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The Acceptable Face of Feminism

The Women’s Institute as a Social Movement


Maggie Andrews


London: Lawrence & Wishart  (New and Revised Edition), 2015

Paperback. 250 p. ISBN 978-1910448168. £14.99


Reviewed by Pat Thane

King's College, London



This is a revised edition of the book first published in 1997, published to celebrate the centenary of the Women’s Institute movement in 2015.The first edition was a surprising revelation that an organisation still active and generally regarded  as conservative and middle class, popularly associated with jam-making and patriotism, could ever have been feminist, by any definition. Andrews showed convincingly that many of its leading figures in the early days were suffrage supporters and an important aim of the organisation for many decades was to empower rural working-class women who were least involved in the mainly urban-based women’s movement but endured some of the worst social conditions and most limited opportunities.

An aim of the revised volume is to defend this interpretation while evaluating what has happened to feminist history since 1997.Andrews argues that in 1997 postmodernism was in its heyday, promoting the ideas that feminism and even conventional history-writing were passé. But they have survived and gender is now a crucial tool of historical analysis, though she believes that such work is not widely read outside universities. Also she refers (p. 26) to ‘the hesitancy by women to define themselves as feminist in contemporary culture’. I find this surprising given how many women in the past, even in the heyday of the Women’s Liberation Movement, were reluctant to call themselves feminist and how, at present, feminist websites developed by younger women proliferate.

Her book was criticised for defining as feminist an organisation that supported and encouraged women who were primarily ‘housewives’, not employed outside the home. She strongly defends her definition and argues, still more strongly and convincingly than before, for a broad definition of feminism encompassing the diverse ways in which British women and their organisations through the twentieth century sought to improve women’s conditions and opportunities. Like others, she rejects tidy categorisation of the inter-war women’s movement into ‘old’ versus ‘new’, or ‘equal rights’ versus ‘domestic’, feminism, rightly pointing to the overlapping objectives of many of the organisations involved and the frequent co-operation between them that research repeatedly reveals.

After the initial defence of her approach and the critique of the current state of feminist history, the bulk of the book, as before, usefully outlines the history of the Women’s Institute movement, with some further detail about its early years during World War 1. The idea was transported from Canada, where countrywomen’s associations had been established since 1897, by Madge Watt. From 1915 they quickly established themselves due especially to the expertise of their members in the economical production and use of food at a time of mounting wartime food shortage and their contribution, along with other women, to voluntary effort during the war, sending ‘comforts’ to men in the trenches, helping refugees.

But the central aim of the WIs was to improve the status and living conditions of working-class rural women, including helping them to use the vote when it was conceded to most women over age 30 in 1918, and informing them about politics. It is in this sense that it was feminist, though it was not noisy or militant and hence was ‘the acceptable face of feminism’. An important aim was to encourage society, and the women themselves, to value their work in the home as real work, as important to society and the economy as paid work, through highly skilled child care and care and feeding which kept men fit for work. The WIs were not alone in promoting this form of ‘domestic feminism’. It was shared with other working-class women’s organisations including the Women’s Co-operative Guild and women in the Labour Party. The latter, like male trade unionists, demanded the right of women working in the home to improved working conditions, allowing them ‘eight hours work, eight hours sleep and eight hours leisure’ each day in place of the relentless toil many endured. Andrews could have made more of these common objectives across organisations often seen as very different. They had in common the determination to campaign for better-designed, better-equipped housing as essential for lessening the burden of domestic work and improving the health of the population. This was an especially urgent need for many rural women whose homes lacked running water, electricity or sewage disposal. Between the wars and on through the 1940s and 50s until improvements were at last widespread, the WIs campaigned hard for these objectives. They clearly had some success, though it would have been good if Andrews supplied clearer evidence of their methods of campaigning and the extent of their success. Were some local authorities more responsive than others, since housing was their responsibility? How extensive were the improvements at different points in time and what was the role of WIs in bringing them about?

WIs quickly became one of the largest of the many inter-war women’s organisations in Britain. They encouraged women to value and improve their skills of cooking, growing food, dressmaking and much else, organising local markets to sell their produce, while enjoying activities such as drama and singing and getting together with other women, giving non-elite women a stronger presence in rural communities. They networked with other women’s organisations to campaign on such issues as the appointment of women police, particularly to support female and child victims of violence and abuse, and improved health and welfare especially for mothers and young children at a time when most working-class women lacked free access to doctors and death rates in childbirth and among infants were high. Many of them supported the peace movement, anxious not to return to the horrors of the First World War, until the horrors of Nazism made another war unavoidable. Individuals and local Institutes varied in the activities they espoused but the range was impressive.

Again in the Second World War rural women’s skills of food production, frugal cooking, jam-making and food preservation were invaluable and valued. They organised and cooked school dinners, helped evacuees and, with other women’s organisations, campaigned for equal pay and for post-war social reforms. They were among the few who noticed and valued the fact that William Beveridge, in his famous report on social insurance of 1942, unusually for an elite man, made a point of arguing that women who worked in the home deserved the same benefits as working men because their work was equally essential to society and the economy. Later they criticised the implementation of his proposals, but these were due more to decisions by the post-war Labour government than to Beveridge. After the war they campaigned also against the continuation of rationing, still for equal pay (achieved in the public sector in 1955) and for faster improvements in housing and water supplies. But living standards generally rose, the National Health Service, founded in 1948, was transformative especially for poorer women and by the 1950s the WIs were less obviously political campaigners, though still devoted to encouraging women’s skills, further education and pastimes. They also led a highly effective ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign in the 1950s.

They have carried on ever since, more predominantly middle class like much of British society especially in rural areas, still campaigning on such women’s issues as the poor work conditions of carers, paid and unpaid, and, as rural dwellers, increasingly concerned about the environment and climate change, though they were much despised by the post-1968 women’s movement as not seriously feminist. They remain a large, active organisation, now with more urban branches, but neither they nor any other organisation has succeeded in fundamentally changing society’s valuation of work in the home.


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