If you aren't from the UK, have you ever wondered about the WI? The Women's Institute features prominently in many British books and movies (remember Calendar Girls?), but most Americans don't really understand the significance of the institute for women in the early twentieth century and for the whole country during World War II:
Not every woman in the countryside joined her WI, but for those who did it probably presented the only opportunity for them to socialise outside the home and to learn about life beyond their immediate environs. (p. 1)—Home Fires by Julie Summers (Penguin Group USA / Penguin Books, 2015)
Jam. If you ask someone what they think the WI did in wartime they will probably answer 'They made jam'. It is true. They did and they made a lot of it. As we have seen, it is by no means the only contribution members made to the war effort but it is one of the two images that the general public has of the WI. The other being singing 'Jerusalem'. They have had to live with that cosy couplet 'Jam and Jerusalem' for over half a century and it risks ridiculing the enormous amount of valuable work done by the women of rural Britain. (p. 163)
- Setting: England, World War II
- Circumstances: This is a look at the famous Women's Institute of England and Wales and its multifaceted role in keeping their country cobbled together during some of its darkest days. Based on interviews, archives, and historical documents, this book gives us an intimate view of the WI and of some of the amazing women who worked tirelessly and often thanklessly for their fellow citizens.
- Genre: nonfiction, women's history, social commentary, culture, WWII.
- Themes: Sacrifice, camaraderie, small towns, women's issues, life during wartime
- Nature of the book: Each chapter covers a different role the WI played during the six years of the war, such as helping evacuees, growing food, supporting the troops, dealing with rations, and bolstering each other. The text is easy to read and is peppered with fascinating (some funny, some sad, many just matter of fact) personal stories and anecdotes. The book also includes some period photographs.
- Some of the WI's activities: The WI did way more than make jam and knit for the troops, but knit and can they did on a mind-boggling scale. The institute also acted as an arm of the government, organizing collections, placing evacuees, and teaching women how to grow food and butcher small animals. But more than just volunteer for the war effort, the women also organized educational programs to better themselves and social activities to promote friendship and offer emotional support.
- Nature of the organization: There are no religious, class, or political restrictions to joining the WI. Thus, and especially during wartime, the WI acted as a leveler, allowing women of all kinds to interact and work together and develop the deepest of friendships. The women were hardworking and self-sacrificing. They also looked to the future by helping their communities modernize and prepare for the postwar years.
- My thoughts: I haven't finished reading Home Fires, but I'm finding it hard to put down. I'm completely emotionally entangled in the stories of these women who gave so much to others. Many of them were ordinary women just trying to cope as best they could; others became activists for their communities and their countries. Every one of them is a hero.
- Extra, extra! The book has now been made into a six-part series, airing on PBS Masterpiece, starting Sunday October 4. See the very short ad from PBS for a taste.
Thanks to Penguin Books, I'm able to offer one of my readers with a USA mailing address a copy of Home Fires by Julie Summers. All you have to do to be entered for a chance to win is to fill out the following form. I'll pick a winner on October 9, using a random number generator. Once the winner has been confirmed and I've passed the mailing information on to the publicist, I'll erase all personal information from my computer. Good Luck!