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The WI celebrates 100 years. Should we care?

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100 years of the women's instituteMaking your wants heard becomes much easier when there are numbers wanting the same kind of thing.

The National Federation of Women’s Institutes – better known as the WI – celebrated its 100th birthday last month.

The largest women’s organisation in the UK, the WI currently has some 212,000 members grouped into over 6,000 ‘Women’s Institutes’ all over the country.

To celebrate its 100 years the WI launched a report, ‘The WI at 100: A Century of Inspiring Women‘, which highlights some of the achievements of the organisation through the years as well as presenting the views and attitudes of members on the challenges facing women today.

Its best-known member perfectly summed this all up at this year’s WI AGM.

“There has,” she said, “been significant economic and social change since 1915.

“Women have been granted the vote, British women have climbed Everest for the first time and the country has elected its first female Prime Minister.

“The Women’s Institute has been a constant throughout, gathering women together, encouraging them to learn new skills and nurturing unique talents.”

That was Her Majesty the Queen, speaking on 4 June 2015.

The WI started out as an organisation set up to improve the lives of isolated rural women by creating opportunities for education and training, as well as socialising.

It was also about encouraging women to get involved in food production, especially once World War Two broke out – and that was where the organisation’s connection with jam first began.

But since it began the WI has had at its heart the empowerment of women – backing campaigns including voting rights for women, demands for equal pay and better information about sexual health.

Caricatured by some as being ‘nothing more’ than a chance for ‘older women’ to get together for a natter and to compete with each other over who has baked the best cake, the Women’s Institute is however a living, breathing example of what can be achieved when women join together.

As outlined in the report, “A 1921 edition of Home and Country magazine proudly exclaimed: ‘if one person alone cannot make her wants heard it becomes much easier when there are numbers wanting the same kind of things,’ encouraging members to recognise the benefits of a collective approach, ‘that is why large numbers of women organised in bodies such as the National Federation of Women’s Institutes can become a real power.”

The WI has campaigned on so many different topics it is impossible to list them all here – detailed information is available on the WI website.

But in short, it has successfully campaigned on topics such as protecting women from rape; increasing and protecting the age of sexual consent; improving communities by spearheading changes to housing, amenities and care of vulnerable people; valuing the work of housewives and mothers, resulting in the introduction of pension and social security provision for widows and disabled housewives; encouraging sex education; supporting survivors of domestic abuse as well as calling for funding for women’s shelters and the establishment and protection of legal aid for survivors of domestic abuse.

A personal favourite of mine dates back to the 1920s when the WI campaigned for the hard work done by housewives and mothers to be acknowledged and for them to be justly financially compensated, a notion that is still considered highly radical – but still an aspiration – today.

Of course, while the WI may have contributed to and indeed, forcibly changed, society for the better, especially for women and children, it is not all about campaigning. It remains a membership organisation focussed on bringing women together for social enjoyment as much as the betterment of their minds.

And a focus on creative traditional crafts still remains. Denman College, the WI’s own educational centre, offers over 500 short courses in cookery, craft and lifestyle subjects.

New WIs have sprung up in recent years, with names such as the ‘Shoreditch Sisters’ and ‘Brighton Belles’, embracing what they describe as ‘new wave WI’.

Many WIs still gather on a monthly basis, and take place in village halls; but nowadays they also meet in pubs and bars. The traditional tea may be drunk, but wine may be too.

Whatever the location, the theme of WI meetings still centres on bringing women together to learn new skills, talk about things that interest them and above all, enjoy each other’s company.

When I first started researching this story I didn’t know all that much about the WI. I wasn’t aware of its vast history and I wasn’t convinced of its relevance in this day and age.

It can be easy to make assumptions, and even easier to think that something so established, and dare I say it, traditional, is not for you.

I also wondered whether it was the right place for a feminist in 2015.

But the WI is all about feminism. The women who started the organisation 100 years ago were the original feminists, concerned with the empowerment of women.

Which is what the WI is still all about – empowering women. There is no question of whether or not the WI is still relevant, it is as vital today as it has ever been.

Most significantly, in the summary, The WI at 100 report says that of the 5,450 members interviewed 70 per cent disagree that women are equal to men; 59 per cent agree that women are penalised in the workplace for having children; 84 per cent say it is difficult to balance family responsibilities with work; 83 per cent agree world leaders must urgently agree a deal to tackle climate change and 78 per cent agree that there are not enough positive role models for girls

Given the list of concerns highlighted by members in the report it is safe to say the WI will continue to have its hands full on the campaigning front for the foreseeable future.

Marylyn Haines Evans, vice-chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) and chair of Public Affairs, said: “This report shows that despite the significant societal, technological and cultural changes of the last 100 years, women are still demanding greater equality and fighting for the issues that are important to them and their families.

“For the past 100 years the WI has existed to help give women a voice on the issues that matter, from domestic violence to organ donation to better maternal care.

“Moving into our next century it is crucial for us to work with all our members to preserve traditional skills and learn new ones and to empower all our members to campaign for change in the areas that they see as important.”

Even if you are not a member of the WI, if you are female you should be thankful that 100 years ago the inspiring women who started the Women’s Institute did so. We have much to be grateful to them for.

Congratulations – and thanks – to the many thousands of women who have played their part in the success of the WI. Long may it continue.

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