It’s 7.30pm on a rainy Tuesday evening and in one community centre in north Swindon women of all ages are helping themselves to slices of homemade cake and a cup of tea. Some of them hang around the kitchen chatting away, others meet up with friends at one of the tables in the hall, have a browse at the Summer Swap book table or buy a raffle ticket or two. The one thing you’ll notice is the feeling of friendship and camaraderie in the room. Another thing is that this is a diverse group of women and that there is a distinct absence of men. The reason why there are no men is because this is a Womens Institute meeting and unless you are a guest speaker, and the WI is very much a woman’s domain.
I wonder when you think WI, what do you think of? Could it be that it’s an organisation full of formidable middle class women way past retirement age who meet in draughty village halls, listen to boring talks about someone’s walks in the Lake District complete with a projector and slides. Who sew, knit, make cakes and jam, arrange flowers and sing Jerusalem. To be perfectly honest that’s exactly how I used to see the WI, groups of elderly do-gooders, the butt of jokes and the makers of jam! A bit of an antiquated institution set in their ways and definitely not something I would ever contemplate joining in a million years.
I could say that such a WI doesn’t exist anymore, but that just wouldn’t be true. The majority of WI’s across the country are what you would consider traditional. They have been running for decades in those village halls with the same members that have been attending for just as long and have on the whole changed very little in all that time. Sadly, their membership numbers dwindle as their members become too frail to attend or die, and because they’ve been set in their ways and not embraced change, younger women are often put off from joining. Eventually many rural WI’s are forced to close which is a great shame because one of the great things about the WI is that it does friendship and support brilliantly. Rural WI’s mean that no woman needs to feel lonely or isolated, so charming as it may seem to keep traditions going, to attract younger potential members, all WI’s need to embrace change and organise meetings that will appeal to everyone.
What people don’t know is that anyone can decide to form a new WI if there isn’t one local to them, or that any that are just doesn’t appeal to them. And that’s exactly what’s been happening in recent years. Across the country and especially in towns and cities, new WI’s have been springing up faster than you can sing ” And did those feet in ancient times” Since 2013 498 new WI’s were formed which is just brilliant. These WI’s whilst adhering to the WI ethos of friendship, learning new skills and providing educational opportunities, go about things a different way. Out go the stuffy formality and in come a more relaxed approach. Out go a programme that to be quite frank are pretty boring to the majority of women and in come something for everyone including gin tasting, sexual health awareness, mindfulness and burlesque dancing! What doesn’t change is raising money for local charities, campaigning on issues that effect either their local community or on a wider level. Each WI is unique in that it is run by the members, although rules have to be followed, and boy there does seem to be a lot of them. If there’s one thing that frustrates me and many other members are the rules. Some which are quite archaic and haven’t changed for years. Whilst the National federation which all WI’s belong to, is trying hard to be a modern day organisation, it still has a way to go in certain areas. Until recently the members magazine could well have been the sister magazine to The People’s Friend. It certainly didn’t appeal to anyone under 60 and granted most magazines rely on advertising to fund them but come on, does it have to be all about Stennah stairlifts and will making! Fortunately a new editor has listened to the members and although not yet the sister publication to Cosmo, it’s now in Good Housekeeping territory!
So how come I joined the WI ? Three years ago I saw an advert in our local freebie inviting women to a meeting if they were interested in starting a new WI. Curious I went along, and so did over 70 others. I’ve been a member ever since and apart from a little blip have loved every minute. We are still learning and have made a few gaffes on the way, but hey ho, you learn by your mistakes don’t you. What is brilliant is that sense of friendship and support that for me is what makes our WI tick. I was totally overwhelmed by the support and concern by our members when I was ill with the dreaded lurgy recently, but then we are a bit like a big family and we do care for each other. We welcome visitors to “try before you buy” and last week a new mum came wanting somewhere she could make new friends but also be herself without all talk being about anything bar about babies! It was lovely to see her chatting away and having a great time. I have a funny feeling she will be back! I have made great friends of all ages through my WI and it’s helped me gain in confidence. Three years ago I would never have dreamt of standing up and talking in front of everyone but it doesn’t phase me at all now.
I love North Swindon WI
Why not give your local WI a try or if there isn’t one or one that suits you then why not start one yourself. You’ll get lots of support from your local WI advisor, but you, your committee members and members can make it whatever you want it to be. You just need to keep to the ethos and rules.
To find out more contact The National Federation of WI’s