The WI is synonymous for great campaigns and as it looks to enter its next chapter, it show no signs of lowering its voice. In the second and concluding part of the series looking at the organisation at 100 years, Emily Ashworth reports.
After starting as an initiative to encourage rural women to learn valuable working skills, the Women’s Institute (WI) has since blossomed.
Over its 100 years, it has become much more than just groups of ladies getting together over tea and cake.
A desire to improve life and take subjects which are somewhat taboo into the public eye is perhaps why this increasingly popular organisation will always continue to expand.
“You have to have organisations which take up concerns on behalf of the ordinary people.”
From 1915, its campaign timeline is one of diversity. From fighting for equal pay for women to lobbying for a fairer price for British dairy farmers, these women take these issues to the highest levels to ensure a better outcome. Such is the institute’s political influence, members famously gave former Prime Minister Tony Blair a hostile reception in 2000, which involved heckling and slow hand-clapping.
After what Mr Blair had hoped would be a speech to win back political initiative from the Conservative Party, he received poor applause and drew criticism from some audience members who believed the speech was overtly political. Marylyn Haines-Evans, vicechairman of the National Federation of WI (NFWI), says all campaigns are born out of concern.
She says: “You have to have organisations which take up concerns on behalf of the ordinary people.”
The belief is there will always be something which worries people. In an ideal world, there would be no problems, but this is obviously not the case.
The structure and thought which goes into forming a campaign is a process of great time and consideration.
It takes about a year to begin with and all starts at a grass roots level.
After the AGM, members send their resolutions in to the national office, which are shortlisted and presented back.
Members then decide which of the issues they feel most strongly about and send them back to the NFWI board.
It is then onto the next AGM, where the final resolutions are taken to a vote. This year, for example, 79 resolutions were whittled down to eight.
Making decisions this way allows members to already have an idea of future campaigns and what they can begin researching.
The WI will continue to rally its troops and fight for public issues, changing history as it goes.
“As long as our members are prepared, the WI will always be there to fight their corner.”
A strong belief of the WI is people should know where their food comes from. It is currently running its country of origin labelling campaign, which calls for mandatory labelling on all fresh meat and fish products in the UK. It means shoppers have an active choice in what they buy and can choose to support British farmers.
With the original idea stemming from Hindon and Fonthill Bishop WI, Wiltshire, a resolution was passed in 2009 which urged the Government to increase funding for research into bee health, after a decline in the species became worrying.
WI groups across the country took part in activities to raise awareness. Members (also known as bee ambassadors) have even trained as bee keepers and turned land into bee-friendly areas in aid of the cause.
It was not until last year, however, that the national pollinator strategy was implemented in association with Defra – a plan to protect pollinators which are imperative to the environment and food production. Although a step in the right direction, there was – and still is – a great deal to do to ensure the future of pollinators.
Marylyn says: “As the WI, we need to keep up pressure. We will work with like-minded people and once our members are into a resolution, they will do everything they can.”
Mandates from the early days of the NFWI bring a range of environmental issues to light, from protecting areas of natural beauty to preserving land for agriculture. Work continues, as members forge relationships with organisations such as Friends of the Earth, and Marylyn encourages people to be knowledgeable about an issue which is complex and raise awareness of different habitats.
The campaign gathered speed and followers quickly, and in the 1960s, it became an independent organisation, evolving into a group which wanted people to take pride in their country.
Through the next decade, celebrities jumped on board and the uptake soared as the tidyman logo appeared on all bins and packaging in the UK. Moving forward to the 1970s high profile campaigning took place with the era’s famous faces, such as Morecambe and Wise, championing the aim and helping change the public’s attitude, encouraging more to do something about the problem.
The Keep Britain Tidy momentum has never halted. Since its beginning, there have been an endless amount of acts passed and campaigns set up for various litter related issues.
These have included Love Where You Live, Waste Watch, which resulted in the Government backing a waste reduction programme, and the Tidy Britain Year, launched by Margaret Thatcher. This year, the charity has been able to celebrate 60 years with a prestigious dinner and awards ceremony at Liverpool Cathedral.
Dairy industry problems are never too far from farming headlines and are matters which seem to keep springing back up every 18 months or so, says Marylyn. Fair Deal for Dairy Farmers began in 2005, but has been revisited on many occasions.
It was a campaign which aimed to raise awareness and get the nation behind the British dairy industry. In 2006, a joint press conference was held with the Farmers Union of Wales (FUW). Members took their fight to Tony Blair, urging him to consumers what they can do to help. Should they keep buying British dairy products, bake using British dairy ingredients or hold an event to celebrate produce?
WI members believe the momentum may have been lost a little, but are insistent as a nation, we must look at other routes than just supermarkets. Marylyn says: “It is not just supermarkets which use dairy products. It is local businesses, coffee shops and high street retailers who also play a part and must commit to supporting British producers.” help save the dairy industry, where Marylyn spoke of the effects it could have if the sector broke down. She says: “WI members have noticed many changes to communities over the years, as dairy farmers have gone bankrupt.
“Dairy farmers help to support the local infrastructure by employing local people, shopping at local shops, using local banks and post offices, and sending their children to local schools.” As a reaction to the crises dairy farmers were facing, the WI teamed up with the NFU in 2007 to launch the ‘Why farming matters’ campaign. Members also heavily supported FG’s Fair Trade For British Farmers campaign, to highlight industry pricing issues.
Members set up debates in their area to highlight how critical the situation really was, and it was a chance, says Marylyn, for people to put forward their thoughts and ideas on the matter. About 100 debates took place across Wales and England, with 15,000 people taking part. With continued support from thousands of WI members, Mission Milk was launched to explain the purpose of the debates, along with telling