My View, Mel Hewitt: There’s lots more to WI than calendars

Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson

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A couple of weeks ago my daughter Lizzie and I sat down to watch the film Suffragette.

With a star studded cast – including Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst – it tells a story which has sometimes been misrepresented or even ignored over the last century.

It’s a film I could see touched Lizzie deeply.

She will be 18 soon, so able to vote for the first time on June 23, the date of the EU Referendum.

Watching Suffragette had clearly brought home to her how the vote, fought for for so long by so many, was something to cherish – however disenchanted you might be the with the current political system, parties or individuals within it. I know I’ve sometimes been tempted to write ‘none of the above’ on my ballot paper, before adding, ‘but I did turn out’.

The struggle for votes for women has sometimes been reduced to a cliché of green, white and purple banners, force-feeding of militant women prisoners and perhaps most poignantly the death of Emily Davison who flung herself in front of the King’s horse at The Derby.

As with many struggles – political and otherwise – the truth is a more complex.

Similarly the WI has been tagged with the ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ phrase – with the occasional foray into world famous calendars and slow hand-clapping of a Prime Minister making their mark.

Which is why it was refreshing at the South Yorkshire Federation of WIs’ spring meeting in Doncaster last Saturday, to experience first hand, as a member, the variety of educational, entertaining, campaigning and fulfilling things they do.

It was a joy to hear social historian Jane Robinson read from her engaging book ‘A Force to be Reckoned With’ – the story of the WI.

This was highly praised when published in 2011. I can see why. It intrigues from the start – who would have thought that a history of an institution that celebrated its centenary last year would be such a page-turner?

Perhaps even more strikingly, who would have thought that the WI’s founder members would have included suffragettes, academics and social crusaders?

We know how socially excluding it could be to be a suffragette, but women in education were also flying the flag for female emancipation and defying the conventions of the day.

My grandmother had to leave her teacher training in 1916 when she married. It wouldn’t have been right for a wife at that time to have a full-time career.

Happily, the WI – with their originally-radical agenda of giving women a voice and latterly fine writers like Jane Robinson – are making a difference every day.

I’m pleased my daughter has the vote and that the WI continues to flourish.