Many moons ago I ran a pre-school in our much loved but very shabby village hall. Once a month the village WI held their afternoon meeting following our morning session. It was always a bit of a nail biting time as the women of the WI were a formidible bunch of ladies and boy did they give us stick if we didn’t leave that hall spick and span. Many a time I got a curt message that they’d discovered a piece of duplo under the piano or that the tea towels weren’t folded properly. These were ladies you didn’t want to mess with!
If at that time anyone would have suggested that I join the WI I would have thought them mad. Why on earth would I want to join a bunch of elderly do-gooders who spent all their time making jam, singing Jerusalam and wore smart twin sets and sensible brogues? Women with kids in their thirties who wouldn’t bother to make jam when they can buy a jar in Tescos or who only sing Jerusalem at weddings do not join the WI! Well, that was my way of thinking back in the early 90’s.
Fast forward to 2014. My boys had flown the nest and Mr R had started to work away during the week. I didn’t relish the idea of spending every evening sat watching TV on my own and being a hopeless procrastinator left to my own devices I knew that I’d never get any hobbies off the ground. I needed a reason to get out, but going out to do what?
One day I spotted an ad in the local freebie inviting women to a meeting to see who, if any, would in interested in starting a new WI. I was curious and decided to pop along. Should I wear something sensible? Pretend I could make jam? Have an open mind?
Arriving at the meeting, I discovered a huge queue of women of all ages waiting to go in. Women on their own, groups of friends, mothers and daughters. All were excited about the possibilty of something available in the community that was just for them. A chance to get away from being a wife and mother for a while. A place to meet people when you’re stuck on your own. A chance to make new friends if you’re new to the area.
North Swindon WI formally opened after that meeting a few months later. I joined and offered to be on the committee. I didn’t know what skills I could offer so I volunteered to be in charge of refreshments. Yes I did get some stick about joining the WI. When are you getting a perm and shouldn’t I be wearing thick denier tights, were typical comments. People’s preconceived idea of the WI was of the same one that I had all those years earlier. That image of retired middle class women running stalls at rural flower shows who crafted, baked, made jam (naturally) and listened to speakers talk about how to prune roses still exists for many people.
Fast forward to the present day. I’m now the president of my WI and apart from a few occasions when I fell briefly out of love with it for various trivial reasons, it’s been a huge part of my life and something that I’m really enthusiastic about. Right from the start, we wanted North Swindon to be a young, modern and vibrant WI that absolutely did away with the idea that you had to be of a certain age to join. We wanted to appeal to all women. We did away with formality. No reading out minutes, having an officers table complete with flowers, no singing of Jerusalem. We did forget to do things in the early days that the National Federation require us to do and we don’t always have homemade cake to go with our tea. We have run cake stalls to help boost our bank account. The hall where we hold our meetings is perfect but doesn’t come cheap and speakers can be expensive. Our members get to go on great outings (including gin distillary trips) and we like to subsidise the cost so that everyone can go if they wish to. We embrace technology and use social media. I like to think that we have a pretty varied programme. Something there to appeal to everyone. When I became president I wanted to make sure all the members were involved in decision making and that their voices were heard. We may do things a little differently from the norm at times but we totally adhere to the WI ethos that it’s somewhere to make friends and support each other, learn new skills, feel inspired and be part of a large organisation. The queen is a WI member so it must be good!
I do feel that at a time when mental health awareness and lonliness is finally being given the attention it deserves, health care professionals could suggest women, when appropriate, to their local WI. Women are on the whole great at giving support and those chats over tea and cake can help immensely when going through tough times.
As much as I love my WI I do get frustrated with the national organisation itself. It doesn’t always take into account that members may work or have children making it impossible to attend daytime or weekday events. As much as I might like to, I can’t attend the AGM because I work. Some of the rules and regulations are archaic and there’s still not enough done nationally to attract younger members. To succeed the organisation needs to move with the times and look ahead to the future . There will be a time when the more traditional WI’s, largely based in rural communities, will cease to be no more as members die and younger people will be reluctant to join as they feel that those WI’s just doesn’t cater for them. The WI is 104 years old. Sometimes I feel that there are elements of it that haven’t changed since 1915.
Fortunately there are WI’s around that are aimed at younger women (or women young at heart). They might meet at the pub rather than in a village or church hall. Members could well drink wine rather than tea. Members listen to speakers talk about topics relevent to them rather than having to watch a slide show of steam engines (for example!). They campaign, attend festivals, go camping.
I love my WI. I’m very proud of it and I’m proud to be a member. I’ve made lots of lovely friends and am part of a fabulous committee. The women of our WI are just lovely. I’ve become so much more confident since becoming a member and am committed to helping it to continue to thrive and prosper. I just hope we never decide to sing Jerusalem. I always end up in tears singing it!