GTW talks to Janice Langley, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, about recent and upcoming Centenary celebrations, popular group activities amongst WI members and why those interested should join the WI
Who are the Women’s Institute? The WI is the largest voluntary women’s organization in the UK with around 212,000 members in England, Wales and the Islands.
What are the principles of the Women’s Institute? The WI plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that really matter to them and their communities.
How did the Women’s Institute make itself known? The WI was formed in 1915 to revitalize rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during World War One and then again during World War Two. Since then, the aims of the organization have widen and developed, and the WI has campaigned on various issues from women’s health, HIV and AIDS, litter, breast cancer screening and many other issues.
How does the Women’s Institute keep up with the times? How does it plan to keep itself modern? Women’s lives have changed in many ways over the past 100 years, but the WI focuses on what really matters to women, their families and their communities, as well as encouraging them to learn new skills, make a real difference to their communities and make new friends. The WI provides an opportunity to choose what you want to do, not what you have to do and whatever you choose. The WI is a constant source of inspiration and friendship.
How long have you been a member of the Women’s Institute? I joined the WI in 1970.
What integral skills are needed to run a group as large as the Women’s Institute? All NFWI Trustees are WI members with years of experience of the organization, as well as their own personal life experiences. At every level of the WI, there are a range of important factors needed to be involved including – but not limited to – a love of the organization, a willingness to share skills and experiences, and the ability to be friendly and welcoming.
What challenges do you face as Chair of such a large organization? How do you plan to overcome them? My biggest challenge is trying to make sure that new members and long standing members have their expectations of the WI fulfilled.
All WIs are different, no two are the same, and one of our current priorities is developing more ways in which trustees can have more personal contact with members to be able to show everyone what the WI can offer.
How do you maintain a sense of inclusion amongst the many institutes spread across the UK? Every member receives eight copies of membership magazine WI Life eight times a year from the NFWI full of news and features from across the organization. Members can also share news and find out more through the NFWI online newsletter, the WI website and all of the WI social media channels.
Each of the 69 federations have their own newsletters and digital communications for more local and regional news. The staff teams in London and at Denman are always on hand if any members have any queries or need some help.
What is the best thing about being part of a group like the Women’s Institute? The friendships formed, meeting people from very varied and differing backgrounds, learning new skills and not being afraid to try something new and different with friends.
What was your most memorable group trip and why? I have been on many group trips to lots of interesting (and not so interesting) places, the latest being Trustee representing the Board on the Saga/WI Cruise. During the day at sea it was my birthday – over 100 WI members singing Happy Birthday to me as part of my extended family was brilliant. The centenary Annual Meeting in June with HM The Queen, HRH The Princess Royal and HRH The Duchess of Wessex was also a really special day.
Are there any recent familiarisation trips that have proved popular with members of the Women’s Institute? Many WI members across the UK enjoy doing new things, visiting new places and reveling in some old favourites too.
What are the most popular activities amongst members of the Women’s Institute? The list is as varied as our members; cookery, craft, science, sport, outings, food and campaigning. WIs can offer everything that someone wants to try and if it isn’t on offer, we can find out how to make it happen.
How have/will the Women’s Institute be celebrating its Centenary in 2015? The events started in January 2014 when the Federation Link Baton began its journey from Anglesey – the home of the first WI meeting in 1915 – through all the 69 federations before arriving at the centenary Annual Meeting at the Royal Albert Hall on June 4, where it was presented to HM The Queen.
There has been a Centenary Fruit Cake competition, the Huxley Cup competition for flower arranging, the Makower Challenge and Tomorrow’s Heirlooms craft competitions. There has been a fantastic fashion project in which members have been working with students from Kingston University. All these can be seen at the special WI Centennial Fair in Harrogate in September, alongside so much more.
Some members sang their way into the centenary in March when we staged the final of the Singing for Joy competition. We will also be celebrating on September 16 to commemorate 100 years exactly since the first WI in Anglesey, and WI members across the UK are holding special meeting and events to celebrate.
The best way to find out about all these activities is via the WI Website (www.thewi.org.uk) or follow the activities on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.
What campaigns will the Women’s Institute focus on in 2016? The WI has a strong voice on many issues, from climate change to gaps in midwifery provision, and human trafficking to the plight of the honeybee. The Great Food Debate and raising awareness on organ donation will be at the forefront of the WI campaigning strategy.
A branch of the Women’s Institute ran a cake stand at Glastonbury this year. How will the Women’s Institute continue to reach out to younger members? Glastonbury was one of the many events in 2015 where the WI has been represented, and Glastonbury gave many of our members – old and new, young and not so young – the opportunity to work together. The WI has always attracted women of all ages and offers all kinds of opportunities for all kinds of women whatever their age.
What would you say to anyone considering joining the Women’s Institute? It could change your life through friendships formed and new learning experiences. Go to more than one WI and find out which one suits your needs. All WIs are different and if there isn’t one near you that fits your needs, then maybe you can get together with a group of friends and start your own WI.
Finally, what do you see for the future of the Women’s Institute? I see women working, learning and enjoying themselves together as they have done for the past 100 years. Technology has changed how the organization communicates. All of our meetings at the NFWI are paperless and digital communications using Facebook and Twitter is growing, enhancing what is already a marvellous organization. In the future, we will continue inspiring women working together because the WI is here to inspire you, the WI is what you make of it and the WI is what you want it to be.