Monday, October 3, 2011

Women's Institute bends an ear

The venerable Women's Institute has several zeitgeisty new branches in inner London, and Stoke Newington has asked me to tell them all about Mary Wollstonecraft. This will happen a week today, on the evening of 10 October 2011. Entrance is free, as they are always looking for new prospective members. £5, as they are serving wine and cheese, with a 1970s theme. (If, on the other hand, you are of the gentlemanly persuasion, sadly the door is barred to you. But you could always organise a group of curious men on another occasion; Mary addressed many such assemblies. Or meet me in the pub afterwards.)

The WI formed in Canada in 1897, spurred by Adelaide Hoodless's anger at lethally adulterated milk, and quickly became a way of bringing women together, for education but also for social support and social change. It took off in the mother country from 1915, where rural women were often socially restricted to sister congregants at church or chapel, and never the twain shall meet. One author argued, on its Canadian centenary, that the WI represented The Acceptable Face of Feminism.

The WI intentionally crossed class and religious divides - as did Mary. Her novel Maria: Or, the Wrongs of Woman has its central figure, the falsely imprisoned middle class woman, forge a bond of sympathy with her working class wardress Jemima; this is said to be the first female cross-class solidarity in literature. And the WI still campaigns: they have a dozen listed on their website, from libraries to dairies, from maternal healthcare in the Third World to "care not custody" in the UK, against locking up the mentally ill. I can see some themes emerging....

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