Our little village just held a celebration for its local W.I. (Women’s Institute). The village Town Hall was packed as awards were handed out and achievements reeled off. For a century this intrepid group, through hard times and war time, worked to improve life in this little corner. Before WWII, for instance, they bought a rough strip of land for $30, held work parties to clear it and installed the swings, slide, seesaw I played on as a kid. In the Great Depression, they banded together to raise enough money to save the town hospital. They have handed out scholarships, fed the hungry, held endless teas, dinners, meetings and events to support all sorts of neighbourhood needs. When down to only three local members and facing extinction, a new generation stepped in to revive the feisty group.
They are a branch of the Women’s Institute founded in 1897 by Adelaide Hoodless after her child died of contaminated milk, their mission to bring education, new skills, help and connection to the rural women of the land.
Like much female work, their hard-won achievements are often taken for granted and origins forgotten. Yet your bread come hygienically wrapped, bright lines on the road keep you safe in fog and rain, labels on your clothes that tell you the fabric and its care, poisonous products are clearly marked, roadside breathalizer tests catch dangerous drunks, railway crossing have flashing signals, train stations have washrooms, and your milk is pasteurized to protect you from tuberculosis, Salmonela, E. coli, Listeria and a host of other lethal pathogens. All due to the labours of the Women’s Institute.
They are just one manifestation of the civilizing power of women. In research for my novel, The Tomorrow Country, and its upcoming sequel, I discovered that most of the reforms that make life tolerable come about through female efforts. In Britain, as in North America, there is this vast but often invisible force pushing for our betterment. Notable advances may suddenly have some man as the visible champion, the drive behind it is the usually women.
Denied public participation in the 19th century, this force, as today, manifested itself in the church groups, improvement societies reading clubs, ladies’ aids, women’s auxiliaries, etc., etc. that provide the groundswell energy, the critical mass that pushed the reforms into being. The Victorian women were alight with the concept of human progress and the certainty that all social ills could be righted with enough effort and care. Women worked without pay, volunteering from busy home lives, often without recognition, pushing and pushing to get the men to finally legislate social advancement. They still do. Queen Elizabeth II herself has been a member since 1943.
These women, as always, provide the bedrock of civilized society. Education opportunities for every child, equal pay for women, access to divorce courts, fair parental guardianship, raising the age of consent for girls, protection of migratory birds decades before environmentalism, female safety when traveling, aid to starving countries, appointment of women to the senate, financial security for the handicapped, old age pensions for all, the list goes on and on. Issues men seem blind to, women spot right away and get on the case.
Women such as those in the our thirteen member village W.I are the steadying ballast of society, the ones who see how to make life better and make it happen. Their motto, For Home and Country, remains as true today as it was in 1897. So let us thank them and salute them and hope they someday achieve the level of indigenous women who did not allow men to go to war without female consent. What a social advance that would be!