Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): Politics, Protest and Class

 Another red letter day for Flo was when she went as a delegate, with the Women’s Institute President, and secretary to a W.I conference in London chaired by Lady Denman. She thoroughly enjoyed this day out, but had to remember everything in detail, so as to give an accurate account to […] the W.I. members at the next meeting (32)
Member’s of the Women’s Institute weigh and stone cherries in order to make jam

 

Although Mrs W.E. Palmer’s memoir focuses on her childhood years spent living at Harting Coombe Farm in Sussex, Memories of Long Ago also sheds light on the political views and involvement of Winifred and her mother, Flo. Flo was a member of the Women’s Institute, a social movement which saw women group together in order to revitalise rural communities and help with food production during the war years. ‘Women’s Institutes appeared in 1915 under the aegis of the Agricultural Organisation Society. […] By 1919, […] there were upwards of 1,200 Institutes’ (Howkins, 2003, 33). Winifred reveals that the formation of the W.I. in her area ‘must have brought a lot of colour into the lives of the village folk. The meetings were always interesting, with discussions on all kinds of subjects, guest speakers, and of course, lots of lovely chatter over the teacups at the end of the meeting’ (32). However, Winifred suggests that one significant attraction to the movement related to class distinctions. Being a member of the Institute meant that women of all social classes could form one collective voice. Members of the Institute, ‘rich and poor alike, could meet on common ground to air their views on all matters appertaining to women as a whole, not only in their own small community, but to women all over the world’ (14).

       
Women’s Suffrage Movement

In terms of women’s rights and opportunities, Winifred expresses strong feminist views in her discussion of women gaining the right to vote. She proudly recalls how, ‘in December 1918, Flo was able to vote for the first time’ (31). This was a time which neither Winifred’s mother, or the children, ever forgot- ‘it was such a momentous occasion!’ (31). However, Winifred emphasises that gaining the right to vote meant much more than a woman’s granted ability to contribute towards political movement. It also meant that attitudes towards women were changing, that women were awarded with the same opportunities as men, and consequently, that women and men were beginning to be treated, and perceived, as equals. It is clear to see that, to Winifred, this meant a great deal! She believes ‘it must have been a proud moment for Flo when she went into the polling booth with Will, and put her cross against her chosen candidate’ (31).

The Polling booth at Rogate was a distance of four miles, but if the booth had been eight miles, it is quite likely that those women who had the vote would have done the walk quite cheerfully (31)

Maintaining her feminist views into her adult years, Winifred reflects on the admirable work of the suffragettes. It was not till a few years afterwards that she realised quite how great an occasion it must have been for her mother to vote for the first time. ‘She then began to ask “why?”, why did the suffragettes have to fight so hard, and why did it take so long for women to get the vote. They were people weren’t they, just the same as men?, but there was no sensible answer’ (31). Refusing to be undermined by the degrading male views, Winifred states that the answer given by men, ‘ that the women’s place was in the home, cut no ice with [her]. It sounded plain daft […]. She had a great admiration for the suffragettes, and was grateful that they won in the end’ (31). Thus, Winifred suggests that the Women’s Suffrage Movement played a significant role in shaping who she was as an individual. Her endorsement of their work establishes her feminist views as part of her identity, and due to this, Winifred appears to adopt the view that ‘to know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand’ (Taylor, 1989, 27). Ultimately, the 20th Century was a time in which female empowerment prospered, a change witnessed by Winifred, and a change she valued through to her adult years.

Works Cited:

Howkins, Alun. The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside Since 1900. London: Routledge, 2003.

582 PALMER, Mrs W.E., ‘Memories of Long Ago’, TS, pp.34 (c.12,200 words). Brunel University Library.

‘Mrs W.E. Palmer’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:582.

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard UP, Cambridge MASS, 1989

Images:

Women’s Suffrage Movement – Accessed (21/04/17)

Member’s of the Women’s Institute weigh and stone cherries in order to make jam – Accessed (21/04/17)

 

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