A New View of Country Life by Elizabeth Robins

Published in: The Nineteenth Century

Volume 85, Number 505 (March 1919), pages 584-592

Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
A New View of Country Life page 584 

As a factor in the many-sided work of Reconstruction there seems reason to believe that the Women's Institutes may take high place. Apart from their effect upon people actively concerned in the work done by these rural bodies, the more general interest they are capable of rousing, and some realization of their power to serve the country as well as the individual, seemed to be shared by the crowds which filled the Caxton Hall during the latter part of October. The Exhibition of Village Industries and Sale of Work, organized by the National Federation of Women's Institutes, and inspected by H. M. the Queen, was opened on successive days by the Lady Denman; by the President of the Board of Agriculture: by Miss Mericel Talbot, Director of the Woman's branch of the Board of Agriculture; by the Hon. Mrs. Alfred Lyttelton, Deputy-Director; by Mrs. Lloyd George and Rt. Hon. W. M. Hughes: and by Lady Baden Powell.

Something should be said of the brief history of the so-called "Woman's Institute Movement," before dealing with the causes of its success and with the country's need for it's extension. The idea is of Canadian origin and is about twenty-five years old. It was introduced on this side of the Atlantic the year before the War by Mrs. Alfred Watt, M. A., and was courageously developed by her in the years following. Since the ordinary projector of one of these Institutes heard at first on every side: "We have no time for this sort of thing during the War,' how much more often must Mrs. Watt! She has herself told of the difficulties encountered in her earlier efforts. A large part of our indebtedness to Mrs. Watt lies in the steadfastness of that vision which saw in a scheme born in peace, and growing slowly in the great spaces of the undeveloped West, a wide acceptance here, in face of the devouring preoccupations of the War. Certaianly during that time no success could have attended any such scheme unless, whatever the original purpose, it could develop in the direction of the most obvious forms of national service. That this requirement was fulfilled is the main reason why, with a total in 1914 of 137 of these Institutes, there were in 1918 about 800, working from 1915 under auspices of the Agricultural Organization Society, and since 1917 formally

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adopted by the Government, and affiliated to the Food Production Department of the Board of Agriculture.

The post-war need for the organization of agricultural interests and for developing the attractiveness of country life is so pressing that, if Women's Institutes did not already exist, the Board of Agriculture would have to invent them.

If it could.

These associations of rural woman have all the sturdiness of the system which has not been so much invented as evolved. Like Topsy, the W. I. 'growed.' To say that it grew out of the need of Canadian farmers' wives living in sparsely settled areas to meet every month and exchange counsel and amenities, is not to explain the ready adaptation of the idea by whole groups of English villages already linked by parish and other ties.

There seems to be more in the W. I. than its inventors guesses; perhaps more than its later patrons knew. It's future work will be increased rather than diminished by the more obvious needs of Reconstruction, but the main claim of the W.I. on the attention of the student and of the active public servant, lies in the fact that the W.I. is an essay in that form of rural co-operation which is one of the best antidotes to 'the Lure of the Town.' Unless its action is stayed, the townwards tendency, which was impoverishing village life before the War, must hereafter be enormously increased. The excitement and the wastage of the war-spirit is quite the poorest preparation for country life. Yet the results of excitement and wastage make cultivation of country life the primary condition of national recovery. This truth has far wider application that its pertinence to the problem of shell-shock, or to that of the more visibly disabled man who cannot, if he would, return to his pre-war occupation.

It is worse than idle for the instructed few to repeat the formula which sets forth the gain to race vigour in bringing up children in field and garden, rather in garret and gutter. Pending that time in the future when the Government shall have translated into actions schemes of National Health, Housing, and cheap transport, it is the business of a democratic people to deal with the decisive forces of the present. These forces are the influences acting upon men and women who in these next months following the War upheaval will be re-shaping their lives. Happily the Government has already afoot a scheme for training the ex-soldier, to be carried on under medical supervision in village centres. The value of this enterprise dose not need urging. But even such fractional aid in solving the great problem must have the ultimate co-operation of the wives and sisters and daughters of the soldiers,

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or it will fail of its intent. In the new conditions, men (with the sympathy and help of women) will do what they can to meet the needs of men. Women (with the sympathy and help of men) must try to meet the needs of women. It has been truly said that one of the greatest achievements of the W. I. has been to prove that 'home-tied woman' can co-operate profitably with the State. The end of the War has brought us to a place where we must consider not only that great majority of the 'home-tied' but also those who came out from their homes at the call of the State.

