding various centenary celebrations although one — a royal garden party — turned sour when the initial invitation list had to be pared down by 500 members who had already paid for their tickets and mostly bought, or perhaps made, new outfits and hats. The unlucky members were told they could no longer attend the party.
A hasty face-saving exercise by the palace had the Duchess of Cambridge showing interest in her local WI.
So far Kate has neither joined in with Jerusalem or made a pot of jam. I think perhaps the WI will do just as well without her as it enters its next 100 years of campaigns.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 7 Sept 2015.