Conversation Changers

Forget Tea And Cake, The Young Women's Institute Members Would Rather Have A Beer

The Women's Institute (WI) has long been associated with blue rinse, homemade jam and knitted cardigans - but, as the organisation reaches its centenary year, there is a new generation of WI members who are breathing fresh life into the old order.

Now the largest voluntary women's organisation in the UK with 212,526 members, the WI has more than six thousand groups to cater to different ages and interests - including many who would sooner share a bottle of wine than a pot of tea.

But swapping bunting for burlesque or pearls for pamper days doesn't mean rejecting the organisation's traditional values.

The WI was founded in 1915 to involve women in food production during the war effort and revitalise rural areas - today food and community spirit remain deeply engrained in the fabric of the organisation, simply in a more modern form.

We caught up with four WI members from across the UK to discuss the organisation's changing reputation, modern femininity and the importance of giving back.

Name: Michaela Parker

Age: 27

Occupation: Marketing Executive/Freelance Writer and Editor

Joined WI: October 2012

Name of WI group: Gloucester Rd WI, Bristol

How long has your WI group been running?

Our group is relatively new in WI terms and was set up in November 2011 by India Rabey, our president. She got a group of friends together and it grew - we now have nearly a hundred members.

What sets your group apart from others?

We’d definitely class ourselves as one of the more modern WIs, though there are such a growing number of those now so it doesn’t set us apart that much! I think the main focus that makes us special is our community focus. With the majority of our members living around Gloucester Road which has the longest stretch of independent shops in Europe, we are hugely focussed as a group on shopping local and protecting the high street around us.

Describe a typical meeting

We have a very varied programme - everything from sugarcraft sessions and pamper sessions to talks from filmmakers and street dancing. Generally we sign in, grab a glass of wine and go through some business before the activity.

We have a lot of stuff going on outside our monthly meeting too so we update people on what’s going on in book club, dinner club, knit and stitch and anything else that might be happening.

What are you doing to bring WI into the 21st century?

The WI started in rural communities and it has taken until the last few years for it to really reach towns and cities properly. Meetings used to be held mostly in the daytime so they weren’t accessible to younger working women.

The things that are often associated with the WI (think ‘Jam and Jerusalem’) baking, knitting, jam-making are all things that the modern woman often enjoys doing!

Younger people have started to come through and as well as those traditional values of living off the land, the WI as a whole is beginning to reflect what people enjoy doing these days.

Do you think the WI reputation needs to be updated?

People don’t realise that the WI have been involved with so many political campaigns over the years and in making positive change – something women are still interested in. In 1954, the WI actually started the ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign as well as the Fairtrade Foundation in 2002. Every year, The WI has a resolution; an issue that they will talk about and support where possible and we, as individual groups try to do the same. Last year was about supporting our local high streets which is something relevant and important to everyone so in a lot of respects, the WI is keeping up with the times, people just don’t realise how involved they are in these important issues.

How does your own brand of WI fit in with modern discussions around femininity?

Many think that the WI is full of unhappy married women getting together to moan about their husbands and get away from the house for a bit. But in truth, there is no typical WI member apart from being someone who wants to make a few friends and relax and learn new skills.

To me, femininity is confidence and the WI has allowed me to become so much more confident than I used to be. We encourage our members to share and celebrate their skills through what we do and be proud of what they can achieve. This is what it means to be a WI member in my eyes.

Would you consider yourself to be a feminist? How does your work at WI tie in to this?

I would, in that I will always defend the equality of women to men when it comes to work, pay and things like that. And I support a woman’s right to maternity leave and other such things, but in some ways I am still a traditionalist. There’ll never been any gender-specific roles in our house but if I ever got married, I would take my husband’s name. The term ‘feminism’ seems to make me think of angry, protesting women though so I wouldn’t say I actually refer to myself as a feminist!

At the WI, we celebrate women and as mentioned earlier, our members’ skills. It’s incredible that we can bear children, be mothers and still hold up high powered jobs. Despite the change in recent years, a lot of our members do come in from work, feed the kids (and sometimes their husbands too), put the children to bed and then come out to the WI and I think they’re amazing! In the words of Beyonce, “Who runs the world? GIRLS!”

Name: Helen Hall

Age: 36

Occupation: Team Ambassador with Ann Summers Party Plan

Joined WI: January 2011, established my own WI in November 2011

Name of WI group: Burton Belles WI

What sets your group apart from others?

We are a "New Wave" WI - a bit younger, with a mix of active and quiet meetings. Most of our members work or have small children, so we are busy people with precious little relaxation time, and our monthly meetings are a welcome break. We also welcome breastfeeding mothers who may otherwise find it hard to get some grown-up conversation in the evening.

Describe a typical meeting

Unlike older WIs we don't sing Jerusalem - one of our first meetings was a burlesque class and our tea and coffee is more a "help yourself and put the money in the pot" arrangement.

We have a speaker or activity, followed by either book club or craft club, which alternate each month. We sometimes have get-togethers outside of meeting times, the most popular have been pub and restaurant trips.

How did you get involved in WI?

