This year has marked 100 years of The Women’s Institute, which has created waves with its campaigns, cakes and calendars for a century. In the first of a two-part series, Emily Ashworth takes a look at how its versatility is a main attraction
Set up to educate and bring rural women together, The Women’s Institute (WI) has become a beacon of inspiration for all those wishing to feel part of a community.
Whether it is the catalyst to make friends, learn a new craft or to campaign for political change, there are many aspects to the WI which hold appeal for many types of women. The movement began during the First World War to encourage rural communities to grow and preserve food for a war-torn nation, but it soon became more than a Government-sponsored initiative, snowballing into an organisation which fought for not only women’s rights, but for the general public too, with campaigns such as Keep Britain Tidy.
Over the years, the aim of the WI has broadened to cover a wide range of topics and current problems, with some of its most memorable campaigns centered on raising awareness of UK farming and its ongoing challenges. Today, membership stands at about 212,000 members, divided into about 6,300 groups, all of whom come from diverse backgrounds and are now scattered across cities and urban areas too.
The preconceived idea the WI is for women of a certain age is no longer the case. Somerset WI, for example, made its first ever appearance at the infamous Glastonbury this year, a move which firmly put it in the 21st century, while other branches, such as East Dulwich, set up foodbanks for those in need.
“We will always be classed as a rural women’s organisation, as it is where our roots are.”
The strength of the body lies in its persistence and the tenacity of members, says Janice Langley, chairman of the National Federation of WI, who has raised political awareness of topical issues.
From Fair Deals for Dairy Farmers, which encouraged people to support the British dairy industry, to fighting for breast cancer awareness and equal pay, the members’ relentless spirit and want for a better life is a core value which cannot be ignored.
With centenary celebrations having taken place throughout 2015, the organisation has enjoyed increased media attention following a number of staged events, including the BBC’s Great British Menu The centenary is a testament to what the WI has done over the years, challenging the status quo and proving although members still enjoy cooking and crafts, the organisation is developing according to trend and demand.
Janice says: “For a long time, we have been about jam and Jerusalem, but the WI was originally set up to educate rural women so they could take what they learned and put it into practice at work. “Our campaigns show how diverse we are and the point of the WI is to take what you want and make it happen.
It is about inspiring and it is what you make of it.” The heart of the WI has always been farming – its roots and heritage trace back to Canada, when in 1899, the first WI was founded to train women in home economics and animal husbandry.
When Janice is asked if those connections are still there, she insists there will always be an agricultural base.
WIs are known for a love of cooking, so it was fitting for part of the centenary festivities to include food
Each individual WI has been celebrating in its own way, but this year has seen many occasions dedicated to acknowledging the work of the WI, one being the ever popular TV programme The Great British Menu.
WI members are infamous for their love of great cooking, so it was only fitting for part of the festivities to involve food. In April, a banquet was put together to mark the anniversary.
Head chefs from across the country went headto-head in a battle to cook for ladies of the organisation, while championing British produce and the story behind the food.
Janice says: “It was a joyous occasion celebrating the WI and, of course, food. The atmosphere was brilliant.”
After a gruelling nine weeks and 45 episodes of culinary battles, the final three chefs were decided and went on to cook at a banquet held at Drapers Hall, London. Matt Gillan, Michael O’Hare and Richard Bainbridge were faced with the task of cooking perfect plates for women who are the epitome of perfect food.
Aired on October 9, Britain saw members of the WI feast on intricately decorated dishes of delicate lamb, aptly titled ‘we all stand for Jerusa-lamb’, a futuristic take on the classic fish and chips, a main course of goat – which showcased how to use each part of the animal – and a dessert of trifle and Victoria sponge gin, a dish paying homage to the chef’s family
“A lot of our campaigns have been focused on agriculture and we are always keeping an eye on what is happening,” she says.
“Villages are not the same as they used to be and people can easily commute now. “Whereas women may have once been isolated in rural areas, there are those in the city who don’t even know who their neighbours are and this is where we come in.
There is a WI for everyone.” Though the face of the WI is ever-changing, its values remain. And there are still many in rural areas.
