By Abha Thakor
Women have played a role in civic society and politics often in quiet and every day ways. They have contributed to change in the expectations of the way women would live, behave and participate in their family life and wider roles. In the last 100 years, the Women’s Institute (WI) has played an active, and sometimes unknown, part of this social change.
In 2015 the WI, which is the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK with 212,000 members, celebrates its centenary. It began life to help revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Members showed women how to make use of wild berries and fruits for jams and other produce which were then distributed throughout the nation at a time of food scarcity. The WI maintains its links to the Victorian Feminist Movement with its singing of Jerusalem, the unofficial anthem of the suffrage movement.
Her Majesty The Queen, a WI member herself, addressed 5,000 members at the Royal Albert Hall, London in June, saying: “The Women’s Institute has been a constant throughout, gathering women together, encouraging them to acquire new skills and nurturing unique talents. In the modern world, the opportunities for women to give something of value to society are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they now play a much greater part in all areas of public life.”
“Women, through their own efforts, now play a much greater part in all areas of public life”
Janice Langley, Chair of the National Federation of WIs, continued the theme, saying: “Being 100, what does it mean to our organisation and what does it mean to us and our communities? Women working together and women making a difference not only for themselves, also their families and communities. The WI has been a witness to two world wars and the women took on any challenge that was thrust upon them. The position of women in society has changed from the time of the first WI members, some of whom were suffragettes, but the majority were rural women with poor education and little money. The WI was their link to learning and friendship, as it is still today for many.”
WI members, gathered in London and thousands of others watching live transmissions in village halls and cinemas across the country, also heard from three other inspirational women: Lucy Worsley, English historian, curator and television documentary-maker; Helena Morrissey, CEO and campaigner; and Tanni Grey-Thompson, British former wheelchair racer, parliamentarian and television presenter.
Lucy Worsley, a WI member and Chief Curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, presented a BBC 2 documentary in June 2015 ‘Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers – One Hundred Years of the WI’. It portrayed the WI as one of most important movements of modern times, a bold and often radical institution that, she argued, fully deserves to be taken seriously. Her research revealed that from its initial days the WI meetings were “many women’s first taste of democracy in the making” and egalitarian principles were put into practice as the lady of the manor took tea and cake with wives of their agricultural workers. The women also learnt how to run meetings, put together agendas and vote on issues, which may have been previously outside their sphere of influence.
The WI has from its early days campaigned for fair pay for women and real value to be placed on the work of women in the home. Helena Morrisey CBE, is one of the women who have taken on the story to the modern day with highlighting the number of women who hold senior roles in the business world. In 2010, 12 per cent of FTSE-100 company boards were made up of women. She has championed a “change in mindset” where companies have started to realise that having women in senior posts is in everyone’s interests and not just women’s. She founded the 30 Per Cent Club to encourage these boards to have at least 30 per cent of women members by 2015. She has also worked to support the rights and opportunities for women to work at all levels in an organisation and to have a family life.
Paralympic athlete, Baroness Tania Grey-Thompson DBE, now a cross bench peer in the House of Lords, called on all WI groups to promote ‘healthy mind, body and spirit’ and inspire all women in their communities to be healthier. She was paralysed at the age of seven and thought she would not be able to achieve as much as others, but with family support and a determination to keep fit and healthy, she has overcome hurdles both in the sports arena and political life. In her parliamentary work, her campaigns include welfare reform, legal aid and disability issues – all issues which the WI has promoted during its first 100 years.
Helen Pankhurst will be discussing the work of the suffragettes at the WI Fair in Harrogate in September 2015, ahead of the launch of the film ‘Suffragette‘. Helen is the granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline.
The WI has shown women a way they can work together to help campaign for and bring about social change, gain representation in parliamentary channels, and be a common bond of friendship for thousands of women linked through their desire to have a positive effect on society.
Daily Telegraph article on how the WI has been ‘campaigning on issues as widespread as AIDs and equal pay for 100 years and how they have helped Britain evolve’ (published June 2015).