Both entries for Margaret Scutt in the Burnett Archives are typescripts of talks she gave at her local Women’s Institute, the first in 1950 and the second in 1955. They appear to have been submitted to the archive by Margaret’s daughter. It is possible, of course, that Margaret may have given more talks but the manuscripts have been lost. This is implied by her obvious position in her local Women’s Institute (WI) organisation, as being allowed to assume centre stage at one of the largest women-led organisations in the United Kingdom cannot be granted so easily.
In her book A Force To Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute (2011), Jane Robinson discusses the feminist foundations to the WI and how its members help prove how powerful women can be when they come together. The WI was founded by ‘the feistiest women in the country’ (Robinson, 2011, 2), many of whom were apart of the suffragette movement, and of course ‘passionate social crusaders’ (Robinson, 2011, 2). All these women strived for the dismantling of gender norms, but of course it led to them suffering from misogynistic stereotyping along the way. Leisure activities such as baking and crochet, mean that social perceptions assume the WI to be of middle-class origins and prioritising middle-class women. However, the WI’s principles were prefaced on ‘giv[ing] village women a voice, and the courage to use it’ (Robinson, 2011, 2) so that they could solidify their sense of identity and therefore their social position in relation to the other people in their communities. At the time of its establishment, the socio-political landscape did not allow women to vote, so attending these WI meetings meant that women were able to get their first taste of democracy and community. Both of these aspects of the meetings allowed socialisation between the women to encourage its members to develop new skills, which allowed them to enhance their autonomy meaning they were well equipped to establish themselves outside of secluded domesticity.
Margaret’s village lifestyle was evidently heavily premised on community, and the lasting personal connections it incites. This is reflective of the WI ideals that helped to instil premature feminist notions into its members, allowing the women to take them out and apply them in their communities. These fundamental values help understand why women like Margaret became members of the WI, and why some of these women came to be as valued as Margaret appears to have been.
Margaret’s documented speeches were both given in the post-war era, which Robinson tells us was a time of unity at both local and national levels. She states how in the years of rationing during this time period, all 379,000 WI members ‘sprang into action’ with ‘Operation Produce’ (Robinson, 2011, 177) in an attempt to boost the annual produce yield to help the families who faced the most difficulty in accessing the basic essentials of a kitchen store cupboard. This effort to help nourish struggling families shows the fundamental rural community values Margaret tells us about seen played out on a national scale, proving the positive effects of organisations like the WI in restoring and building community frameworks. The WI’s success in helping feed more families also helped to pivot social perceptions of its members to one they constructed themselves. In 1952, a hand embroidered tapestry entitled The Work of Women in Wartime was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The tapestry shows the various faces of the British WI collectives, and was sewn by the women it represents (Robinson, 2011). The pictures sewn into the tapestry show the roles women played during World War Two, with the three central panels showing women in industrial roles, agriculture, and the three military services.
Since it began, The Women’s Institute has allowed women to discover independence and pride in their womanhood, whilst at the same time allowing for safe social spaces for women in their local communities. With the evolution of technology, and the internet taking the late twentieth-century by storm, online communities have been able to form as an additional outlet for women seeking advice or a sense of sisterhood. Mumsnet is perhaps the largest media platform for women, specifically mothers and wives, to establish connections with other women who have the same experiences or queries regarding domestic life as them. Essentially, Mumsnet is the contemporary version of early twentieth-century WI meetings, as it allows women to engage on a personal level by offering ‘a modern continuum of this type of ‘do-it-yourself’ action around issues such as maternity care and infant well-being’ (Pederson, 2020, 2). The users of Mumsnet face similar issues as earlier WI members, such as stereotyping, but can tackle them differently with the help of the Internet. Possibly the best and worst thing about the Internet is that it allows you to maintain anonymity in online forums such as Mumsnet. This allows for women who are unable to seek help or advice due to embarrassment or domestic abuse to step forward under their disguise and seek out the sense of community they long for.
With this context of the WI behind Margaret’s speeches, it shows that she is speaking on issues such as education, religion, and family to express her affections towards how these three things help to contribute to the establishment of community in rural culture. The importance of community helps to support the significance of the role the WI plays in creating a safe space for women, which planted its roots so firmly into British culture that echoes of its principles can still be identified in contemporary culture.
1:0886. Scutt, Margaret. (c.4,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography.
Robinson, Jane. A Force To Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute. Virago Press: London. 2011.
Pederson, Sarah. ‘Practical, everyday feminism: mothers, politicians, and Mumsnet’. Women’s History Review. 2020. pp.1-11.
The Work of Women in Wartime. Imperial War Museum