Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers – BBC 2

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I’ve never had anything to do with the WI, and I’m afraid I’ve probably got exactly the image of it which its members and this programme want to dispel. You know the sort of thing – middle-aged and older women, from the middle and upper classes, in small communities in rural areas. I love jam, although I never make it (too much sugar equals too much guilt), and I know all the words to Jerusalem; but I come from the home of the dark satanic mills. When, at one point, the programme showed a book from 1940, in which WI members complained about smelly oiks being evacuated to their villages from Manchester and Liverpool, I was seething with indignation: some of those smelly oiks might have been my relations or family friends!   I think the first mentions of the WI which I ever came across were in Girls’ Own books, where the members were mothers of children who went to boarding schools and owned their own ponies, and in To The Manor Born. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but it all seemed a bit … well, fuddy-duddy-ish.

As I said, this is the sort of image which this programme wanted to dispel, even if it was presented by Lucy Worsley, who is an excellent historian but comes across in a very jolly hockey sticks sort of way which makes her seem rather like one of the characters in those Girls’ Own books. To be fair, the 1960s/70s/80s image of the WI doesn’t hold that firm any more; and that’s thanks in a large part, as Lucy said, to the famous “Calendar Girls” calendar and to that meeting at which WI members heckled Tony Blair. However, the programme went back well before that, to the founding of the WI a hundred years ago, and looked at how, in its early days, the WI campaigned for better housing, for women to be paid the same as men for doing the same work, and even had connections with the suffragette movement. Its importance as a social group, as a place where women could go to escape from the demands of everyday life and to form bonds with female friends, was also discussed. There aren’t a lot of places where it’s possible to do that these days, in a world in which no-one ever seems to have any time, although I’ve found the internet to be an absolute godsend in that respect. There were also some amusing stories about men whingeing that their wives were off at WI meetings when they should have been at home getting the tea on the table.

The role of the WI during the Second World War was discussed too. We laugh about the jam, but the scale of the jam production, and the care taken over it, was impressive. Other war work was mentioned too – and the WI did a lot of work for evacuees, even if some of its members did whinge about smelly oiks.

Most interesting, though – or, at least, I thought so – was the last part of the programme, about modern WI members. The people whom Lucy interviewed belonged to “The Shoreditch Sisters” – mostly women in their 20s, in the East End of London, the complete opposite of the sort of demographic which you’d traditionally associate with the WI. Oh, there are still the traditional WI things going on, but the WI now seems to have a far broader base than I’d ever have thought. Shows what I know, eh, LOL?   I even Googled “Manchester WI” – and, yes, there is one now! Founded in April 2012. I never knew that!

I’ve just re-read this and it sounds a bit critical; and it’s not meant to. I don’t mean that there’s anything at all wrong with groups of middle-aged and older women, from the middle and upper classes, baking cakes and making jam. There’s something rather nice about it all – something a lot more peaceful and gentle than the lives most of us lead. But this programme wanted to show that there’s more to the WI than that, and to remind us of parts of its history which have been forgotten; and I think it did a good job of it.

3 thoughts on “Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers – BBC 2

  1. mrsredboots

    Sorry about that – it posted before I’d got properly started!!! The WI has always been in the forefront of improving the lives of ordinary people; I know we laugh at the Joyce Grenfell sketch, but my mother said they campaigned vigorously for, for example, public transport to outlying villages back in the day before people had cars as a matter of course. Some of their lectures were educational, giving an opportunity for additional learning to people who might not otherwise have had that choice. Their residential courses at Denman College are, and always were, hugely in demand. Most members were and are ordinary village people, no matter how much the leadership wasn’t. They have arguably outlived their usefulness now, but back in the day they were the forefront of the feminist cause, in the long hiatus between the suffragettes and the bra-burners of the 1970s.

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