The hit British series “Home Fires” follows a collective of strong, inspiring women in the rural community of Great Paxford as they adjust, thrive and sometimes struggle to live life beneath the cloud of WWII.
As VisionTV continues to air this powerful hour of drama, Julie Summers – the author whose “Jambusters” book inspired the hit ITV period drama “Home Fires” – has delighted us with a collection of engaging backgrounders that set up the episodes, the era and how Woman’s Institutes provided support, inspiration and ingenuity before, during and after World War 2.
Recently, we shipped some questions over the pond to Summers so that she could give you even deeper perspective on her “Home Fires” experiences.
In part two of our interview feature with Summers, the author and historian discusses historical aspects of Women’s Institutes, what type of W.I. members she would be and sheds some light on her captivating, forthcoming book.
VisionTV: Not everyone knows that Women’s Institutes got their start in Canada, before spreading to the UK. What do you think it was about that Canadian movement that inspired places like the UK to not just follow it, but also expand upon it?
Julie: “When the W.I. came to Britain in 1915, it was almost 20-years-old. The single strongest message from Canada was the movement’s democratic ideal: no woman should be barred from joining their local W.I. on account of race, religion, politics, class or education. That chimed with the mood of Britain in the early years of the First World War when the old order was changing and women were being asked to do jobs that had hitherto been out of their reach.
“Mrs. Madge Watt, who brought the W.I. movement from Canada to Britain, was an inspirational speaker, a strikingly-able teacher and a tireless campaigner on behalf of rural women. When she left Britain to return to Canada in the late 1930s, she left behind a fully functioning, democratic, energetic movement determined to take founder Adelaide Hoodless’ vision forward – which was to improve the lot of country women.
“The W.I. worked in Britain because of the timing – food production in the First World War was one of the vital roles women had to fulfil – but also because it spread so rapidly in the fertile ground of wartime political change that by the early 1920s one in three villages had a W.I. That spread meant it developed roots that were not easily torn out. And post-First World War, it gave village women a sense of purpose which some of them felt they might lose once their wartime work was over.”
VisionTV: What is one aspect of a Women’s Institute that may surprise those unfamiliar with their traditions and dealings?
Julie: “I think the most unexpected thing I discovered about the W.I. was that it was, and remains in deference to the Quaker membership, a pacifist organisation. That was not a fashionable thing to be in the 1930s. The second biggest surprise for me was how far ahead the W.I. was (and still is) with its annual resolutions. These are campaigns that are voted for from grass roots through to the national level and, if accepted, become resolutions on which the W.I. will lobby national government.
“In 1928, the W.I. voted to encourage more women police officers. The resolution for 1943 was equal pay for equal work. In 1964 they resolved to ban smoking in public places – that took over 40 years to come into force. The W.I. was lobbying government about recycling and the environment in the early 1970s and in 1987 they advocated the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS. The W.I. is not afraid to tackle issues that others flinch from and I find that refreshingly impressive.”
VisionTV: Even though times have changed quite a bit since the original inception of Women’s Institutes, why do you think it’s important for them to continually exist?
Julie: “The W.I. continues to have relevance in today’s society in Britain because there is still much to be done. They are still busy with resolutions, addressing issues that make the government uncomfortable, and as long as there are matters to be addressed, such as care for an aging population, they will be relevant politically with a small ‘p.’ But, they also continue to offer women a monthly opportunity to get together with other women; to try something new or to share ideas. The W.I. is one of the most creative and positive organisations I know and women relish that single-sex environment in which they can develop and flourish.”
VisionTV: If you were to participate in a Women’s Institute, what would you best be able to contribute to the group?
Julie: “If I were a W.I. member I am not sure what I would be able contribute, but I would like to learn to make jam and to sing! To be serious, I think I would like to help other women to learn to stand up and speak in public and not to be afraid to express their opinions.”
VisionTV: Can you tell us about any exciting projects you’re currently tackling or are on the horizon for you?
Julie: “I am currently working on a new book, possibly my largest and most ambitious to date, which looks at the secret life of country houses in Britain during the Second World War. I suspect it might be my last non-fiction book on the war as I would love to write some fiction. It is an exciting project to work on as there was such a fascinating diversity of reasons why houses were requisitioned: obvious examples are for the armed forces, including over 1,000 houses full of Canadian troops, or hospitals and convalescent homes. Others are less obvious: the art of guerrilla warfare was perfected in houses up and down the country, while members of the French resistance rested in domestic dwellings waiting for flights into occupied France. The book is due to be completed by March 2017 and published in spring 2018.”
“Home Fires” airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET/6pm PT on VisionTV through March 9 and episodes will be available to watch online for 30 days after their premiere date.
In case you missed it, you can you read part one of our interview with Julie Summers right here!