Interesting, but only occasionally fascinating. 3 stars.
The blurb: Everyone knows three things about the Women’s Institute: that they spent the war making jam; some of their members were those sensational Calendar Girls; and that slow-handclapping of Tony Blair.
But there’s so much more to this remarkable movement. With a growing membership of 200,000 women of all classes, religions and ages, it has come a long way from its early meetings. Founded in 1915, it counted among its members suffragettes, academics and social crusaders who discovered the heady power of sisterhood, changing women’s lives and their world in the process.
This book was perched on one of those devilishly tempting library display stands and caught my eye as I was on the way to check out the books I had actually gone to the library to get. Apart from having watched (and enjoyed very much) the movie Calendar Girls and having a vague awareness of their existence, I knew nothing about how the Women’s Institute or how the organisation came about, so I thought “why not?” Besides, I do try to remember to read non-fiction occasionally.
Unfortunately, this book reminded me why I have to nudge myself away from the cosy embrace of fiction. I find non-fiction so much more difficult to “get into” than fiction and my experience with this book was no exception. I found my mind wandering in the middle of chapters and had to force myself to concentrate.
That said, there is plenty of interesting information in this book and anyone who reads it will come away convinced of the significant contribution the WI has made to English and Welsh society over the last 100 years.
A Force to Be Reckoned With is extremely well-written in a clear, light-hearted prose style which is accessible and not at all dry. However, as good as the writing is, it isn’t gripping. And, once we get past the two World Wars, it’s sad to see that the 40-year period from the 1950s to 1990s is covered in one chapter, as if the WI didn’t really do all that much of interest in that long period.
The highlights for me were small nuggets of information which were truly surprising and which often had nothing to do with the WI. For example, did you know there was a “revolt of the housewives” in England in 1795? Or, during the Second World War, The Times ran a headline which encouraged its readers to ‘Convert British Bunnies into Bombs’ (p.155)? (you’ll be pleased to know the headline was metaphorical and no rabbits were blown up).
The portraits of the women who were the early founders of the movement are also wonderful. It’s these “characters” who make the earlier chapters of the book interesting. For example, for her going-away outfit after her wedding, Lady Gertrude (“Trudie”) Denman, the greatest Chair of the WI, “wore a hat on which sat an entire brown owl, stuffed and staring blankly into space.” (p.86) I felt the loss of these tremendous figure in the later chapters.
Finally, this book has given me my new motto and excuse for reading rather than doing housework. As a correspondent to the WI’s Home and Country magazine wrote in 1954: “Better a dusty house than a dusty mind.” Indeed, Madam. Indeed.
Overall: this would be best enjoyed by anyone with a previous interest in the WI or women’s organisations. However, for me it served as a valuable reminder of how much can be achieved by a group of disparate women coming together to improve themselves and their communities. And, of course, how essential tea and cake is to the success of any group enterprise.
Claire Huston / Art and Soul