We have all heard men of candour express surprise at the effect upon women of certain forms of war work--those in particular involving what is called 'exposure.' Not to particularise the work which has overtaxed women, one may instance two sorts which have improved the health of the worker: motor-driving and work on the land. These two pursuits have turned many an anemic girl to a rosy, buxom being, infinitely better able to fend for herself than she was when she lived, what the kindly, old-fashioned mind still thinks of as, 'the sheltered life.' In view of a transformation of this nature in the wife of a country chauffeur who in her husband's absence had 'taken on his job,' someone suggested that the chauffeuse would not be over-pleased to relinquish the joys of her war-work. A canny old head-gardener, who had marked the various steps in the transformation, agreed cheerfully: "Oh, ay, when the boys come back there'll be murrderr in many a home!' Even in these early days we are reminded by the disappearance of girls from omnibus-conducting and 'lift' service, as well as by the published notice of many thousand dismissals from factory and professional pursuits, that not only are 'the boys coming home,' but in many cases the girls are coming home.

We have cause to know that these terrible four years have not left men unchanged. Military service, hard and bitter as it often must be, has nevertheless offered to many a man the only opportunity for travel, the only powerful intellectual stimulus, the only adult schooling he has ever known. The solider has not fought all the time. He has perhaps, for the first time in his life had leisure to think. He comes home in many cases a far more enlightened person. The old life wil not look the same to him. The old satisfactions will not always satisfy. Almost any woman will be able to recongise this change. The more intelligent, especially is she also has been working, whether at home under new impulse ar away from home under new conditions, will meet the change sympathetically, conscious that she too is 'not quite the same.' Women who have passed from the old isolation of cottage life, who have known the stimulation

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of work in association, who have made 'good wages,' who have spent them not always wisely as do invariably her 'betters'--to these women, as well as to soldiers, pre-war life may not look the same. If the discontents among these people, if their difficulties in readjustment should find expression in a further and final disertion of the country and in swelling the population of districts already overcrowded, the result would not be alone a ruinous decline in physical health but a mental condition favourable to far-reaching social disorder.

One seems to descry an analogy in that great Finger-post Discovery, developed, I believe, out of a recent study on influenza. We are shown that not only do we run greater danger of meeting certian diseases-microbes in a crowd; the microbes we thus meet so flourish in fellowship, that they are of enormously increased power and virulence. So then, to our older knowledge that the better forces of Nature are freer to act and more powerful in the country, we must add: the worser forces are freer to act and more powerful in action where men most do congregate.

Fortunately we are not in the hopeless position of advocating country life simply because of its effect upon health, upon order, and upon world-markets. Yet there is a cause to fear that the post-war plans of vast numbers of men and women will be shaped without the oppurtunity of realising that country life is the most lastingly intresting, as well as the best rewarding of all forms of existence. This great central fact of the intrest and the reward of country life for the million, as well as for the fortunate few, has long been obscured. The W. I.'s are helping to make it clear again.

Turning aside for a moment from the proved usefulness of the W. I. in Food Production; in Food Conservation; in recruiting the Land Army; and in War Savings--the W. I. offers to country women the stimulus (hitherto absent in their own villages) of work in common, and play in common. It should be remembered that this co-operation is achieved by a section of the community most difficult to organise, and least conscious of the need of organisation. Yet it is this great scattered community which has perhaps the largest, most responsible stake in those conditions of stability which only a close and conscious co-operation can maintain in the modern world. If the mass of men still have much to learn of this root need, the mass of women have still more.

As was so ably shown at the Annual Conference by that inspired friend of the W. I., Mr Nugent Harris, the way in which women can best serve the untimate ideal of co-operation between the sexes is to encourage a preliminary co-operation between women. The sexes will work together more effectually

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and in the end more smoothly, for having a certain amount of training apart. Men have for ages had the benefit of the encouragement and the discipline of working in concert with men. The woman has worked alone. She did this so long that she came to look upon her loss as gain, a thing to be proud of. 'I keep myself to myself' has been the villager's boast. The fundamental success of the Institute idea lies in the rural woman's discovery that the old boast is not only ungenerous, but personally disadvantageous. Above all, dull.

About co-operation the villiage woman is learning two things: The profit in it. The fun of it.

The Institutes are little Democracies. Self-governing, self-supporting, making no sectarian or political discriminations, their membership includes old and young, rich and poor, lettered and unlettered. All alike pay the same modest subscription of 2s a year. All obey the same rules. The opportunities of each and all to serve the Institute and be served by it are limited only by the individual power to give and to receive.

