Tell me truthfully, when you hear the words Womens Institute what comes to mind? I bet for a good many of you, the words conjure up images of retired ladies who have nothing better to do than make jam and cake, sing Jerusalem and that a film was made about a group of WI ladies who posed in a calendar wearing very little except strategically placed iced buns and a couple of Seville oranges! What does a typical WI member look like? Apart from being of a certain age, what’s the betting that she wears sensible clothes in any colour as long as it’s beige or of a pastel hue. She probably wears a sturdy pair of shoes, box pleat skirts and a cardigan and blouse combination. She gets her hair set at the hairdressers, wears a little face powder and lipstick and might be called Joan or Margaret. Oh, and she lives in a village and is on the church flower arranging rota!
This is for many the stereotypical image of a WI member, and yes the Joans and the Margarets do still make up a fair proportion of the national membership. Until recently the majority of WI’s were to be found in rural communities whose ladies had been members for many years and therefore pretty much set in their ways. It’s these small rural WI’s and their members that people generally think of when we think of the WI and I’ll put my hands up and admit to being one of those people who thought that you had to be old and live in a village to be a member. There wasn’t a hope in hell that I would ever become a member. What, join a group of fuddy duddy,do gooders? No chance!
But I am a member, and what’s more very proud of being one. How did that happen you may well ask. Well, times have changed and there is a new, more modern, side to the WI. Women living in urban areas are setting up WI’s at the rate of knots. They recognise a need for somewhere that women of all ages and walks of life can belong to and meet other like-minded women. A place to find friendship,have fun, be educated, inspired and seek support if you need it.The WI ethos and values are still very much part of each of these new modern WI’s but without the staid image and having to stick rigidly to tradition. Each WI plans a programme that is varied, fun, thought-provoking and geared towards what its members would enjoy and be interested in. Modern WI’s have been inventive and clever when choosing their names. I just love the thought of being a member of the Gin and Jam WI, or one of The Glam Girls.There’s the Hackney Wicked Women, the Uckfield Divas, Dalston Darlings. And what about the Wonder Women WI. How cool is that! Actually, it is more than cool these days to be a WI member and new groups have thriving memberships, often with waiting lists to join.It’s no wonder women young and old are flocking to become members if you get the chance to learn how to Lindy hop or Salsa. Perhaps appreciate gin and beer oreven pretend you are Bear Grylls for an evening. It’s not all fun and games though. There are occasions when speakers from local organisations and charities talk about issues that inform us of the work that they do and educate us about a whole manner of topics such as health issues, abuse, addiction and caring for the environment. The women of the WI are great campaigners and not afraid to make themselves heard and fight for what they believe in. There are a lot of us and we can make quite a lot of noise ! Don’t think we’ve given up cake and jam for a minute. No WI, however modern, would be worth its salt if either were ditched. However, you are just as likely to catch a bevy of WI members selling cake at a festival these days as at a coffee morning or local fete. Remember how popular the tea stall was at Glastonbury last year!
Two years ago I spotted a small article in our local freebie paper about a meeting that was being held to see if anyone was interested in a new WI being set up in the area. Over 70 women including myself turned up. It was a case of standing room only! It seemed that many of the women had no way of getting to know anyone in the community especially those whose children were no longer at primary school, or who worked full-time. I knew immediately that I wanted to play a part in getting the WI off the ground. I became part of the committee and two years later my WI is very much part of my life. By default I somehow managed to spend a year as President, a role I sort of fell into after the president at the time had to step down. Now I’m not really suited to be a president as I’m hardly assertive and definitely rubbish at speaking in front of people. I’m also frequently prone to lacking confidence in my own ability and far too short to be seen by the ladies at the back. But it was a learning curve, and most of the time I really enjoyed my time in the driving seat. A few times I just wanted to throw in the towel and call it a day! I’ve loved watching our WI grow from strength to strength and become an important part of our community. We now have 90 members which is pretty big for a WI. As well as our monthly meetings there are book, crochet, walking and supper clubs to participate in. Being bang up to date, we are, of course, on all the social media sites. I’ve made some very lovely friends and feel very much part of a sisterhood, although to be honest I’m not that keen on that concept. Without my WI I would have missed out on so much and would have spent so many evenings just stuck in front of the box watching pretty rubbish programmes just to pass the time away until bedtime.
I’m right in singing the praises of the WI. It is a fantastic organisation. But on a national level I think there is plenty of room for improvement if its to see itself as a 21st century institution and to appeal to today’s modern woman. There needs to be more diversity and some of the archaic rules and regulations need to be updated. Let’s see greater freedom for how WI’s run themselves and allow them to arrange how they deal with their own finances.Recognise that many members work and aren’t available to attend important meetings if they take place on a work day. And finally the magazine for all WI members needs a total overhall.It’s just full of lacklustre features and articles. I understand advertising is part and parcel of any magazine these days, but come on, do we really need a shed load of adverts for stair lifts, velcro shoes and elasticated skirts. The Joans and Margarets of the WI may enjoy the current offerings, but there are also plenty of feisty young and not so young members that want a magazine that’s on trend and full of articles that appeal to them.A case of less People’s Friend and more Cosmo.
So, forget about your preconceived ideas about the WI. Rather than slouching on that sofa. Go and join a WI, and if there isn’t one, go and start one up. Before I go, I hope that I haven’t offended anyone called Joan or Margaret.They were the first two names that came to my head!