Lucy Worsley toasts 100 years of the WI – it isn’t all cakes and calendar girls

Ahead of her BBC2 documentary celebrating its centenary, the historian explains why members of the Women's Institute were the original women's libbers

I recently found myself making jam in a village hall, the quintessential Women’s Institute activity, with a group of Hampshire ladies who included the “Chutney Champion” of the New Forest.


Who knows who I might be mixing my preserves with were I to join the WI in Norfolk.

It’s been reported that the Duchess of Cambridge is planning to join the WI near her home of Anmer Hall, an action that’s been read as reflecting her “normal”, middle-class values.

But there’s something pretty extraordinary about the institution that has also counted Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, and the Queen among its members.

One hundred years old this September, the WI has managed to be both part of the establishment, and, at the same time, a deeply subversive organisation.

Which helps explain how I also came to spend a sunny Saturday with the Shoreditch Sisters, a WI branch whose 20-something members identify themselves as feminists. We joined a noisy protest against the treatment of asylum seekers at the Harmondsworth Removal Centre.

But both the cake-bakers and the troublemakers have something in common: a belief that women deserve a club that inspires, comforts and campaigns on their behalf. What intrigues me most is the WI’s long lineage as a radical campaigning body, which often gets overshadowed by its reputation for competitive chutney-making and other such domestic activities. Well-behaved women rarely make history, it’s often said, and the founders of the WI could be very badly behaved indeed.

Take the story of Edith Rigby. In 1913 the country seemed to be at peace, but beneath the surface, a civil war was raging, as the Suffragettes turned to increasingly desperate measures in their fight to win the vote.

On 7 July 1913, Edith – a Suffragette from Preston and a friend of the Pankhursts – might have been seen lugging a keg of paraffin up to the hilltop holiday home in Lancashire of Sir William Lever, soap magnate. She laid a trail of paraffin round the wooden structure, lit it, and ran away down the hill.

As she got into the getaway car, the driver remembered that she was grinning.

Edith turned herself in to the police the next day. Using the dock as a platform, she asked the world whether Sir William’s burnt-out house was more important as just one of his many “superfluous” homes, or as “a beacon lighted to King and country to see here are some intolerable grievances for women”.


Edith was sentenced to nine months in prison, went on hunger strike, was released and finally fled the country.