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Archive for the ‘Jane Robinson’ Category

I had so been looking forward to A Force to Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute by Jane Robinson but found myself surprisingly indifferent to it once I started reading.  It is a good and informative book, giving a solid overview of the group’s development over the last hundred years or so, but for me it felt like there was something missing.  Robinson does a good job of presenting the facts but it felt very dry, even though the writing style is enjoyable.

To begin with, I was perhaps irrationally irritated by Robinson’s fondness for referring to anywhere in Canada as ‘backwoods’.  We have a lot of places that can legitimately be described as backwoods, being both wooded and sparsely populated.  Generally, the places that Robinson specifically referred to as backwoods were not, being either rural agricultural communities or, in one case, a provincial capital.  This is a foolishly small thing but I found it incredibly off-putting.

The WI began in the farming community of Stoney Creek, Ontario in 1897 but it wasn’t until almost twenty years later (in 1915) that it was successfully established in the UK.  From WWI to the present, Robinson chronicles the group’s accomplishments, from the requisite jam-making and ‘Jerusalem’-singing to their advocacy for more education on contentious issues like family planning and, as soldiers returned from First World War, sexually transmitted diseases.  So much of what the WI has done from the beginning, and what makes them such an admirable group, has been about making sure women had the education and confidence to improve their quality of life – all their larger contributions spring from that:

The WI’s most significant contribution to feminism remained, and remains still, what it had been from the very beginning: to equip women with the confidence to think and speak for themselves, and to make well informed decisions for their own good and for the benefit of their families and the wider community.

But, in many ways, this felt like a very shallow history.  The WI’s accomplishments are listed off and a few of their most notable champions described but always through rose-coloured glasses.  Robinson acknowledges the challenges and conflicts faced early on when the Women’s Institute was struggling to establish itself in Britain and, for me that was probably the most fascinating part of the book, especially concerning the challenges of imposing a democratic organization on a class-conscious society.  After that, everything is generally delightful and wonderful, moving from strength to strength, creating a book that becomes (I hate to say it) dull.  The WI’s achievements, impressive though they are, are presented in such a bland, uninspiring way that I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed by even their most salacious efforts, like grannies pushing for safer working conditions for prostitutes.

Really, I think my issue with the book was its complete lack of human interest.  There are lots of facts but there are none of the anecdotes that make similar histories so fascinating.  I could not help but contrast it with the excellent How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton, which was such an exciting and engaging read.  The organizations are not that dissimilar (and in fact have worked together, particularly during WWII) but Hampton’s vivid details and well chosen statistics made for a far more interesting history.  I would still recommend A Force to Be Reckoned With because of the excellent overview it does give of the WI and Robinson’s obvious enthusiasm for her subject.  I just wish she had gone into more depth, giving more details and stories, which would have made for a much more interesting read.

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