When I mentioned to my friends back in 2014 that I was considering joining the WI, my friends laughed. You’ll need to get your hair permed and wear sensible shoes, a twin set and some pearls. Why would I want to join an organisation full of elderly women who were do-gooders and got excited about making jam and baking the perfect Voctoria sandwhich? I would have to learn the words of Jerusalam (actually, I do know the words of the first verse off by heart) and make tea at village fetes (tricky as Swindon is a sizable town).
It’s not surprising that I got some stick from my friends. Ask a lot of people what words comes to mind when you say The WI and many of them will answer ‘Jam and Jerusalam’. There is still a preconceived idea by a lot of people that the Womens Institute is for middle England (white) women either retired or have plenty of time on their hands who meet in draughty village halls and listen to talks on subjects such as ‘My walking holiday in the Peak District, with accompanying slides’ or ‘Bottling and canning your fruit and vegetables’. The WI and its members have been the butt of jokes over the years and quite rightly the National Federation of Womens Institute objected to how its members were depicted in the character of Maggie in Little Britain who when attending village fetes would vomit copiously when she found out that the food she was eating had been prepared by someone from a non-white ethnic background or who wasn’t hetrosexual or was homeless.
Back in 2014, Mr R had started to work away from home and I needed something to do in the evenings apart from stay in and watch television. I didn’t want to join a gym or go to evening classes. I knew a gym membership would be a waste of money as I am rubbish at exercising and I’d spent three years at ‘night school’ learning French, which was just like being back at school except I didn’t have to wear a uniform and I didn’t get detention for failing to hand in my homework. I wanted to do something that meant I could meet people and get involved. An advert in our local freebie paper caught my eye. Was anybody interested in a new WI forming in North Swindon? There was to be a meeting where you could find out more. It sounded interesting so I thought that I would go along. So did around seventy other women. Women of all ages. The small hall was packed and the atmosphere was one of excitement and a sense of curiosity. People were definitely interested!
North Swindon WI was formed and I volunteered to join the committee. If I decide to do something I tend to jump in, rather than dip in my toes to test the water. I like to get involved! Jill, our new president and founder had wanted to join the WI but couldn’t find one that suited her. Our local WIs had been going for years, but were set in their ways and were lacking in younger members. It wasn’t what she wanted, so she decided to start a new one. And that’s the great thing about the WI, anyone can get the ball rolling to set up a new one. She wanted one that was modern, dynamic and appealed to everyone. We live in an area with lots of newer housing with families and women who work and are looking for friendship out of the workplace, which is often difficult to find in this day and age. Our meetings were planned to include activities and talks that were relevent to our members and were a mix of fun things and those of a more serious nature. Out went formal agendas, reading of minutes and an officers table. There was to be no singing of Jerusalam. The business side of the meeting was to be informal yet informative, humorous and concise. We wanted friendships to be made and our meetings to be somewhere where women could talk and share. We embraced the ethos of the WI of friendship,education and making a difference in the community but didn’t necessarily always follow the rules.
Eight years later and I am in my fourth year as president of our WI. Much has changed over the years. We outgrew our venue and moved to our brand new community centre. We had a lovely big hall and a proper kitchen instead of a cupboard that passed for one before. Members have come and gone, as have committee members. I haven’t always found it easy being the president. I’m not a natural leader and am not always very assertive. I’m also too sensitive and take things to heart too easily. There’s been quite a few occasions when I’ve been close to walking away and felt pretty inadequate. But my WI means a hell of a lot to me and I am determined that it succeeds and it is a place where women feel welcomed and want to be. I believe that we have a place in the community and my aim is to do something for the community. I have learnt to enjoy standing up and speaking to the members and it has helped me to gain confidence.
During Lockdown we were determined to keep going and still hold meetings. Fortunately the majority of our members are tech savvy and we could meet virtually by the power of Zoom. It wasn’t for everyone. For those working from home and looking at a computer all day, the last thing they wanted to do after eating their tea was to go back to staring at a screen again. For others, they didn’t like not being able to chat freely, which is difficult when sharing a screen. We had some excellent speakers that would never have normally been able to book because they lived miles away but it wasn’t the same. But we were able to meet, even if it was virtually, unlike those WIs with members who did not use technology for one reason or another. Being resourceful though they tried to keep in touch by other methods. For some WIs, Lockdown meant that they couldn’t go on and sadly had to close. Someof those WIs had been part of the community for decades and it was so sad to hear of their closures. Like many organisations, the WI as a national organisation suffered and that included my WI. Our membership tumbled and financially our future looked shaky. We depend on the money we retain from the yearly fees that members pay. Less members, less money to pay for our venue, speakers and any resources we may need. Simple as that. As a committee we discussed closing or amalgamating with another WI. Something I was very much against. I believed that we could rebuild and given time and being careful with our funds we could make a go of it.
The WI is trying to shake off its image of an organisation that might be seen by people as ‘old fashioned’ and not in touch with women of society today. It wants to be seen to promote diversity and tackle issues such as mental health, climate change and women’s health. Women of the WI are protesting and marching and campaign to encourage awareness and make positive changes.There is a WI for everyone. From city centre WIs who attract younger working women to the rural WI which may be more traditional but isn’t necessarily always the case. WIs that are very campaign focused to those that are very crafty. Those that do a lot for the community to those that don’t. I may be wrong here, but I am not sure if the WI has much of a presence within ethnic communities and if not, why not? The WI is more than monthly meetings.There are subgroups ranging from book groups, to craft groups, theatre groups, meeting at the pub groups. Some WI’s only have one type of group, others have dozens! There is no pressure to join these groups. You can attend the occasional meeting, or become really involved and do everything. Even become a committee member or get involved with your local federation.
I am proud to say that I am a WI member but there are aspects of it that do irk me. I can rarely attend events as they are during the days on week days meaning that only those who don’t work or are prepared to use an annual leave day can attend and this includes the AGM. Why not hold some events in the evening or at the weekend? As members we receive copies of WI Life magazine. This has improved over recent years with interesting articles about modern day issues as well as what could be thought of as WI traditional articles about cooking (including jam making) crafts and gardening. There is something for everyone but the advertising is all about making wills, stair lifts, clothing that even my 85 year old mum wouldn’t wear and step in showers. Now that’s surely going to appeal to the younger women that we want to attract to become members …not! Maybe one day we will see an advert for something for women to keep in their bedside drawer, and I’m not talking about a box of Tena Ladies! Yes, the advertising helps to pay for producing the magazine but lets have adverts that are for everyone!
After our post Covid wobble when our future looked uncertain I am pleased to say that our membership is gradually growing and we are attracting amazing women of all ages. Our members are what makes our WI. They are such a lovely bunch of inspirational and friendly ladies. We were savvy in organising our programme for the year and have kept costs down whilst still having something that interests everyone each month. Our highlight was when best selling author Amanda Prowse offered to come and speak to our members. I love Amanda’s books and aspire to write like her so I was excited beyond belief when she came to our meeting. We really appreciated her giving up her time to come to Swindon. Our book group has grown and we now have a popular craft group. I am full of hope and excitement for our future. As president my aim has always been to have a WI that is fun, exciting and above all else a place where friendships are made and support is plentiful. I am hoping that someone will be willing to stand for president sometime soon. New blood is always good and I will happily pass on the baton and enjoy just turning up at the meetings.
If you have ever considered joining the WI I would say, go for it. Visit your local WI, they will welcome you with open arms, and if there isn’t one locally. Start one yourself!