For nearly 90 years, the Scottish Women's Rural Institutes (SWRI) have been championing womanly skills and female solidarity - and, for much of this time, they have done so away from the glare of media attention. But a pitched debate about whether the Institutes - known familiarly in Scotland as The Rural - should use the term 'housewife' has ignited a wider discussion in Britain about those women whose careers tend to be in the home.
The Institutes' governing body is made up of seven committees, one of which is called the 'Housewives Committee' - a name reformers regard as reactionary.
However, on September 6, after months of dispute, SWRI voted overwhelmingly against a proposal that their section devoted to home skills - such as cookery, nutrition, flower arranging and gardening - should be renamed the 'Homecrafts Committee'. In a statement, the SWRI said 173 of the delegates attending the annual conference, which brings together the various federations of the SWRI, had rejected a name change, while 90 had voted in favor of reform and nine abstained.
"The debate centered on feelings within the SWRI that the role of women has changed and that this needed to be reflected with the replacement term 'homecrafts'," the SWRI said in a statement. "Members were very much divided on the topic before the debate, some feeling that the word housewives is outdated and does not reflect the many stylish, modern career women within The Rural."
Some were angered by the proposed reform and said what was needed was greater recognition of the value of the role of the housewife, rather than a mere name change. "The hardest job I have is being a housewife," said Isabelle Eckersley of the SWRI's Banff Federation. "It is a very hard job. Dusting I don't like - because it's bad for your health and affects your lungs - but everything else for me is important. Bringing up children is the most important job," she told the Scottish newspaper, The Herald.
The Guardian quoted Jean Alexander, Secretary of the Angus Federation of the SWRI, as saying: "Some people feel that the term housewife can be old-fashioned and derogatory, but I don't. The term housewife is still in use by the general public and trying to change that is just needless political correctness.... A housewife is an important role and I think there is a recognition that staying at home and running everything is hard work and not some sort of easy option."
The motion to change the name was put forward by Sheila McKenzie of the Armadale Institute on the Isle of Skye.
Referring to the use of the word 'housewives', she says: "Maybe 90 years ago it served a purpose, but it would benefit from an update. Not every wife spends all her time at home and she has other strings to her bow."
She might have also noted a shift towards househusbands, as men, perhaps earning less than high-powered female partners, in some cases decide to give up their paid jobs and keep house.
A spokeswoman for the National Federation of Women's Institutes for England and Wales said there was no mention of the word 'housewife' in its constitution and declined to enter the debate.
The SWRI was set up in 1917 as part of the movement of Women's Institutes, which grew up in Stoney Creek, Ontario, in 1897 as a counterweight to the Farmers' Institute, a society for men.
With or without a name change, leaders of the Scottish Institutes say their roughly 25,000 members are not behind the times. "Members of the SWRI are frustrated and annoyed to read recent press reports describing us all as grey-haired and wearing floral skirts. We have been successfully attracting many very stylish, younger members," says Alison Argo, senior Vice-Chairperson of the SWRI.
Perhaps significantly, in her statement following the September 6 vote, Argo had said the term housewives will stay "for the time being", implicitly not ruling out a change in the future.
Meanwhile, the SWRI website marshals tests that allow candidates to be assessed on their housewifely skills. Such crafts were perfected by one of the US' most famous housewives, Terry Hekker, who caused a sensation a quarter century ago with her book, 'Ever Since Adam and Eve', which was a passionate defence of her decision to reject career and spend her life as a wife and mother. Hekker has again been attracting media attention after her husband of 40 years left her, prompting a radical revision of her views. Speaking to Britain's Observer newspaper, she said she was working on a follow-up book, with a working title 'Disregard First Book'.
Announcing her U-turn, she said, "My anachronistic (first) book was written while I was in a successful marriage that I expected would go on forever. Sadly, it now has little relevance for modern women, except perhaps as a cautionary tale."