Since the lightening of Food Restrictions the W. I.'s revert to their custom of devoting twenty minutes or so, midway in the programme, for general movement, talk and tea. Of the importance of this item, one whose knowledge of Institute affairs is far closer than mine, says:

Tea means more than a mere loosening of tounges and comforting of stomachs. Without any metaphor, every common meal is a communion; its spiritual quailty depending upon the quality of the communal mind. The satisfaction of bodily appetite somehow puts the spiritual part off its guard. The usual result is gossip--a devilish communion. But if one is keyed above gossip before the urn appears, one is ready with one's better self to meet the other better selves. We are in one aspect animals drinking; in another, souls conversing. Class shyness and class suspicion vanish. . . .

The procedure usually followed in initating a W. I. is a distribution of explanatory handbills among the women of the village and surrounding country; then a preliminary meeting called to discuss the W. I. idea and to decide whether the village wishes to give it a trial. If a general meeting is arranged, an organiser from the Food Production Department (72 Victoria Street) should be invited to give the inital address. A committee of ten is formed, which chooses its own officers, President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer. These may act only temporarily to start the Institute. At most, they hold office only by yearly tenure and are elected by secret ballot.

The business of the Institute is in the main transacted by the Committee, somehow supplemented by sub-committees. Therefore the business side of the General Monthly Meeting of the Institute Members may be briefly dispatched. The minutes are read,

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announcements are made, and opinions called for touching any matter that needs corporate action. A member, or a visitor, then 'gives a talk' or reads a paper, often but not invariably upon some aspect of house, or garden, or farm ecomomics. Sometimes the address, and the debate which may follow, link the needs of the village to the larger problems of civilized communities. From Headquarters came recently a suggestion that W. I.'s should interest themselves in questions of Education and Housing. This last led to a series of valuable addresses and discussions. The best address, and the most potentially useful which I have yet heard in one Institute, was that given by a working woman on 'The Cottage I Want."

Most monthly programmes include music or an entertainment, and often an exhibition of some sort. This last may be a separate item, such show of cottage-garden vegetables; or of toys (a growing industry); or plain needlework and mending. Sometimes the exhibit is a part of the address, such as the hive and paraphernalia to illustrate practical bee-keeping; or the materials and adjuncts used in fruit-bottling, done in sight of the audience; or talk on goat-keeping with the object-lesson showing a pair of lusty kids being given their supper from a bottle!

Some critics, hearing of the many-sided activities of the W. I. have expressed a twofold fear: (1) that these activities, new or extended, may distract women overmuch from their home intrests: (2) (reckless from self-contradiction) that the new interests might distract women from 'war-work.' It is now a commonplace of experience that the W. I.'s have helped the individual home, and have helped the country at the greatest crisis in its history.

Under the stimulus of war needs the W. I.'s developed a new conscience in Food Production and Food Economy. They started and fostered Goat clubs, Rabbit and Pig clubs. They developed among a people the most wasteful in the world, with the exception of the Irish and the American, some appreciation of the thousand little values which in aggregate make the difference between want and sufficiency. The object-lessons in this new lore are almost as many as the number of W. I.'s. We have as an example the Madron Pig Club enlisting Girl Guides to collect food, most of which in pre-war days would have gone to waste. This pig-food was taken to the feeding centres in a barrel mounted on wheels, and furnished with shafts made by a local carpenter, who refused payment.

One may say in parenthesis that nothing has been more indicative of the contagion of the co-operative spirit than the way in which men, witnesses of the work done by these Institutes and the spirit in which it was done, have aided the women.

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In one Sussex village a local landowner helped at the most critical moment--that of the birth of an Institute--by allowing the meetings to take place in a Coffee Tavern in the mainstreet. In the same village, the keeper of a public-house lent the W. I. a shed and courtyard for their Co-operative Market. The local cycle and motor dealer contributed registered scales. A market-gardener agreed, and never failed, to help make up occasional deficiency in stock, and to take over any surplus after sales. It is backing of this sort which heartens inexperienced women, most of them not well off, to attempt enterprises which otherwise they might not feel justified in risking, and which yet are full of promise. As further instances of the good will of men towards the W. I., the local Postmaster in the same Sussex village supported the Pig Club and acted as its Treasurer, and another landowner bought food for the club at wholesale price.

With a view of offering employment to the surplus population not absorbed by existing rural claims, the National Federation of Women's Institutes is collecting data as to which village industries will best be able to hold their own under Peace conditions.

Miss May Morris, speaking recently in Oxford at the Conference on the Development of Rural Industries, praised the W. I.s especially for what they have already done to revive local handicrafts. An important witness to the 'national' character of work done by the W. I.'s is quoted by the Committee acting in an advisory capacity to the Minister of Reconstruction.

