A Force to be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute

June Purvis hopes a readable history of the WI will challenge stereotypes


Reviewed by: June Purvis
Author: Jane Robinson
Publisher: Virago
Price (RRP): £20


The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) is the largest voluntary organisation for women in the UK, with a membership of 215,000. Founded in rural Canada in 1897 to promote household science as a way to raise health standards, it was transported across the Atlantic in 1915.

In a highly readable book, Jane Robinson charts the ups and downs of the movement in Britain, drawing upon a wide range of documentary sources, especially local and national WI archives.

With its emphasis upon village crafts, homemade jams, cakes and pickles, the WI is usually seen as a rightwing, reactionary organisation that emphasises domesticity for women. Yet, as Robinson ably points out, radicals have coexisted alongside the traditionalists in a broad movement that has always been cross- class and cross–generational.

While WIs made a valuable contribution to food production in both world wars, their role has always been much more diverse than the ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ image.

The democratically run WI enabled women to develop confidence and learn to speak for themselves, on a variety of issues. This has been especially so since 1971 when the requirement to avoid discussing potentially controversial subjects at meetings was rescinded, provided the movement was never used for party-political or sectarian propaganda.

Thus, in recent years, WI members have campaigned about the difficulties facing single mums, the closure of post offices, the provision of hospice care and the proposal to reform the Legal Aid system. The movement’s refusal to affiliate to any one political party is a fact that any politician ignores at their peril as Tony Blair discovered in 2000, when he was slow handclapped at the WI conference for what was seen as overstepping the line.

This book, while weak at times on historical detail, nonetheless offers a fascinating glimpse into what has all too readily been dismissed as a conservative women’s movement. 

June Purvis, University of Portsmouth

See also…


Joanna Bourke reviews Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in War and Peace 1939–49 by Virginia Nicholson