Saturday, April 19, 2014

Women's work in winning the war

Jambusters, Julie Summers

I began seeing posts about this book I think even before it was published in 2013.  I knew it would take a while to get to the United States, and I didn't expect my libraries would have a copy.  So I had to wait not just for the U.S. publication, but then six months longer for it to become eligible for interlibrary loan.  Audrey's recent review came just as the right time to remind me, as the book was finally available.  And it was certainly worth the wait.  (Sadly, it came without the evocative cover.)

The Women's Institute has been in the background of some of my favorite books, including Angela Thirkell and The Provincial Lady.  But it's been just that - in the background, taken for granted, never explained.  So I found this book very informative not just on the WI's work in the Second World War, but on the organization as a whole.  I hadn't realized that it began in Canada, where the first branch formed in 1897.  The first WI branch in Britain came almost 20 years later, in 1915.  I had no idea that the WI exists only in rural areas, with a population of less than 4,000, and that it is dedicated to improving rural life, particularly for women.  I did know (from "Calendar Girls") that there is a national governing body, but I learned only from this book how highly organized the structure is, including the county levels.  It was also interesting to read that Scotland formed its own separate organization, so the National Federation of Women's Institutes comprises the English and Welsh branches.

While I found this book very informative on the WI in general, the focus of the book, as the subtitle states, is "The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War."  After an overview of the history of the WI, Ms. Summers focuses on the organization's main activities during the war.  These were often undertaken at the request of government agencies like the Ministry of Food, whose director Lord Woolton understood the power of a well-run and committed national organization with county and local branches.  According to Ms. Summers, the WI is best-known for its communal canning and jam-making, which not only preserved tons of fruit and other produce that would otherwise have gone to waste, but also added to the nation's food supplies as imports dwindled.  They did far more, however.  The women of the WI also coped with the floods of evacuees, especially in the first months of the war; planted gardens to increase food production (and then canned and preserved the harvests); knitted and sewed for the armed forces and refugees; and ran entertainments for themselves as well as for evacuees and soldiers stationed near-by.  I was particularly struck by the fact that not only was all this work was voluntary, but generally the women did not benefit from it.  After their heroic work canning or making jam, for example, all the production was turned over to be sold under the rationing program.  And above and beyond this, while the women were carrying on their own work in home and farm, under the difficult war-time conditions, not to mention housing evacuees, many branches were also raising separate funds for the Red Cross, or to provide ambulances for field service.

To tell this story, Julia Summers relied first on the records of the WI itself, housed in the archives of The Women's Library in London (a place I need to visit).  She also had access to the records of local branches, and to women who were members of the WI during the war (some in person and some via letters or diaries).  She quotes frequently from first-hand accounts, which bring her story to life as the women speak for themselves.  My only quibble is about her methodology: Ms. Summers did not document these quotations as she did the published works, in her end notes, nor are they listed in her bibliography.  It isn't always clear if she is quoting from interviews she conducted, oral histories, written reminiscences, or other sources.

I had begun to suspect that Ms. Summers has a personal connection to the WI even before I read that her maternal grandmother was a long-time member who helped found a local branch, often serving as an officer.  The author's admiration and respect for the WI is clear, and she makes a compelling case for the heroism of their service.  It was not glamorous work, knitting and canning and growing potatoes, but it was a crucial part of the war effort on the home-front and to victory in the end.


  1. I'm so glad you were inspired to read this! Her personal connection to the story was moving, wasn't it?

  2. Audrey, I'm equally glad that you reminded me of it, I had forgotten to check for it. I'm also grateful we have such a great inter-library loan program with our county libraries!

  3. I've been hanging out for your thoughts on this one! The lack of documentation always annoys me - I understand why they do it for popular history, but I like to KNOW. I'm definitely going to read this one. As you say, the WI permeates so much of the fiction of the decades we love. Also I'm a member of the Australian equivalent - the Country Women's Association. I am a city girl, but they are open-minded! ;-) Their scones are a delight.

  4. vicki, I think the documentation is especially important when people contribute through interviews or oral histories - to make sure they are acknowledged and recognized. I would absolutely join The County Women's Association - and not *just* because of the scones.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!