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The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The Women’s Institute as a Social Movement

Maggie Andrews
Lawrence and Wishart, London, 2015, Pb p 250 £16

Having moved to a small town I thought I would join the Women’s Institute, with nothing more than a vague memory of Calendar Girls, and a hope that it would help me to make friends. I soon came to realise that this understated organisation is a most interesting and intriguing phenomenon.

Maggie Andrews’ original research took place in the 1990s, and focused on the WI from its inception in 1919 to the 1960s. This updated 2015 text includes new material and brings the history up to date. Rigorously researched, but written in an accessible style, she interrogates the WI through the lens of feminism. This in itself is controversial, as the overtly domestic sphere occupied by the WI is not commonly associated with feminism. However, Maggie Andrews makes a powerful argument for the WI having being overlooked within the feminist movement and for a reappraisal of its achievements and strengths.

The WI is a significant element of British women’s history. The author shows it to be a most resilient and longstanding organisation exclusively run by and for women, which is effective at a local level whilst internationally connected. It is egalitarian, apolitical and non-sectarian, it has withstood attempts to dilute its strength, and to belittle and underplay its power. It has given a space and a voice to rural, and home -based women regardless of class or religion who generally within history, including much of women’s history until more recently, are all but invisible.

The author includes chapters that explore its inception, significant role in World Wars One and Two, campaigning and education. She also critiques the ways in which histories of the WI have changed over time, and the uneasy relationship with feminism.

There are several well written histories of the WI available, drawing on extensive local and national archives, but I found Maggie Andrews’ book particularly useful and learned a great deal. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the ways in which women can and have successfully organised to nurture, empower and support each other in everyday life, crisis and war.

Janet Hargreaves

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