It's taken me a shamefully long time to finish this book, I got it before Christmas, started reading it thinking all the time what terrific and rousing stuff it was, put it down for a moment and promptly got distracted. This is partly the curse of the hardback - just not a format I get on with, but I've taken to carrying a bigger bag so bigger books are less of an issue (please nobody say e-reader).
A history of the WI feels timely - I suspect most people who aren't involved in it have fairly fixed preconceptions about the Women's Institute, jam and Jerusalem aside my image involves ladies of a certain age taking their clothes off, that incident with Tony Blair, and an insatiable appetite for tea and gin (a tasting for the WI is a standard training scenario in wine sales, I've yet to be asked to do one but am always hopeful). Robinson's argument is that the WI has changed the world - and not with jam. She puts it persuasively and I'm convinced by what she says. I remember being delighted about the Blair incident - there was something splendid in the WI's refusing to have their AGM high-jacked - even by the Prime Minister. That however is only the tip of the iceberg, these women have been campaigners since the very beginning, politically neutral, but exceptionally well connected and very active on all sorts of social issues.
Without the WI it would have been nigh on impossible to evacuate children during the war (and whatever your feelings about that might be it was still a hell of a thing to pull off) they were there at the forefront of the welfare state, and have consistently been ahead of the curve on most of the big issues we've embraced over the last century. Robinson tells an excellent story, she has some good material to work with but even so hats off for doing an excellent job with it, however if I have a quibble it's this; everything is so positive. I once worked in an all female environment. Briefly. It was a mixed experience and taught me that women often don't play nicely together, there are a very few allusions to the sort of problems you might find in an institute towards the end of the book but nothing about some of the problems that might have existed at the top, at the same time the chapter that deals with Denman collage (who knew the WI had there own adult education facility) makes it clear that there have been issues, it sometimes feels like part of the picture is missing.
That's a small quibble though, I'm more than comfortable with the book being a celebration of the WI and it's ladies, it sounds like they deserve it. When the WI first came to the UK it was before women had the vote, when class was still the biggest divider of all, and when rural life could be almost inconceivably isolating, especially for women who would have had less reason to leave there farms and homes than there husbands. An institute that broke down class barriers and widened social circles with the specific aim of educating and entertaining could only have been a good thing.
Pre vote the WI would have been one of the very few places were the women who attended could look beyond the confines of family life to something altogether more public. This is the place they could learn to speak out, share ideas, campaign for better living conditions from, improve on scant education, and join in with the process of committee life. I have an impression of thousands of women starting with an attitude of 'I couldn't possibly' changing to one of 'well if I can do that, I can do this too'. I'm not sure if it's as radical as Robinson would have us believe, but it's impressive that the WI has stuck to it's own agenda - and I do agree that they are the ultimate focus group with plenty to offer in the way of community, friendship, and shared skills - no wonder they're still going strong.