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

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

Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1996, pp.xv + 176. ISBN 0-85315-833-9 (pbk)12.99 Was the Women's Institute (W.l.) all about `jam and Jerusalem' and traditional images of womanhood or a cradle of radicalism and feminism? That is the question that Maggie Andrews attempts to answer in The Acceptable Face of Feminism, a book that traces the history of the W.I. as a social movement. I would argue, that Andrews by trying to prove that the W.I. was a tool of empowerment for rural women and a feminist institution, inevitably distorted its face to such a degree as to render it unrecognisable

Andrews' discourse bears all the marks of a cultural studies deconstructionist approach. She has `adopted two main approaches, first to rework perceptions of what constitutes feminism-its relationship to domesticity, networks and allwomen groups' and she has `used the theoretical frameworks developed within popular culture to see Women's Institutes as a site for the contestation of definitions of femininity.' (p.5).

The way feminism is defined is crucial to Andrews' analysis. She redefines feminism by prioritising housework and generally the role of women as housewives. For her, `women can, through alternative female cultures and value systems, challenge the low value of domestic labour. They can prioritise it and legitimate its value and thus challenge their own internalisation of subservience.' (p.ll). Andrews misread the 1970s campaign for `Wages for Housework' as being in favour of housework and the traditional women's role and then uses this misapprehension to justify the emphasis on domesticity in the W.I. theory and practice. As Andrews put it: `Many feminists want to see women rejecting this role, [homemakers, FD] but others, such as in the Wages for Housework campaign, want its significance foregrounded and recognised' (p. 160). The truth is, that the Wages for Housework campaign did not try to glorify but instead to demystify domestic labour. The campaign's aim was, and still is, to emphasise that women indirectly produce surplus value which is in the interest of both men and capital, thus their toil at home should be recognised as labour and as such should be rewarded with a wage.

There are plenty of other statements in Andrews' book that reveal not a feminist but a reactionary character of the W.I. despite Andrews attempts to dress them up as progressive. The home is reinterpreted as 'a site of domestic labour, of domestic production. …