For decades now, the reputation of the Women’s Institute has been somewhere between endlessly supping tea, baking homemade sponges in a twin set with pearls, and discussing the latest village scandal.
But long before this cliched image took hold, the WI was actually established in Britain to help with the war effort, bringing together generations of women who worked together embodying a real sense of community spirit.
After the war, as women’s roles changed in society, the organisation’s popularity waned. Younger women struggled to find a place among the knitted cardigans and homemade jams.
But after years of languishing in dusty village halls, WI branches are back. Working women, at times isolated, have found a supportive female network – one in which they can make new friends and at the same time learn new skills.
The WI is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK, with thousands of groups across the country catering for different ages and interests. In the past decade, new branches have been set up in towns and cities with the deliberate aim of shedding the fuddy-duddy image and attracting younger women.
At the helm of this revival is the Manchester Women’s Institute, a long-established group but now one with a much younger ethos. Among its ranks are lecturers, art collectors and NHS managers, but they celebrate members with all types of backgrounds and life experiences.
They participate in an array of activities from the more traditional craft club and jewellery-making, to the more unusual lightsaber fencing. A few years ago they even collaborated with a local brewery to create their own signature pale ale – Lady Grey with hints of orange, lemon and bergamot – to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage.
Art collector Megan Price, 29, joined four years ago when she started her own business and began to feel isolated.
“I realised I was spending a lot of time on my own and because I was self-employed there was very little opportunity to meet people and socialise. I initially joined because I thought it would benefit my business but then quickly made a really great group of friends. It’s hard to meet people these days, especially when you live in a transient city, and this was just ideal,” she said.
Price, who is now the publicity officer of the group and has also convinced her mother to join a WI, said one thing which struck her and others including the assistant secretary, Melissa Surgey, was the lack of evening meetings.
“The daytime meets just don’t fit in with the way we live now,” said Surgey, 29, an NHS manager. “This is a big city, most of our members work. They still want that sense of community but can’t make it in the day so one of the first things we did was to change the times to evening meets.”
Run from inside Federation House – a social enterprise and cafe – the Manchester group still aligns itself with national WI campaigns and causes but is far more progressive in its outlook. Next year plans are afoot to visit a local mosque, there will be a visit from Flo Perry, writer and illustrator of How to Have Feminist Sex and the more adventurous members will be able to meet live birds of prey in March.
“We still do all the traditional stuff like gingerbread and wreath-making but then we like to mix it up quite a bit and offer something really varied. It’s exciting and keeps it interesting,” added lecturer Katie Paddock, 32.
The national organisation’s campaigning has also moved with the times and environmental issues are now at the top of the agenda alongside mental health, human trafficking and violence against women.
In recent years, it has called for an end to the inappropriate detention of people with mental health problems, and also argued for concessions on the cuts to legal aid, raising particular concerns over the impact on victims of domestic violence. The Manchester WI successfully campaigned for a buffer zone to stop protesters demonstrating outside a local abortion clinic.
“Yes, it’s true most women still join because they want to make friends but when they come to the meetings there is so much more going on. We are trying to change the perception of WIs and show that as well as doing crafting and baking – which we all love doing – we are making a difference,” said Surgey.
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