Recently, I was asked to host a workshop for branch of the Norwich division of the Women’s Institute, ‘The Golden Triangle Girls’. Expecting jam, Jerusalem and jingoism, I was impressed by the diverse array of women that listened intently as I bumbled my way through a workshop about ‘Bee Friendly’ practices.
The group of women who swarmed around tables of craft materials and collected household items were varying in age, occupation and class. But most notably, these women were engaged in the activity. To some extent I had an inkling that the women I would meet at this monthly event would not be the conservative face that over 100 years of country fêtes and the 2003 blockbuster hit that was Calendar Girls had led me to believe. However, I did not realise just how radical a space the WI really was until I attended a meeting for myself.
As proud member of the Norwich Fierce Babe Network, I participate in a radical, feminist identifying space which allows women to pro-actively organise events alongside holding discussions and creating an online forum for women to share grievances. A contemporary group made up of a diverse array of young women; you would be forgiven for not seeing the likeness with the WI. We meet in coffee shops, not church halls; online forums over village fêtes; we make feminist-queer patches, not bunting. Many may not realise that the radical roots of the WI harbours building-burning Suffragettes such as Edith Rigby and Madge Watt as founding members. Or that, since their inception in 1915, they have been an active campaigning institution – voting on many motions such as equal pay for equal work in the 1940s, alongside heckling Tony Blair in a highly publicised PR scandal via the medium of slow-clapping in the 90s.
The significance of the WI is the threat that it poses to the narrative that women are powerless.
The WI were one of the first organisations to address the government on ‘Equal Work for Equal Pay’, establishing the campaign on the back of the tireless, unrelenting domestic work created by the evacuation of children during the Second World War. As a campaigning powerhouse, any member can propose a cause, which is voted on and then driven as a single focus with the weight of the entire WI. These women rallied for wages for housework and against the injustices heaped on them on the homefront. For many women in its inception, the WI practised democratic processes well before they had the legal right to vote. For the first time women were able to have their voices heard within an organisation that had a growing momentum. It’s not impossible to imagine that the women-only spaces set up by the WI are a precursor to the calling for ‘safe spaces’ practised in contemporary radical cultures such as the DIY Queer Punk scene, modern day Feminism, and in the Norwich Fierce Babe Network.
One of the exceptional achievements of the WI was the establishment of Denmore College in 1948, a residential college which offered women access to educational courses. From ‘Folk dancing for Pleasure’ to ‘The Atomic Age’, the courses were varied in material and offered accessible education to all women, many of whom had left school at 14. This was a significant step in empowering women into learning new skills and crafts, encouraging self-sufficiency for many. Notably, however, the efforts of women to engage in education and in particular utilising traditional craft practices as a focus for meetings has encouraged a stereotype which aims to disarm the WI. The harmless icing-dusted façade of church halls and village gossip of a bygone age are an implication that intend to diminish the real power of a women’s movement.
The significance of the WI is the threat that it poses to the narrative that women are powerless. It is the belief in the radical power of a community of women who are free from the restraints of a society which intends to devalue their craft. This craft, this ‘women’s work’ is written away as menial, a concept that carries itself over in the art world. Craft work such as knitting, baking or macramé are often devalued as ‘low’ forms of art, whilst conceptual sculptures and oil paintings become exhibition worthy forms of ‘high’ art. This distinction between craft and fine art is rooted not only in class discrimination but also in the disapproval of traditional women’s work.
The disregard for unpaid domestic labour and the disempowerment of women led to women’s artistic efforts to be credited as trivial. As homemakers, women were seen to not be educated or high thinking enough to create great pieces of art; doing so ensured that there was no place for us in the lexicon of our cultural fabric, we were not to be influential — for fear of uprising. The influence of the WI establishing spaces in which women could organise democratically, whilst also learning a craft from female tutors, has been monumental in the empowerment of many domesticated women.
This is a marked effort by the status quo to ensure that women do not realise that there is power in shared knowledge and jam making workshops.
This burgeoning activity of empowered women, much like the Suffragette movement, ruffled many a traditionalist feather. In the 1920s, the collective husbands of a Yorkshire village branch banned their wives from attending meetings which made the sheer act of attendance a rebellious act. It is within this idea that a collection of women organising together becomes a radical notion. Such is the threat that women can find solidarity and the tools in which to empower ourselves as a collective, that organisations such as the WI have been labelled as kitsch or old fashioned. This is a marked effort by the status quo to ensure that women do not realise that there is power in shared knowledge and jam making workshops.
To discourage the crafts and skills of the WI is a means to inhibit the self-discovery of women who would not have access to them otherwise. Women are powerful in numbers, and formidable knitters. Thereby hold your knitting needles, your jam jars, and your feminist-queer patches high and seek out your fellow women, whether you find them at your local Fierce Babe Network or a WI meeting and get crafting for the revolution.
Featured image © Sara Harrington
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