New face of the Women’s Institute

The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (WI) is as synonymous with the British landscape as fêtes, cream teas and, of course, jam and Jerusalem. Yet there are signs that this is all changing. For more recently, the organisation has been attracting publicity, not for its rural efforts, but for a rebellion within its numbers over a new magazine created at its headquarters in London, the appearance of a 60-year-old member on Big Brother, the revitalisation of the fortunes of Marks & Spencer (M&S), and the launch of several new urban groups with membership about as far removed from the stereotypical perception of the WI as possible.

The ladies of the likes of the Fulham and Islington WI are not much interested in being judged for their cake-baking skills in village halls. Instead, they are young, attractive career women, gathering in pubs over several glasses of wine to discuss as diverse subjects as fashion, Frisbee throwing, party planning and, to the delight of The Sun, burlesque. ‘Whisper it softly,’ the paper reported delightedly. ‘The coolest group in the country this year might not be the Arctic Monkeys it might just be the WI.’ So is the organisation being metropolitised?

The WI is a charitable organisation run by a group of elected trustees and was formed in Canada in 1897 and in Britain in 1915 to ‘revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War’. It had its heyday in the 1950s when membership stood at more than 400,000. Since then, there has been a worrying decline in numbers as women have developed careers and have had less time on their hands for voluntary organisations. So far this year, 112 WIs have been suspended and only 22 have been formed, these largely in heavily metropolitan areas such as London and Newcastle. Yet today’s body of some 211,000 members still has a fist as formidable as Popeye’s. Think back to the slow hand-clap that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair received when he adopted an overly political tone at a federation annual general meeting (AGM). Stuart Rose, M&S’s chief executive, has been perceptive enough to use the WI’s power to good effect. When M&S was struggling, he ‘set up customer focus groups and one of the first was with the WI,’ he commented at this year’s WI AGM in June. ‘Your feedback looking at our product ranges has been invaluable. You really have made a difference.’

WI campaigns have been equally mighty it pioneered the Fairtrade movement and the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. More recently, projects have included the Great Milk Debate, to ensure better prices from supermarkets to dairy farmers for their milk, and the WI Carbon Challenge, launched in association with M&S this year. It aims for everyone taking part to reduce their carbon footprint by 20%.

So the message is, woe betide anyone that crosses the federation. Yet ironically, the WI made the mistake this year of treading on its own toes. The trustees responsible for running it elected to create a new WI magazine with the aim of bolstering revenue and contacting its members directly. Communication up until that point had been poor indeed, trying to find out anything about the WI is not easy. Ask the WI organisation for an idea of a stereotypical member and it cannot provide one, as it doesn’t keep a profile of any of its membership.

The federation trustees made the mistake of not consulting its members about the launch of WI Life. Consequently, the magazine bombed when it first arrived in WI members’ homes in its biodegradable poly bag, inspiring a tirade of letters that were so full of ‘vitriol’ and ‘distaste’ that they were withheld from the magazine’s editor when she went on maternity leave. One of the letters criticised using ‘an expensive model’, who was, in fact, one of the WI’s own Amy Wilcock, the noted cookery writer and Aga guru, who runs the most successful WI group in the country on the Isle of Wight. Aged 38, blonde and American by birth, she concedes that she is hardly the stereotypical WI candidate, yet is an ardent supporter of the movement: ‘I have met some fantastic women through the WI.’ Another model for the magazine was the Asian knitting queen Aneeta Patel, another unconventional figure for the WI.

However, the WI’s own community remained divided over WI Life, not due to its contents, but its cost. Members were horrified that they were having to fund it from their annual subscriptions, meaning an increase of £4 to £26. Forget the fact that the magazine had Green credentials (it is printed on recycled paper using vegetable-based inks). Normally environmentally conscious members only per-ceived an ‘astounding lack of democracy’, and some groups left the organisation in protest, thus reducing the membership further. ‘I wouldn’t have thought we were a rebellious lot, and that is why it feels all the more sad,’ cried one departing Cumbrian stalwart. The resulting furore was prominent enough to merit a comment on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Since then, there has been a swing in opinion, and Denman College, the WI’s adult-education centre in Oxfordshire, has been a beneficiary of that. Thanks to regular magazine coverage, bookings for courses at Denman have more than doubled and there are now plans to develop the college further, adding on a new WI cookery school. ‘We are thrilled that so many more of you are discovering the opportunities on offer within the WI,’ commented Fay Mansell, the WI’s chair, at the AGM. Nevertheless, numbers are still declining in rural areas. Mrs Wilcock believes this is because the organisation ‘is at times patronising, over-bureaucratic and clouded by greyness. The women who run the WI are mostly in their sixties and seventies. Yes, they did work, but now they are behind the times. Oh, and they wear the most alarming clothes. Let me say, I often come across a lot of natural hair and not a lot of natural fibres.’

Her struggle to bring the organisation up to date by its boot straps is due to be shown on BBC2 in the autumn. It is the first time that the organisation has allowed an observational documentary to be made which shows that perhaps some of the powers-that-be agree with her. Shona Thompson, the series producer, believes Amy is right: ‘The arguments that exist within the WI are all about change and the meeting of the old against the new. The head office is trying to push these changes through, but it just might take a bit of time.’

Indeed, the much-fêted calendar, featuring the ladies from the Rylstone & District WI in Yorkshire, was met initially with resist-ance. The WI only let it go ahead with the proviso that it was made clear that it was an individual, not WI-led project, hence the resulting title of Alternative WI Calendar. Today, thanks to the film Calendar Girls, the WI now holds it up with pride and cites it as one of the major elements in helping change the perception of the movement today.

It needs to be quicker about sensing the moves of the modern world, which could mean more of a metropolitan focus. If it does manage to modernise itself successfully, the WI could have an even greater future as Mrs Wilcock likes to believe. ‘What we all really need is greater community spirit. The Church isn’t picking up anything, the schools aren’t holding it together. Perhaps the WI could be the answer.’