“I feel it’s time for the WI to shake the image of grey-haired ladies who just spend their time baking cakes and serving tea at local shows… there is a lot more to the WI than most people would think.”
The hit movie Calendar girls, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, was probably the best bit of promotion the Women’s Institute has had in years.
Not that it’s the norm for WI members to pose naked as calendar pin-ups like the now-infamous Yorkshire members did, but the award-winning film was just one indicator of how the organisation best known for its “Jam and Jerusalem” meetings has moved effortlessly into the 21st century.
A look at its highly professional website – illustrated by a photo of a contemporary-looking young female and the tag line “A modern voice for women” – gives another hint at the way the WI is evolving. Sitting alongside news of a quilt fabric sale are items on rather more energetic pursuits such as the cycling challenge in Cuba.
This fascinating mix has led the BBC to commission independent television production company Century Films to make a two-part documentary series about the WI. They plan to film a couple of WI groups and reveal the huge range of activities, initiatives, and individuals within the organisation.
In fact, the film makers could do worse than come to the Isle of Wight, where they’d find no shortage of material lurking within the 40 WIs we have here.
Joan Kirby, who chairs the busy Isle of Wight WI Federation, says things have come a long way since the Island’s first two WIs – Wooton Bridge and Ningwood & Shalfleet – were formed on the same day in 1919.
Back then it was tea in giant metal teapots, served in a primitive meeting place that was little more than a tin shack.
A huge contrast to the opening of the latest group – Yarmouth – which opened in style in February this year, with 62 members gathering at The George in Yarmouth. Many of its members are professional women and some commute to and from London. The tables were dressed with pristine white cloths, and members drank Moet before listening to a speaker on the subject of champagne.
“It was like a breath of fresh air,” says Joan, who only a few months before, in October 2005, had been at the opening of another new group at St Margaret’s, Upper Ventnor.
Each group tends to have its own character, shaped by its own particular members. As Joan says, the champagne approach might not be for everyone, but the beauty of the organisation is that it’s the members who decide what they want to focus on.
This has included everything from speed dating to belly dancing, photography and computer classes and even studying outer space at a course run by the WI’s own Denman College in Abingdon. Joan also did an advanced motoring course through the WI.
In order to recruit new members and find out what they want, the WI pamphlets women at the school gate. “This is a nut we really need to crack in order to move on and keep the organisation growing,” says Joan.
Meanwhile, the WI (which ironically is also open to men, should they want to brave it) continues to be a strong campaigning voice on big national issues such as food safety, health and nutrition, children’s issues and farming.
“We are always campaigning for change and try to be a thorn in the side” says Joan, “but we tend to do it courteously!”
“At the moment we are producing a pamphlet in support of dairy farmers who are really having a hard time because of the low prices they get for their milk”.
“We are also lobbying Tesco and the Co-op on the Island about the amount of unnecessary packaging they use”.
Another area of concern for the WI is healthy eating, in terms of what is added to many processed and packaged foods.
“We would like to get women and men cooking with fresh ingredients instead of these processed foods which seem to have taken over in the kitchen nowadays,” says Joan.
“I think the problem today is that schools do not have cookery classes like they used to years ago, so the younger generation of women don’t know how to cook healthy food, which is why the supermarkets are winning the battle. In the WI we try and educate our members on healthy eating, and it’s a message we must keep putting across”.
Which seems to bring us neatly back to the WI’s traditional image as a band of cake-bakers.
Joan admits there’s still a battle to be won in terms of changing public perceptions of the organisation: “The WI is no longer just about ‘Jam and Jerusalem’. Yes, we do still bake the odd cake or two in order to raise money for the cause, but the WI has a lot more to offer to all generations.
“I would love to see more young women join the WI, because we can offer them so much. Between our members we have a wealth of life experience, in fact hundreds of years when it comes to parenting and personal issues, and general life issues. I believe there are a lot of single mums nowadays who would find friendship and a sense of security in joining the WI.”
“We are always open to suggestions, and even though most of our members are the ‘grey brigade’, don’t let age fool you. It was these very people who requested the computer courses. We are willing and happy to welcome the younger generation, we feel they have as much to offer, as we feel we have to offer – it’s two-way traffic.”
Ultimately, says Joan, the WI’s real value is in providing friendship.
“There’s no need for anyone to feel lonely,” she says. “Lots of single mums can feel very isolated but there is no need for them to. They need to be allowed to blossom … to do things they never dreamed they could. And that’s where we like to think we can help.”