The committee drew special attention to 'valuable information received from Mrs. Rowland Wilkins' in respect to Women's Village Industries, and the good work they had done during the war, towards promoting the better cultivation of gardens and allotments, the collection and distribution of vegetables, and the creation of interest in co-operative agricultural work. The report added that if, as is anticipated, there is a large increase of small holdings and settlement schemes after the war, Women's Institutes can play a large part in making the settlers contented and the schemes successful.

In Worcestershire, as a result of co-operation on the part of the Institutes, the Country Market Scheme within five weeks increased its turnover from 150 l. to 1000 l. per week.

Quoting from Miss Hadow's admirable paper, published by the Journal of the Board of Agriculture:

At Criccieth Women's Institute, co-operative production and marketing have been established with such success that between March, 1917, and February, 1918, there was a turnover of over 2000 l. Cobbling, rug-making and starch-making from diseased potatoes, are among some of the industries which will probably be temporary, but which are being sucess-

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fully carried on now. In one district where there was a number of small fruit growers, the president lent her kitchen and pans, the Institute bought fruit at current prices from all who cared to bring it, a concession as to sugar was obtained from the Ministry of Food, jars were begged from the neighbourhood, and by August this year 2700 lb. of jam had been made and sold first to Institute members (who were entitled to 6 lb. a head) and then to the general public. The fruit would not have been worth collecting and sending to a distant jam factory, and but for the Institute would either have been wasted or consumed raw instead of being preserved.

In the words of Sir Daniel Hall, President Secretary to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, in a circular dated May 1918, addressed to the Local Education Authorities in England and Wales--

Of the many new enterprises in rural development which the War has stimulated, there are a few, in Mr. Prothero's opinion, which are so full of promise for the future as the active association of women with agriculture and the prominent share which they have taken in the food production campaign. Women's Institutes, where established, should provide a means of preserving the new spirit, as well as of extending it in fresh directions; but it is as a potential stimulus to the education of the men and boys engaged in agriculture, as well as of the women and girls that Mr. Porthero thinks they particularly deserve the support and sympathy of Education Authorities.

This necessarily incomplete record puts us in mind of the expected arrival in England of the Secretary of the National War Garden Commission of Washington. Due here seven weeks after the signing of the Armistice, this emissary comes 'to study the work that is being done in Great Britain to increase food supply by the cultivation of gardens.'

It is hoped [he says] that the Victory gardens in the United States in 1919 will exceed the number of War gardens which were planted this past season. My visit to England is to ascertain what methods have been employed and for gathering information as to how we can better the work we have been doing in the United States. We realise that remarkable results have been accomplished in the British Isles in helping to supply home food supplies. We know that much of profit can be learned from the patriotic impulse which was at the back of this effort. We desire to learn how the work was done.

We hope, for the sake of America, that this visitor will not be allowed to go home without testing the value of the W. I. contribution. He will in that case probably do all that in him lies to induce Mrs. Watts to cross the seas and give to the Woman's Institute movement on the continent of its birth that further impulse which she has applied for fruitfully here.

Lest the rehearsal of the practical services of the W. I. should increase a tendency to give a self-defeating predominance to its workday and utilitarian aspect, we cannot too strongly urge a wider development of the recreative side of programme.

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Those most aware of the evils physical, social and political, bred by town life, will be the readier to see country life made less of the dull grind it too often was, especially for women and girls. Just as society suffers from over-stimulation in the town, so surely does it suffer from under-stimulation in the country. Even the remorseless Utilitarain ought not to need reminding, in these days of scientific proof, that over-long working hours impair productive power, and that absence of recreation dulls the wits and lowers vitality.

Recreation, like most things done in concert, calls for leadership and organisation. Far too little has been done for women in this direction. Failing recreation of the right sort, many of the more spirited have taken to the wrong. Lookers-on who could, and yet do not, help to provide recreation for village women and girls, are not free from responsibility in the tragic consequence. Yet even the newly-awakened W. I. conscience has only in isolated instances grappled as yet with this want. The W. I.'s of necessity have been bent on proving their usefulness in a crisis. They have, for instance, helped to recruit a Land Army, and in too many cases have left the girls to toil at new tasks in isolation. This has been due partly to new conditions and overwork all round. With the release of V. A. D.'s and other war workers of sound health and some leisure, the recreative side of W. I. life will perhaps receive a new impetus.

A certain Institute of my acquaintance has justly 'acquired merit' by its practical service. Yet I am not sure but its most hopeful contributions so far are: 1st, the strictly social side of its monthly meetings: 2nd, the play it has inspired and produced: 3rd, the Dancing Class it promises. 

Elizabeth Robins.