Belly dancing, sky diving, walking the length of the River Thames, Glastonbury Festival, appearing naked on calendars – the Women’s Institute has entered the 21st century with a bang. Angela Youngman takes a look at the ever-expanding, vibrant organisation that sees new branches constantly appearing
With names like Hackney Wicked Women, Stow Roses, Croydon Crocuses, Borough Belles and Shoreditch Sisters, these are members that are transforming the WI image.
The WI began life in Canada, and the very first meeting of the WI within the UK took place in 1915 at Llanfair PG in Anglesey.
100 years after that first meeting, there are now over 212,000 members nationwide, making it one of the largest social, educational and campaigning networks in the country. Any woman over the age of 18 can join the WI.
As a result, individual WI’s can have an age range from 18 to 90 or over. It is an organisation where members are prepared to stand up for what they believe, and to take the initiative sometimes in very unusual ways.
The arrival of the Calendar Girls in 1998 grabbed attention worldwide. 12 members of the Yorkshire WI were persuaded to pose naked for an alternative WI charity calendar in aid of Leukaemia and Lymphoma research.
The result went far beyond what any of the members could have dreamed. To date, over £3 million has been raised across seven calendars, talks and their own merchandise line – as well as a major Hollywood film starring Dame Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. The story is set to continue capturing attention, since December 2015 sees the launch of a musical based on the story of the Calendar Girls.
Dalston Darlings is one of the new style urban WI’s. Set up by a group of friends, members have an average age of around 30.
It’s regular activities include sessions with Annette Jones – dubbed the new Nigella of cooking – the editors of feminist magazine The Vagenda, as well as making a giant quilt, which now hangs on the walls of Liberty, the luxury West End department store.
To take another example, Gothic Valley members include professional costumiers and students. They take part in sushi making, fencing, wine tasting and bat walks. There have been professional development talks on Professional Networking, and historical walks around Highgate. Members also have an interest in Goth culture.
Among the attendees at the Glastonbury Festival this year was Puriton and District WI. Katie Newell explains “I met Michael Eavis at a village event when I suggested that the festival needed a decent cup of tea and a slice of homemade cake. He agreed and suggested that I contact the festival’s office to apply. We were lucky enough to be offered a pitch and we sold so many slices of homemade cake that it was impossible to count.
We received lots of enquiries about the WI and what we do. It was great, because we held onto our Jam and Jerusalem image, whilst demonstrating that we are at the very forefront of current events and national and international activities. It was our first time at Glastonbury, and we had a brilliant time. We met lovely people, worked incredibly hard and cannot wait until next year.”
Between January to May 2015, 37 new branches of the Women’s Institute were opened and 16,920 new members joined the organisation. One of those new members was the Duchess of Cambridge.
There is often a waiting list to join a group, for example, the Little Bowden WI in Market Harborough has 120 members and 50 women wanting to join.
The Women’s Institute is an active campaigning organisation seeking to bring about changes in social and environmental policies on a local and national level. Recent campaigns have focused on the plight of honeybees, climate change, organ donation, the creation of dementia friendly communities and a demand for more midwives.
There are around 6,600 WI groups throughout the UK. Each one is an independent charity. No two groups are identical. The majority are located in rural areas, reflecting the origins of the organisation.
There may be more than one Women’s Institute in an area. For example, there are over 15 individual branches in southern Norfolk within 12-miles of Norwich.
Each group has its own president, secretary and treasurer. Larger groups may also have an events co-ordinator and a social media manager.
Groups meet at least once a month. The size of each group varies considerably from eight to more than 300. Members generally join just one group and attend that group’s activities. Sometimes groups link up with other WI groups in area for a joint activity or event.
No two groups are identical – the interests and membership of a WI in one village can be very different to that of a WI in the next village.
Many of the new style groups meet in pubs and wine bars. Palace and Penge in South East London has 45 members including singers, actors, business entrepreneurs and health workers. They have focused on activities showcasing their area and as a result have become amateur cheerleaders for a local football club, searched for bats at a lake and visited a local brewery to make their own beer.
Work based WI groups are also appearing. Pembrokeshire College WI in Wales has monthly lunchtime meetings and includes lecturers, IT technicians, as well as a farmer’s wife. Members take part in after work outings such as wine tasting, jewellery making and a visit to Highclere Castle.
Joining a group is a simple matter of finding a suitable group and applying to join.
If there is space, potential members are invited to come along to a meeting, fill in the application forms and pay a subscription. If there is no space available, then it is a matter of going on a waiting list or looking at what other groups in the area offer to see if one of those groups would be suitable. If there is a long waiting list, potential members would be encouraged to set up a new WI group.
The next layers in the organisation are the 69 regional federations, which link all the individual groups together. Each federation has its own president, secretary and treasurer and creates databases of information that can be used by local groups.
This information includes details of potential speakers, activities and places to go. It is up to each individual Women’s Institute as to how much they use the facilities and help of the individual federations – they are free to find their own speakers, events and outings as they wish.
The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) acts as an overall clearing house for information, and organises national campaigns.
The organisational structure is the same as any other part of the WI – there is a national president, national secretary and national treasurer. In addition, each national committee has a chairman and secretary.
Sports activities form another key area of the interests of the WI, with members being prepared to try new activities or take part in challenges.
WI members were ‘strutting their stuff to Zumba long before the rest of the nation was,’ while in 2011, members were challenged to walk or swim 209-miles.
This year, a group of London WI members have walked the length of the Thames from its source to the Thames Barrier in seven days.
Individual groups can be very active. Little Bowden WI states that it is ‘a WI with traditional ideals but a modern twist, bringing together women of all ages, backgrounds and cultures.
A variety of meetings and workshops cover a range of topics and interests, from the traditional to the contemporary, and sometimes controversial.’ Little Bowden aims to offer something to every one of their members and workshops have included traditional jam making, crocheting with a twist and burlesque classes.
Within the Oxford regional federation, members have taken part in an open top bus tour of Oxford, a steamer river trip, visit to Buckingham Palace, theatres, stately homes and concert halls, as well as talks and craft activities.
In Leeds, the Darling Roses WI have experienced belly dancing, wine tasting, a foraging walk, visiting the Knitting and Stitching Show at Harrogate, exploring the delights of the West Yorkshire Playhouse costume department and visiting the private subscription Leeds Library.
Member groups can find almost anything interesting. They participate in theatre visits, walking tours, visits to stately homes, concerts, sports events, as well as attending exhibitions, art galleries, breweries and vineyards.
The NFWI has its own residential centre – Denman in Oxfordshire – that provides numerous courses on topics ranging from music appreciation to astronomy.
The Institute’s magazine – WI Life – highlights the sheer variety of member interests. Topics covered include members who have taken part in Triathlons, WI entrepreneurs, new wave feminists, travelling across the desert, the Queen of Sausages and members glamping at the Glastonbury Festival.
Versatile, varied and certainly not uniform in their interests and activities, the WI is one of the most vibrant social and campaigning groups in the country. With a constant influx of new members, this is a growing organisation set to survive for many more years and no doubt, become even more formidable than it already is.
November 14, 2015-January, 30, 2016
It has been announced that new musical, The Girls, which is based on the successful film and award-winning stage play Calendar Girls, will premiere at the Leeds Grand Theatre and the Lowry Salford later this year.
The Girls has been created by Gary Barlow and Tim Firth, and will appear at the Leeds Grand Theatre from November 14 to December 12 and at the Lowry Salford from January 13 to January 30, 2016.
Tickets are currently on sale. To book call Leeds Grand Theatre on 0844 848 2700 or the Lowry Salford on 0843 208 6010.