More than Jam and Jerusalem

Tonight I watched a BBC 4 documentary about the Women’s Institute. I started watching because I thought it might be an historical program. After all, the WI is really a club for the blue rinse brigade, isn’t it? In Australia there’s the Country Women’s Association, which my nanna was a member of and I always think of it as a social club or hobby for retired ladies. I kept watching because my mind was completely changed.

Well, not completely. The WI does have most members being over 65. They’vegiven decades of service to their communities, the WI has been around for over 90 years after all. They campaigned for a tidy Britain in the 50s, for school meals way before Jamie Oliver made it trendy and are campaigning for less packaging in supermarkets. However, change is in the air.

I was inspired by the president of Yarmouth WI. At 38 years of age, she started the club from scratch and within 8 months had grown it to become the largest in the country. She’s now on the executive committee, together with three of her committee and she’s making changes. At her club, their speakers talk about divorce and vaginal health. They still make jam and cakes but there’s a whole lot more to them. They are speaking to a new generation of women who want to make a difference in their communities too, and it isn’t going to be about flowers in a jar or three jam tarts on a plate at the county fair. It seems to me Yarmouth WI are what women’s organisations should be about. A social club, a place to learn, experience new things, grow in leadership and thinking skills, make a difference and be women engaged with their communities.

The #womensinstitute isn’t a popular topic on Twitter at the moment. I’ve found just six tweets about it, not including my own. One was from the official WI account and the rest were so disparaging it was nauseating. One person said ‘Think these women have too much time on their hands,’ another ‘loving old ladies get huffy over new young group’s champagne garden party’ and the worst ‘…what a group of pompous little no-ones. Amy the president is only 38!! She looks 50! Can’t believe it.’

It shows how much work Amy and her fellow members have to do. They have to change the attitudes of the Institute itself and then the image of the WI in the wider community.  It might be just as well I live too far away to pitch in, I’ve got enough on my plate for heaven’s sake! Change will not come easily, nothing worthwhile ever is, but they’ve got a fantastic bunch of women to bring this change about and I wish them every success.

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