After a short delay for the over-running golf, Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers, a celebration of the WI centenary by Lucy Worsley was broadcast on BBC2.
Lucy took us through the history of the WI from it’s origins in Canada, and Madge Watt addressing the local women in the Llanfair PG “shed” on Sept 11th 1915. Madge Watt insisted on tea at every meeting, supposedly to provide an opportunity for chatting so that no one chatted during the speaker!
Being a member of the WI was the first time many women had a chance to vote in meetings and also to be useful outside of the home in crafting, running markets and making toys, as well as learning and perfecting home skills. They also started campaigning for improved rural housing which was the first national resolution.
Even though Jam and Jerusalem is a bit of a stereotype, Jerusalem had a radical history in the suffrage movement and transferred over because many suffragettes were also founder members of the WI, and the massive effort towards making WI jam provided 50% of the jam ration at one point. Campaigning and service to the nation!
Other campaigns in the early years were equal pay, family allowances and a national health service. They all started as WI resolutions.
In the 1940’s, many women left school at 14 so the newly acquired Denman College was a great way to get better educated, and other benefits such as the liberation of being catered for rather than having to cook for yourself made it a great experience.
By the 1960’s, there was a decline in membership due to more women going out to work and having less time for WI meetings. The 1970’s brought the Women’s Liberation movement which started in the Oxford Union, and the WI’s polite campaigning became drowned out by the public, more radical demonstrations on many of the same issues the WI had championed over the preceding decades.
The NFWI tried to change their public image with a not-so-catchy song and logo change, but the real progress towards starting to dispel the staid and stodgy image of the WI came with the Calender Girls raising in excess of £4million for Leukaemia Research, and Tony Blair’s patronising joke about a terrifying audience and his overly political speech which was slow hand clapped at the 2000 annual meeting.
Nowadays, “new wave” WI’s such as the Shoreditch Sisters openly promote themselves as radical feminists, something it seems that the WI has been doing since the start!
I don’t think that one hour was long enough. This could’ve been a series to explore the various elements of the history in more detail. I enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s coverage of the subject, but trying to fit 100 years into 60 minutes was always going to be a tough ask.