Not only have I joined the Women’s Institute, I’m currently on the committee of our local branch and even helped to set it up two years ago. And though I love it, there is a bit of me that still thinks the WI can’t be cool. Can it? There are some edgy branches out there – the sassy Shoreditch Sisters and the Dalston Darlings are our neighbours – but our wedge of North East London is just that bit more mature. Less hip – but not quite hip replacement.
The WI is having something of a moment, it’s membership in urban areas is growing and new branches have been overwhelmed by queues of young (and not so young) women wanting join up. The Women’s Institute celebrated it’s centenary in 2015 and the resulting press coverage has put it back on the map. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Austerity England has been inspired by make-do-and-mend and The Great British Bake-off and women everywhere want to learn the skills that 70s feminism had turned it’s back on.
The rumour is that the newer branches (including ours) are reinventing the WI, they’re a bit more tongue-in-cheek and they drink wine as well as tea. Meetings are busy and exciting events with inspirational speakers and have-a-go workshops which include everything from hula-hooping to belly dancing. In the summer there’s a Tea and Tents camping weekend with a festival atmosphere and last year, for the first time, the WI served tea and cake at Glastonbury. It’s a long way from my late mother-in-law’s monthly quizzes followed by a slideshow of someone’s cruise.
Strangely, though, I think it’s still the traditional stuff: the knitting, the baking, the crafts and participating in community events, the things missing from our smartphone centric modern lives which is attractive. Part of us yearns for simpler times and becoming absorbed in a craft or activity is it’s own therapy – something separate from work and responsibility – an opportunity to relaxe and recharge. My own relaxation method is gardening because I can lose myself completely in the moment. Switching-off doesn’t have to mean lying on the sofa watching soaps. The kind of creativity that the WI inspires is hard-wired into our female DNA, women have been doing these things for hundreds of years and getting a chance to explore it is liberating.
Jam and Jerusalem?
A few press headlines have read ‘its not just jam and Jerusalem’, and of course it’s not, but that is still a big part of who we are. My branch started making marmalade this year and we have plans to preserve and pickle our way through the seasons – it will all go to help with fundraising. It also fits in nicely with one of our national campaigns against food waste. Our March meeting was a singing workshop and yes you’ve guessed it, Jerusalem was the song we sang. Whipped into shape by a classical singer and conductor we progressed through breathing exercises and humming and our small voices gradually grew louder. Not many of us would have sang alone but together we were fearless, joyful and a heavenly choir.
A space in the city to get together with other women who you know are going to be like-minded is just wonderful. The WI is a place to build genuine friendships in a society where more and more people are living alone, either by choice, divorce or widowhood. In just a few years our own small institute has developed a range of sub-groups where members meet monthly in one another’s homes to sew, talk about books, make jewellery, sew and there are theatre and exhibition trips, all in addition to the monthly ‘meeting’. If loneliness is one of the biggest problems that modern society is facing the Women’s Institute is a great model for a solution. Perhaps we need a Men’s Institute too?