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The Women's Library celebrates Women's Institutes' action women! – University of Reading

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The Women's Library celebrates Women's Institutes' action women!

Release Date 09 May 2006

For over 90 years, the Women's Institutes have been a positive force in British women's lives. In celebration, The Women's Library is delighted to announce a touring exhibition exploring the history of the WI, showcasing material from the Library's national archive collection alongside contributions from local WI members at regional venues as it tours. The exhibition Action Women: The real story of the Women's Institutes will open at The Museum of English Rural Life, The University of Reading from 30 May – 27 August 2006, before touring to York and Newport. The Women's Institutes are often associated in people's minds with jam making, cake baking and singing Jerusalem. But other stories of this extraordinary group of dynamic women are told in the papers of the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI), recently catalogued and made publicly available by The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University. One of the most powerful stories the collection tells is of the organisation's campaigning on a local, national and international level. The NFWI has campaigned on many significant issues for rural communities, but has also been actively engaged with issues affecting millions of lives across the globe. From road safety, pollution and rural transport to food labelling, the foundation of Fair Trade and Make Poverty History, what emerges is a picture of very well informed group of women who together have had and continue to have the power to change laws and policies and truly improve people's lives. The NFWI were initiators and founder members of the Keep Britain Tidy Group in 1955, and the slogan 'Keep Britain Tidy', still familiar today, went on to be reproduced on litter bins throughout the country thousands of times over. Looking to the future, the WI has now picked up on major and pressing issues like climate change, tackling supermarket waste and the much publicised campaign on saving local shops and communities. Associations with jam making stem from the work WI members did to preserve fruit during both world wars. Bottling of fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste was of national importance; it is perhaps difficult in the age of the supermarket to imagine a population on the brink of significant food shortage in the latter stages of World War II. The NFWI archive traces the government's support when the organisation was first set up in 1915, and goes on to show how Churchill's government called for NFWI help in 1940 and how the members organised themselves and rose to the challenge. Membership of a WI group is also about fun, friendship and being part of a network of support, particularly essential in more isolated areas of rural Britain. Action Women also conveys the social and personal benefits of being involved in the WI, and tells of the positive effect of the organisation on the lives of millions of women since its foundation. Membership of a local WI helped to break down social barriers endemic in rural Britain in the early part of the 20th century, and thousands of women have and continue to attend courses at Denman College, the WI's own residential adult education college in Oxfordshire. Featuring a wide range of material including photographs, rural crafts, oral history accounts, campaign badges, posters, pamphlets and a stunning banner from the Berkshire Federation of Women's Institutes at the Reading venue, Action Women promises to be a visual treat. Over 100 WI volunteers are involved in the exhibition, selecting objects and archive material for display and writing text panels. The exhibition will be supported at each venue by a programme of events including talks and workshops on campaigning and environmental issues, craft demonstrations, guided tours and activities for families and children. If you think you know about the WI, it's time to think again! Action Women has been made possible by generous support from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Ends Images available on request For media enquiries please contact: Eleanor Holmes, Press Officer, The University of Reading, tel: 0118 378 6166 or email: Notes to editors Venues and dates for the exhibition Action Women: The real story of the Women's Institutes are: READING: 30 May – 27 August 2006 Museum of English Rural Life, The University of Reading, Redlands Road, Reading Tel: (0118) 378 8660 YORK: 16 September – 15 December 2006 The Borthwick Institute for Archives, Heslington, University of York Tel: (01904) 321166 and York Central Library, Library Square, Museum Street, York YO1 7DS Tel: (01904) 552815 NEWPORT: 3 February – 31 March 2007 Newport Museum and Art Gallery, John Frost Square, Newport, South Wales NP20 1PA Tel: (01633) 656656 With financial assistance from the Arts Council of Wales Established in 1926, The Women's Library at London Metropolitan University is a cultural centre housing one of the greatest collections of women's history in the world. The collections include posters, banners, books, magazines, photographs and other materials and are a celebration of the women's lives they document. With library, archive and museum resources plus a café and public programmes in an award-winning new building in East London, The Women's Library is free and welcomes all visitors. For more information, visit The Museum of English Rural Life was founded by the University of Reading in 1951 to reflect and record the changing face of farming and the countryside. It houses Designated collections of national importance that span objects, archives, photographs, film and books, and forms part of the University's Museums and Collections Service. The Museum operates as a major resource and research centre for the history of food, farming and the countryside with links into the School of History and other academic departments at the University of Reading. For more information visit

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