The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The Women’s Institute as a Social Movement


In recent years within youth work a partial renewal of a commitment to a feminist praxis has seen GirlGuiding emerge as a leading light, see the Girls Matter initiative.  Responding to criticism that GirlGuiding is abandoning its traditional roots its chief, Gill Slocombe, has insisted that despite the stereotype, it had always been a revolutionary organisation.

“The Guides have always been at the cutting edge of enabling girls to do whatever they want,” she said. “From the very start girls were encouraged to swim, to cycle – things that weren’t considered fit things for girls to do at that time.”

Therefore it is fascinating to welcome a new and revised version of ‘The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The Women’s Institute as a Social Movement’, written by Maggie Andrews. The British Women’s Institute is more often associated with jam and Jerusalem than radical activity, but in the book she explores the WI’s relationship with feminism from the formation of the organisation in 1915 up to the eve of British feminism’s renaissance in the late 1960s. In this 100th anniversary year of the founding of the WI, her new afterword considers the resurgence of interest in the WI amongst young women in the twenty-first century, and the relationship between this and the contemporary cultural enthusiasm for the domestic.

The title of one of its chapters is ‘Can flower arranging be feminist?’ I wonder what might be an ironic parallel question in youth work today. Given the popularity of such programmes as ‘The Great British Bake Off’, might it be, ‘Can cake-making be feminist?’ Forgive me being out of touch, but to what extent would activities, formerly perceived as domestic, be now an integral element in work with girls and young women?


One comment

  1. Domestic activities aren’t inherently gendered. They only become so because of the division of labour. Any activity can be feminist if the appropriate questions are asked and the activity is undertaken in that spirit of critical questioning and in an appropriate context. I haven’t read the Maggie Andrews book, but it seems to me self-evident that flower arranging can be feminist if we ask questions such as ‘Why is flower arranging denigrated as a leisure activity/’ Why is it not accorded the status of ‘Art’? A similar set of questions can be asked of cake-making. Making cakes with a group of women ‘gossiping’ has enormous feminist potential for breaking silences. I could go on….

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