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Womenís Century

An illustrated History of the  Womenís Institute

 

Val Horsler & Ian Denning

 

Foreword by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. Preface by Julie Summers

London: Third Millennium, 2015

Hardcover. 192 p. ISBN 978-190899050. £14.99

 

Reviewed by Maggie Andrews

University of Worcester

 

 

The Centenary of the formation of the Womenís Institute Movement in Britain has been accompanied by numerous events, activities and a plethora of publications and re-publications. The Womenís Institute Movement (WI) originated in Canada but was formed in Britain to encourage rural women to play a part in combatting the food crisis that occurred during the First World War. The British WI movement became an independent, non-party political movement open to women of all religious affiliations. It became the largest womenís group in Britain and even now has over 200,000 members. Although this is rather less than the half a million members in its heyday in the 1950s, the WI still remains a significant pressure group on womenís issues.

Val Horsler and Ian Denningís heavily illustrated coffee-table book Ė Womenís Century : An illustrated History of the  Womenís Institute in many respects conforms to the traditions of an institutionally endorsed history of the movement. It has a foreword by HRH the Duchess of Cornwall and a preface by Julie Summers, who is the author of Jambusters (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013) a history of the WI in wartime and the historical consultant to the television series with the same name (ITV, 2015). The long list of subscribers who have funded the publication includes many womenís institutes in England and Wales and it has consequently gathered a wonderful array of images from the members, which are both endearing and illuminating. There are however predictably perhaps rather more images from the second fifty years of the movementís history than there are from the first, and regrettably this book provides very limited coverage of the early years of the movement, beyond mentioning some of the suffrage campaigners who were members.

The emphasis on the latter years is particularly evident in the discussion of education, which strongly focuses on the establishment and operation of Denman College, the WIís residential college providing short courses for members, which opened in 1948.  The college was indeed revolutionary not least in providing childcare for some courses in the 1950s. The cost of courses at Denman, the difficulties many members faced in leaving their homes and families and the collegeís limited capacity meant that only a very small proportion of the membership ever attended Denman. The bookís omissions are indeed as significant as its inclusions. There is no reference or mention to the growing body of scholarly work that has been written by historians about the WI in the last thirty years, which those interested in the history of the movement might find more fruitful reading.  

It seems that Horsler and Denning are reticent about acknowledging the WIís domestic focus, its elevation of housewifery to skilled work worthy of status and respect and their determination to improve the material conditions of rural womenís everyday lives. This element of the WIís feminism is omitted although the chapters charting the organisationís role in campaigning and public affairs do indicate the movementís radical role in championing equal pay for women, alongside environmental, health care and legal issues that concerned rural women. All histories are necessarily selective but it is a shame that the Womenís Institute Movementís sustained and important campaigns to improve rural housing and press government to take a greater role in rural house building and improving water supplies were not included in the discussion of WI campaigns.

Furthermore craft and food production, preservation and preparation get limited coverage, mentioned fleetingly in chapters on education, public affairs and one entitled private pursuits. This is odd as an examination of the organisationís history demonstrates that in practice and ethos these were activities of the WI which were of significance well beyond the private domain. Their activities to increase food production in cottage gardens and allotments and to prevent food waste in the First World War focused on preservation and marketing of food and were financially supported by the Board of Agriculture. The contribution of the movement to food preservation running jamming and canning centres in the Second World War is however well illustrated.

Womenís Institutes are a large, diverse and radical organisation, which has taken a major role in improving rural womenís lives in the last one hundred years. This book provides an interesting introduction to their history, hopefully it will inspire readers to further reading.

 

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