I set up the group with my friend Connie Wan-Docksey, and have been the president since the beginning. I was initially attracted by a BBC documentary in 2010 about Denman College, which is owned and operated by the WI. I wanted to learn new things, and our WI is about experiencing a wide range of skills and knowledge. I oversee the committee and guide what we do.

Do you think the 'blue rinse' reputation of WI is accurate?

I think the idea people have of the WI is exactly that, but the fact that I do Ann Summers parties for a living shows that it's not the case. I would say it is for women who want to learn something new and meet new people, and there are different WIs to suit everyone. The first time I visited a WI I was assured I didn't need to know how to cook or craft, but the WI opens your eyes to new experiences, so I've had a go at writing poetry, biscuit decorating and making flowers out of recycled materials.

What are you doing to bring WI into the 21st century?

Most of what we do is through social media. We tend to attract new members through it, and our members have our Facebook group that they can call on 24/7 to chat with the other members.

How does your own brand of WI fit with modern discussions around femininity?

We do a lot of traditionally feminine activities but have tapped in to more sensuous activities too - in addition to burlesque we have done belly dancing and salsa. We don't like to be trapped by the "feminine" pursuits though, we have had a beer tasting session too.

Would you consider yourself feminist?

I think I would say that I am a feminist. I wouldn't like to be held back from doing anything. I have a career, a husband and two children, but although the WI is my hobby I am very happy that it is an intellectually-stimulating hobby, that persuades me to push myself and to try out new challenges. I would love more women to come along and try us to see what we can offer.

Name: Lucy Adams

Age: 25

Occupation: Project Co-ordinator and in my spare time I write a lifestyle blog

Joined WI: I spent just under two years as president and co-founder, and am now a proud member.

Name of WI group: Manchester WI

How long has your group been running?

Alexandra Taylor and I launched Manchester WI two years ago. It started off as just an apple in our eye and now it is one of the largest in the UK.

We had eighty members rush through the doors on our first meeting, we had booked the room with a capacity of 40 - it was so exciting!

What sets your group apart from others?

I’d say the vibrancy of our meetings and members. Manchester WI puts its heart and soul into sourcing interesting speakers and organising the creative events.

The members are an eclectic mix of ages and backgrounds which make the meetings so vibrant, people have met their future bridesmaids, housemates and employers at our meetings. It is a real melting pot of activity.

Describe a typical meeting

There really isn’t a typical meeting! Each has a different theme. My favourite meeting was the sustainable fashion event, we had stylists and designers speaking about the effects of disposable fashion then we hosted a huge clothes swap party. The clothes were amazing; I bagged a Megan from Mad Men style 1960’s dress and one of the other girls got a Vivienne Westwood ring!

I also really enjoyed our sisterhood meeting, the speaker was feminist artist Charlotte Newson who created a huge portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst using images of inspiring women from around the world. It was really relevant given Manchester's suffragette history.

Do you think the current reputation of the WI is fair?

For some groups it might be, but not at Manchester WI. A blogger from Mancunian Matters joined us for a meeting and summed it up with: Forget twinsets and pearls, unless making a sartorial style statement, these are women aged 25-40 who are more drum n bass than Jam and Jerusalem.

What are you doing to bring WI into the 21st century?

I think the very fact that all of our members are working women, living in the city with lots of passion and energy makes it really relevant to current day.

Also Emmeline Pankhurst is featured in our logo, but she is winking and has a tattoo!

Would you consider yourself feminist?

Absolutely. There is a strong sense of sisterhood at Manchester WI, it’s all about learning new skills, networking and having fun.

Name: Lucy Rider

Age: 33

Occupation: Recruitment Manager

Joined WI: 4 years ago

Name of WI group: Buns & Roses

What sets your group apart from others?

We aim to be friendly, inclusive and welcoming – initially we had a fairly “young” demographic in their 20s and 30s, but now we have all ages and backgrounds sitting and chatting together at meetings.

What kind of things do you get up to in meetings?

Recently we have had a number of speakers including an osteo archaeologist who brought human neo natal and peri natal remains for us to examine, a motivational speaker as well as a “craft stash” available to everyone who comes to the meeting and wants to learn a new skill. Tonight I’m off to our bricklaying workshop!

What was it about WI that appealed to you?

I have always enjoyed craft and making new friends which is difficult as I work very long hours in my job. I am also a guide leader and this appealed to me as “guides for grown ups”

What does the WI stand for in your eyes?

While baking and craft is important, the WI has achieved much much more including campaigning for national minimum wage, more midwives and providing a vital sense of community and friendships to women.

What are you doing to bring WI into the 21st century?

We meet in a Leeds City Centre bar and our meetings are outside of normal working hours so that as many of our members can attend as possible – in the past WIs have met in church halls in the middle of the day – to attract a wider range of members we try and be as flexible and welcoming as possible.

How does your own brand of WI fit with modern discussions around femininity?

Some of our members are feminists and some of them aren’t, we are foremost interested in building a friendly and welcoming environment for our women and allowing them to learn new skills, grow in confidence and make new friends.

Would you consider yourself feminist? How does your work at WI tie in with this?

I would consider myself a feminist – I’m a guide leader and a WI President and committed to helping women of all stages in life thrive and develop.