I gave a talk on A Force to be Reckoned With yesterday, and some interesting topics came up in the discussion session afterwards, while we were all munching cake. One question asked there (and at most places I visit, to be honest) was about the history of singing ‘Jerusalem’ by the Women’s Institute. How did it come about?
‘Jerusalem’ was composed by Hubert Parry in 1916 as an anthem ‘to brace the spirit of the nation’ in the depths of the First World War. When Millicent Fawcett heard it, she asked Parry if the women’s suffrage movement might appropriate it. ‘Jerusalem’ was more modern than the slightly dreary ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ and less strident than Ethel Smythe’s terrifying ‘March of the Women.’ Parry agreed, and ‘Jerusalem’ was first sung by massed women at the Royal Albert Hall at a suffrage rally in 1918.
Grace Hadow was one of the founders of the Women’s Institute; she was also a suffragist and a keen musician. After holding a nationwide competition for a WI anthem in the early 1920s, the results of which made her weep with despair, she hit upon the idea of transferring ‘Jerusalem’ from the suffrage movement to that other great women’s movement, the Women’s Institute. Both organisations were about empowering women; their members were bracing (as Parry had hoped) and inspirational. So it is that from 1924, ‘Jerusalem’ and the WI have been inextricably linked.
That’s not all the WI inherited from the women’s suffrage movement. Historically they share the same signature colours of green, white and violet, and both were inspired by suffragettes – like Grace Hadow and Edith Rigby – who fought for women’s freedom of expression with conviction and lasting success.