Her deputy, Grace Hadow, was considered the “brains” of the movement. Her appearance – tall and ramrod-straight with an uncompromising hair-do and rimless pince-nez – was deceptive, as she was approachable and kind. After taking a First in English at Oxford, she went on to teach there and at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. Grace’s particular interests were education for women and gardening. She wore an apron made from a railway travelling rug whenever she could, in case the chance arose to wield a trowel or pull a weed.
Like most of the WI’s first officers, Hadow was also involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, but with more temperance than Rigby. In 1917, the year before the vote was won for women of property over the age of 30, and the year she joined the WI, she remembered her militant past with some pride: “It feels quite odd to think that possibly – even probably – before long people will neither shout with laughter nor throw things at one if one mentions women voting. I am glad to belong to a generation which has been stoned – not because I like being stoned (it is tiresome, and often messy), but since some women had to go through that to win the thing, it is a bit of luck not to have been out of it entirely.”
Still, it was the German submarine blockade of Britain during the Great War that put real fire in the belly of the WI. Before that, the role of the country housewife in wartime Britain was to endure and not waste resources. This was noble work, but hardly a mission.
Everything changed in October 1917. Rumours were circulating that Britain had only three weeks’ supply of food in reserve. The harvest had been disastrous; farms were empty of labour; German U-boats prevented the importation of what amounted to half the country’s food; and there was a real risk of malnutrition, if not starvation. The new-born WI stepped forward to take the lead by organising groups to produce and preserve fruit and vegetables; raise rabbits, pigs and chickens; set up canteens and co-operative markets; and teach communities how to make-do and mend.
But the Second World War is the period in the WI’s history which has defined it ever since. One of the most abiding images of the Home Front is of an apple-cheeked wife in her pinny, steadfastly filling jars from dawn till dusk with ambrosial preserves to feed the nation and spite the Nazis. They were the unofficial custodians of England’s heritage, the symbol of home values, and responsible – armed with nothing more than wooden spoons and a cheerful stoicism – for guarding the gates of civilisation. The “jam-busters”.
Flattering as it is, I haven’t yet met any member of the Women’s Institute who isn’t heartily sick of this jam-and-Jerusalem label. There was so much more to the work of the WI during the war. According to the government, they helped tip the balance between victory and defeat, and you can’t do that if your only weapons are a pan of plums and a song. Just as important as the WI’s practical work was their role in keeping up morale, caring for evacuees, supporting war widows, and planning for a fairer future.
Part of the impetus behind founding the movement in Britain in 1915 was the urgent need to prepare women with the knowledge and confidence to use their vote responsibly (when it came). As Mr Blair discovered, WI members have always been politically aware – and, given the common assumption that they are all blue-rinsed Tories, surprisingly radical. But it has been a strict rule that WI members should keep their political and religious allegiance private. Anyone addressing a meeting is explicitly warned to avoid party politics. When Mr Blair chose to ignore the brief, the WI was not amused.
Indeed, the list of campaigns waged by WI members over the years is astonishing. Two of the earliest were in support of a Bastardy Bill, whereby fathers were required to maintain their illegitimate children (this was in 1920, reflecting a wartime legacy of fatherless babies), and urging better awareness and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (1922, following numbers of returning soldiers infecting their wives). These were not subjects rural housewives were expected to bother their little heads about, never mind discuss; it was staggering that thousands were now expressing opinions on such matters, and daring to lobby the highest authorities in the land.
Since then the WI has fought for village telephone boxes, district nurses, Aids awareness programmes, the right for parents to stay in hospital with sick children, legislation against industrial pollution and safer working conditions for prostitutes.
Today, with a growing membership of more than 215,000, the WI flourishes not just in rural communities but inner cities, university campuses and professional work places. Rarely a week goes by without the Calendar Girls, the Shoreditch Sisters, or some other young, metropolitan group making the news with lessons in quilt-making or pole-dancing. And all these groups are still very much involved with campaigning. Once again, the WI is a force to be reckoned with. As Germaine Greer says, “I like the WI best when they are angry.”
So Tony Blair should have known better. His reception at the Wembley Arena wasn’t some sort of mass moment of middle-aged ditziness, but the latest event in a long tradition of activism. The WI may have been created to give isolated rural women a chance to get together, but it also taught them how to change the world.
'A Force To Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute’, by Jane Robinson (Virago, £20), is available from Telegraph Books for £18 plus £1.25p p&p. To order, call 0844 871 1516 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk