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Women’s Institute: Radical?

July 14, 2015

WILucy Worsley (Radio Times 18-24 July) wrote that the WI is a : radical campaigning body, which often gets overshadowed by its reputation for competitive chutney-making and other such domestic activi­ties. Well-behaved women rarely make history, it’s often said, and the founders of the WI could be very badly behaved indeed.

Take the story of Edith Rigby. In 1913 the country seemed to be at peace, but beneath the surface, a civil war was raging, as the Suffragettes turned to increasingly desperate measures in their fight to win the vote.

On 7 July 1913, Edith – a Suffragette from E RigbyPreston and a friend of the Pankhursts – might have been seen lugging a keg of paraffin up to the hilltop holiday home in Lancashire of Sir William Lever, soap magnate. She laid a trail of paraffin round the wooden structure, lit it, and ran away down the hill.

As she got into the getaway car, the driver remembered that she was grinning. Edith turned herself in to the police tl day. Using the dock as a platform, she asked the world whether Sir William’s burnt-out was more important as just one of his “superfluous” homes, or as “a beacon lighted to King and country to see here are some intolerable grievances for women”.

Edith was sentenced to nine months in went on hunger strike, was released and fled the country. But in 1918, after the Suffragettes had finally won their fight for the vote, Edith was back living in a village close E Rigby 2to the scene of her crime. And she’d become a founder member and President of a new group that would in its own way continue the fight that the suffragettes had started. It was the WI…..

Perhaps the WI’s finest hour came in the Second World War, when members led the charge on the home front, feed­ing and housing millions of evacuees.

But some of them felt that their voluntary, unpaid work was taken for granted. A surprisingly consequence of the WI shouldering of the considerable burden of the extra housework caused by evacuation was an AGM resolution, in 1943, calling for such work to be remunerated.

“Women are important,” the resolution ran, “not just important as housewives and mothers and girlfriends and ‘sewers-on-of-buttons’ but vital and essential if we are to win this war… let one good thing that comes out of this disastrous calamity be fair pay for women.”

It would take another 30-odd years for the Equal Pay Act to be passed, but in making the case for it, the WI were way ahead of the women’s movement of the1970s.

In fact, many of the same issues raised by the Women’s Libbers were completely familiar from WI campaigns: the provision of nursery and contraception. But the difference lay in the “F” word. Many WI members would have offended if you called them “feminists”. But the Libbers would have been offended if you didn’t.

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