The WI has been celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Claire Monkhouse from Huddersfield’s Tea and Tarts branch tells us why she loves it.
I never saw myself becoming a member of the Women’s Institute. The media insistence that it was “not all jam and Jerusalem” had become about as tired as the stereotypical image of a group of twinset-wearing retired ladies listening to a talk on how to fashion a floral arrangement for a church-pew end, or dealing with such essential matters as who would represent the group in the Victoria sponge category of the village fete baking competition.
Aside from churning out metres of largely pointless tubes of coloured yarn on my sister’s ‘Knitting Nancy’ as a child and being able to make an excellent chutney for my Nanna’s Christmas hamper (thanks Nigella – it really was as easy as throwing everything into the pan, boiling the hell out of it for a bit and decanting it into a pretty jar), my making and doing abilities were dubious, to say the least. Surely the group would deny me entry if they discovered that I had once temporarily fixed a work dress with some Sellotape, rather than whipping a sewing kit from my handbag and setting to with my needlecraft skills?
I went to my first WI meeting four and a half years ago as part of my year of saying “yes” to everything (within reason – being a lawyer, I had to eschew anything approaching illegal). So it was that I found myself in a room full of ladies in a ‘Pimp my Cupcake’ evening of cake-decorating: sprinkling glitter with gay abandon and having as much fun as a small child let loose on their mum’s makeup bag, paying no attention to the notion that less is more and concluding that a fairy cake that is not topped with icing, sweets and a sparkly butterfly is simply not trying hard enough.
“The WI went on to become a fearless campaigner on issues important to women and their communities; from promoting equal pay in the 1940s, to lobbying for the introduction of national breast screening in the 1970s and being a founding member of the Fairtrade Foundation in the 1990s.”
Over the months that followed, I took part in a ‘how to be a ninja’ workshop, learned the art of burlesque dancing, had my mind blown by an astrophysicist, discovered how awful I am at lino-cutting and spent a weekend abseiling, gorge-walking and camping in a tipi; all the while surrounded by lovely ladies and large quantities of cake. What’s not to love?
I am slightly ashamed to admit that, until I saw the rather marvellous Raising Agents, a play celebrating 100 years of the Women’s Institute performed by the brilliantly eccentric Mikron Theatre Company (a small but super-talented cast of four, touring the UK on a canal boat near you), I had not appreciated the awe-inspiring history of the WI, or the significant part it has played in shaping the life I now enjoy.
Its origins go back to late 19th-century Canada, with the group first being set up to bring women from isolated farming communities together to socialise and share skills. The UK’s first WI was formed in 1915 with the intention of revitalising rural communities and encouraging women to become involved in producing food as part of the war effort.
But the real ‘tradition’ of the WI lies not in an army of patriotic, pinny-wearing jam-makers but the idea of a group of women coming together: to socialise, share skills and, perhaps most significantly, to recognise the need for change and contribute in a meaningful way to making it happen.
The WI has grown in both size and societal presence. From its beginnings in producing and preserving food to feed a war-torn nation, it went on to become a fearless campaigner on issues important to women and their communities; from promoting equal pay in the 1940s, to lobbying for the introduction of national breast screening in the 1970s and being a founding member of the Fairtrade Foundation in the 1990s.
The term ‘sisterhood’ has increasingly been used by some members to describe the organisation. While this originally made me think of an American high school sorority group, with swinging blonde ponytails and a shared love of cheerleading, I have realised that it is in fact a pretty accurate label to describe the modern face of the WI and its diverse membership.
The WI is still non-party political, non-religious and open to women of all ages, class and cultures. It’s enjoyed a resurgence in recent years and increasing numbers of so-called ‘new wave’ groups have joined our ranks. However, the WI’s strong online presence means that members countrywide, from 18-year-old students to retirees of 80-plus, can all be part of a community that’s empowering, inspiring and enabling.
I still couldn’t knit if my life depended on it but if the zombie apocalypse comes and the skills I learned in our axe-throwing workshop fail me, I know there is a whole host of fabulous women out there who have got my back.4041 Views
Claire Monkhouse is a lawyer, the owner of a large collection of impractical but beautiful shoes and a fan of cake-making, gin-drinking and befriending random cats.