Janice says: “Farming is essential to everyday living and we have a duty to feed our families. The WI as a whole will always support farmers.
“We look at where our food comes from. We look at labelling and buying British, because this is what we are about.
“We will always be classed as a rural women’s organisation, as it is where our roots are.”
Members of Shoreditch Sisters WI, London, worked together on a solidarity quilt as part of the 'women of the world' festival
Shoreditch Sisters, London, has a series of modern campaigns behind it, such as fighting for the rights of women held in detention centres, gender equality and ‘no more page 3’.
But the branch was originally set up to practice more traditional activities, including knitting and baking. It started as a group of friends who met up informally every month to focus on a chosen theme, such as poetry, discussion or books. This idea swiftly developed into a WI when members realised their activities fitted snugly into what the organisation is primarily about.
Shoreditch Sisters consists of about 72 members, with most aged under 35. They are one of the many younger groups which have appeared over the years, dismissing the misconception the WI is only for certain generations.
"...there is always a need for community.”
It seems a bit of a good old-fashioned get-together is just what the girls are looking for, because although living in the bustling city of London may seem inviting, it can, in reality, be quite the opposite. Jodie Major, 27, is president of the club. She lives in London and works in finance, and has been in this WI for one-and-a-half years.
She says: “London can be quite lonely and isolated. You may move here on your own for your career and it can be hard to make friends. Social “This group allows you to meet people you would have never met in a million years. Outside the WI, I can walk down the street now and see someone I know from our group.
“It is so important to have this as there is always a need for community.”
Recalling the AGM when all members were asked to write down what they love most about the WI, Jodie says every woman said it was their friendships.
She says: “There is a new life in it now. WI members are shape-shifters. It is not just about joining because maybe your mother is a member.
“It is full of really intelligent, funny, like-minded women who may join by chance. The core idea is still relevant.”
Shoreditch Sisters holds its meetings at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, hosting events such as book clubs with a focus on women authors and good leading female characters.
Members also hold ‘knit and knatter’ meetings which are open to anybody and pair people who want to learn how to knit with someone who is experienced.
The subject of food is never too far away when talking about the WI. Members are pioneers of great cooking and Shoreditch Sisters members believe they must stay true to the original WI concept.
Jodie says: “We are definitely good at encouraging people to question where their food is from. We have had speakers in to tell us about foraging food in the city, for example, and talks on cheesemaking. Making your own food is the WI culture.”
Farmers Guardian reporter Emily Ashworth decided to check out one of the oldest WIs, which holds its meetings at Pilling church hall in Lancashire:
After travelling down the long and winding roads which lead you through the countryside, you find yourself in the small village of Pilling, where a WI was set up in 1922. The ladies who attend this group range in ages from their mid-30s to 80s.
It is not difficult to imagine how small and independent these types of rural communities in years gone by were, and a WI group would have been an attractive concept.
Attending a recent meeting, you can see traditions are still alive.
The chairs are set out and the lyrics of Jerusalem are printed on small pieces of paper, ready to hand out. Stepping into the church one by one, each member has a home-made cake in tow. Tonight is the AGM, so there has been a lot of baking.
Marlene Connolly, president of the group, says: “Some of these ladies have been here for years.”
She points out fellow member Peggy Carter, who has been with Pilling WI for 55 years.
Peggy says: “I joined in my 20s when the only other thing to do was go to church.
“I come to each and every monthly meeting and always enjoy it. It offers us a chatter and a natter. Besides, if it wasn’t for the WI, nothing would get done.”
Marlene explains the group’s next meeting will be their Christmas party on December 10.
They will eat hotpot and desserts made by the committee, followed by Lancashire entertainment, consisting of songs about the county.
Members also celebrated the WI’s 100 years by going for afternoon tea and creating a large banner which hangs boldly at the front of the hall. Given it will be celebrating 94 years next year, what keeps this group going?
“It is the camaraderie of it all,” says Marlene. “We support each other and we have friendship. I can go to the local shop and see somebody, who may tell me someone is ill or they need a lift. It is nice to have this in the village.”