• The Women's Institute by Susan Cohen

    This is another of the slim volumes produced by Shire. Like the one about the Olympics it’s well laid out, full of photos and information that most people probably don’t know, and a pleasure to read.

    You may wonder why I reviewed it for an army-based book club, but there is a surprising connection in the work done by the WI to feed and clothe soldiers returning from The Great War, allowing them to join Institutes, and to sell their work via WI Markets after knitting ‘comforts’ for them throughout the hostilities. In the Second World War, WIs helped billet evacuees, kept allotments, made camouflage nets and minesweepers’ gloves, as well as the famous fruit preservation which seems to be the only thing for which they are now remembered.

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    The WI shares many values with the military. It is non party-political (and didn’t Mr. Blair learn THAT the hard way) and egalitarian, with all members having one vote which counts equally. In 1915, when the WI first came to the UK, this was socially unprecedented – the lady of the manor had a vote which counted just the same as her maid or her tenant’s wife.

    Just like the military, the WI has a great education system for its members, and over the years they have learned skills from bracelet making to blacksmithing, tailoring, upholstery, languages and computing, as well as the more well-known crafts. Denman College still offers a huge range of courses to members.

    This is an interesting book, with very real stories of the women with the ethos of serving and educating others. Who knows where we would be without the rural maternity services, breast cancer screening, clean milk and Tidy Britain campaigns which all started with motions at WI General Meetings? In the modern day, WIs are teaching schoolchildren how to cook healthy food, helping them learn to read, and filling all sorts of other gaps which have opened up in our society. This carries on the ethos of its founder, who started the organisation to teach women how to prevent so many of their children from dying.

    Three wine glasses – recommended to all ladies of RP.


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