Margaret Wintringham became chairman of the Women’s War Agriculture Committee for placing women and girls on the land (First World War), and soon after developed her interest in women’s institutes by becoming secretary of the Lindsey Federation of Women’s Institute Handicrafts Guild.
Writing in Good Housekeeping October 1922 she explained –
‘The Women’s Institute movement has not only banished dullness from the lives of country women, but is teaching them that good housekeeping is a highly privileged, skilled, and nationally important occupation.
The Women’s Institute movement began in Ontario Canada in 1897, and was the outcome of the expressed need of women living in the country to meet together for mutual support, for the interchange of ideas, and for the brightening of their isolated and often difficult lives.
During the War the need arose for combined effort among the country women of England for the increase of food production and food preservation, and to meet this need the first Institute was formed in this country in 1915. To-day, there are in England and Wales 2,351 Women’s Institutes, which means that in 2,351 villages in this country a self-governing organisation of women exists, with common aims, objects, and ideals.’
Her article gives us a little snapshot of the subjects of the monthly meetings – from repairing and putting new soles on shoes, to extracting dyes from vegetables, selected at random by herself.
‘The monthly Institute meetings carry out programmes of lectures, demonstrations, entertainments, and competitions, drawn up in advance by the members themselves, and in this way supply the educational and social activities meeting the demand of that individual village. Education, both by lecture and practical demonstration, is given in all the technical sides of housekeeping. The lecture may be: “The Preparation of “Dyes from Vegetables,” illustrated by a practical demonstration on “Vegetable Dyeing,” or, again, “Hints on Curing Bacon” may be the subject on which information is sought, and the demonstration may be ” Repairing and Soling Shoes.” These I select at random.’
In reply to a roll call, members would read out and offer to exchange a proven and favourite recipe. Laundry hints and tips, and how to save money with household bills were exchanged. Labour saving appliances were bought such as vacuum washers, vacuum cleaners and even ‘boot repairing outfits’, and these were hired out to members at a low cost to use in their own homes.
Interestingly, and an extract I plan to refer to in a talk I am scheduled to give to Women’s Institute members next Spring, The Women’s Institute had something for all ages –
To the girl in her teens living in the country, the Institute holds many charms. No longer, if there is an Institute, do parents find their daughters discontented and dissatisfied with rural life. Classes which only her town sisters could attend are now within her reach; ambulance, home nursing, millinery, lace-making, embroidery, dressmaking, and cooking classes all come in their turn. The Girls’ Circle, the young branch of an Institute, may have its tennis club, hockey club, entertainments, socials, whist drives and dances. The country is no longer “so deadly dull! ” and more harmonious households are the result.
And to our oldest member of ninety-two, what does the Institute bring in the way of housekeeping help, or should I not say, what wealth of knowledge does she not bring to her Institute? What cheers greet her concession when she is at last persuaded to hand on her mother’s mother’s most cherished recipe for plum cake or elderberry wine! or to give us an account of some of the fast-dying customs honoured and observed “when she was a girl.” ‘
Margaret finishes her article by pointing out an even wider reaching effect of the Women’s Institute. ‘By the orderly conducting of their meetings, by the careful choosing of Presidents, Secretaries, Treasurers, and Committee members, by the drawing up of little by-laws and their administration; by the voice in the self-government of their own movement, by their elected delegates to county and national meetings and councils, their carefully conducted elections, their reports and balance sheets, the management of their tiny finances – by all these things women learn in the Institute the government of their own small affairs. Gradually, eyes trained in housekeeping notice things in the village that need tidying. They send a petition to the Parish Council for refuse that is an eyesore to all to be removed from a certain corner. It is moved. In time, one, two, or more members become Parish Councillors, and so the Institute educates them. Little by little the rural women are learning. First, the Institute, then the village, the parish, the rural district, the county, the country – for is not their motto ” For Home and Country”? ‘