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The Women's Institute

Susan Buchan arrived in Elsfield four years after the idea of a Women’s Institute had been first mooted. The organisation began life in rural Canada, where its aim was to give women a voice independent of their husbands, and to improve food production. Its Canadian founder, Mrs Watts, brought her idea to England in 1915 and it was quickly seized on by the government of the time, as a way of organising women in the production of food. The intial organisation was formed under the auspices of the Agricultural Organisation Society, which had itself been formed in 1901 in response to the severe decline in British agriculture, to support and encourage diversification in the farming industry. Mrs Watts was invited to attend a meeting of the AOS, where she sat in the front row with her knitting. Towards the end of the meeting she put aside her knitting and spoke to the assembled members about the founding and growth of the Women’s Institute in Canada. She was appointed to the AOS staff for a three month period, with the specific purpose of organising the WI in Britain.

The first branch of the Women’s Institute in Britain was set up in Anglesey in 1915, with the explicit aim of revitalising rural communities and, as in Canada, encouraging women to produce more food during a time of shortages. The WI was the butt of men’s jokes at that time and has continued to be made fun of by many people to this day, but its impact on the lives of the women of Elsfield, whom we can assume were typical of village society of the time, cannot be overestimated.

What had been a democratic movement founded on co-operative principles in Canada was taken over and run in England by women many of whom had been active in the suffrage movement, notably, Lady Denman, the Chairwoman, and Grace Hadow, the Vice-chairwoman of the National WI. Grace Hadow had attended Somerville College in Oxford at a time when women were allowed to attend but not graduate. She became resident tutor at Lady Margaret Hall and a founder member of the Oxford Women Students’ Society for Women’s Suffrage. She must have been well acquainted with Helena Deneke, who was an active member of Elsfield WI from 1921 and on the committee of the national organisation and who became librarian and fellow of Lady Margaret Hall.

Branches of the WI multiplied, but not along the lines of the democratic Canadian model. In England, it was the Lady of the Manor who became the president of the local branch, the doctor’s wife was often the secretary, since she would be among the women comfortable with the written word, and the local teacher would almost certainly take an active part. In England, the WI under the influence of the ex-suffragists became a vehicle for the education of working class women in not only how to run meetings, how to formulate and present an argument but also in political issues which affected women. Women such as Grace Hadow and Lady Denman were well aware of the influence wives of politicians could have on how the country was run, and they deliberately cultivated the upper and political classes to increase the political clout of the movement.

Grace Hadow’s aim was to educate women to become active citizens which she undertook with an apostolic zeal. In 1918, she wrote, "The Women’s Institute is for all alike, rich and poor, gentle and simple, learned and unlearned – all pay the same subscription, and have the same responsibilities". This was not exactly a true representation of the situation, as the subscription would be a rather different proportion of the income of the lady of the manor compared with, say, a farm labourer’s wife. And it turned a blind eye to the social realities of village life. They may all have been able to contribute to the organisation, but the wives of farm labourers would have known their place and would not have questioned any lead the lady of the manor might have given. As their confidence increased, however, they could and did occasionally modify attempts to educate them, Mrs Buchan’s offer on one occasion to read extracts from the works of Dickens being deferred and the branch opting for a talk on home nursing. Still, an organization which could receive both Mrs Buchan, later Lady Tweedsmuir, and her cook, Mrs Charlett, on relatively equal terms must have seemed positively revolutionary in the 1920s.


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