W.I proud of its past and looking to next 100 years

Becky Warburton
Becky Warburton
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Today Women’s Institute members are taking to social media in a campaign designed to change public perception of the organisation which is preparing to celebrate its centenary. Vicky Carr reports.

Like any organisation, the Women’s Institute knows its centenary will be a landmark in its history.

With 100 years of existence under its belt, and more than 200,000 members across the country, perhaps members should be sitting back and reflecting on a job well done.

However, there is no complacency in the WI, so it is embracing its upcoming milestone as an opportunity to create a revolution in the way it is seen by outsiders – and among those driving the change are the newest groups.

Becky Warburton, 26, is president of Spa Sweethearts WI in Harrogate, a group which is keen to dispel some of the myths which do such a disservice to WI members. To mark the centenary, the group has launched a membership campaign to help bring the WI to a new generation of women.

“It is fantastic to be part of such a historic, powerful organisation which has achieved so much over the years,” she says.

“Our members love being in the WI and get a lot out of the experience, but one thing we find frustrating is the stereotypical image of the WI – little old ladies sitting around in draughty halls talking about vegetables. It is a million miles away from what we do and those old-fashioned ideas just don’t reflect the modern WI.

“We want to use the centenary to reach a wider audience and to dispel the myths about the WI. We all want to demonstrate how relevant it is in the 21st century and the difference it has made to so many people’s lives.”

The drive to bring new respect for the WI is one which is supported by members of all ages, as well as the organisation’s leaders.

Julie Clarke, the chairman of the North Yorkshire West Federation, says: “One thing that attracts a lot of new members is the campaigning side of it. There’s still this concept that we’re just jam and Jerusalem; people don’t appreciate the wide range of opportunities that there are within the organisation.

“Because we have 215,000 members, we have a great voice when it comes to campaigning. The Government will sit up and listen to what we have to say. The pressure we as an organisation can exert can greatly influence what happens.”

The WI has always been a forward-thinking, campaigning organisation, from its origins in 1915 when it encouraged women to get involved in food production to sustain the country during the First World War. Two decades later, this was applied to jam production in the Second World War as a way of preserving fresh produce to make Britain less reliant on imported food.

That sense of purpose has never been lost and is applied to whatever challenge the WI sets itself. What has changed recently is the demographic: membership of the WI has become fashionable among young women. Up and down the country, people in their 20s and 30s have been signing up and going along to monthly meetings – some of which are held in cafés or pubs – and the number of new WIs being formed has rocketed. The image of “jam and Jerusalem” persists, and is proving hard to shake off – but the new generation of WI members is doing its level best to fight it.

Today, WI members across the country will be taking to social media to show the world how diverse, passionate and powerful they are. Under the title #IamWI, they will be posting photographs of themselves and sharing what they love about being part of this historic organisation.

The woman behind the idea is Jo Beale, the 35-year-old president of Cam City WI, who has gained widespread support since announcing her plans in mid-September.

“I thought maybe 100 people might do it, but every day now I’m getting messages with people saying, ‘I shared this with my federation and they are all really enthusiastic’,” says Jo. “It’s taken off. It’s a far bigger response than I ever imagined.”

Jo typifies the modern WIer. She originally joined her local group when she returned to work following maternity leave and wanted to find somewhere which would allow her to socialise and find time to do more crafts. However, it was only when she found out more about the political side of membership that she felt she had found something significant.

“Ruth Bond (then chairman of the National Federation of WIs) came to talk about the political and campaigning work of the WI. Her talk was so inspiring that I thought, ‘This isn’t just a craft club, this could be so much more important in my life’.”

The WI has certainly been an important force in many people’s lives over the last century. From opposing library closures to increasing the number of midwives, the WI’s resolutions have addressed problems which lie at the heart of British culture and communities.

A new resolution is chosen at each AGM in June, but the last one is not instantly forgotten: many go on to achieve further success years later thanks to continued support from members. Perhaps the most significant of these was the resolution to reduce littering in 1954, leading to the creation of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign group – which has just marked its diamond jubilee.

As the WI’s 100th anniversary approaches, there are many plans afoot to celebrate in traditional WI style. From a thanksgiving service at Ripon Cathedral to the national WI Centenary Fair in Harrogate next September, it is likely there will be both jam and Jerusalem involved on a fairly frequent basis.

A century after it was founded, the next generation of women has taken the WI to its heart and is fighting to get its message heard.ap