The WI is ‘just as relevant today’, members say, as it marks 100th birthday
- Credit: Gregg Brown
It has long been associated with ‘jam and Jerusalem’, but the Women’s Institue (WI) is just as relevant today as it always has been, members tell Mariam Ghaemi.
The WI movement in Britain is now in its 100th year, having begun in Anglesey, North Wales, during the First World War as part of a drive to encourage women to grow and preserve food for the war-torn nation.
Branches sprung up across the UK, with the Suffolk East Federation forming in 1919 and the Suffolk West Federation in 1920 when they gained enough member institutes.
WI groups offer women the chance to take part in a wide range of activities, from crafts and cookery to trips abroad, and the movement has a long tradition of lobbying politicians to pass legislation that will improve the lives of women.
While the organisation - known for its anthem ‘Jerusalem’ and jam making - has moved with the times, there is also a “resurgence” in activities traditionally associated with the WI, said Gill Denny, secretary of the Suffolk East Federation.
“We have had a resurgence in craft and baking. There’s the [television shows] ‘The Great British Bake Off’ and ‘The Great British Sewing Bee’ so people have come back to the WI to learn the skills maybe a generation missed out on because maybe their mothers didn’t teach them.”
She believes the emphasis has shifted towards design and using more creativity, rather than making and mending out of necessity.
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Elizabeth Lansman, chairman of the Suffolk West Federation, says the stereotypical image of the WI - jam, Jerusalem and grey-haired women - is changing, helped by the publicity for the centenary.
“A lot of people did bring jam to our thanksgiving event [on September 12], but that was to make fun of ourselves. We don’t particularly like to be known as ‘jam and Jerusalem’. The jam will be distributed to the foodbanks.” She added: “It’s looking back to the past. We can pooh pooh the past and say we are a modern organisation, but we are only here because of the people in the past.”
And many issues - such as equal pay - still affect women today.
“It’s got links with the Suffragette movement at the very beginning,” Mrs Lansman said. “We are actually listed as an educational charity so everything we do has to have some educational value.
“To campaign properly you need to know your subject, therefore campaigning is also a learning experience.”
She said while the ‘jam and Jerusalem’ stereotype had to be tackled, at the same time care must be taken not to alienate older members.
While younger women are signing up, she believed time constraints were the biggest barrier for them - something that Mrs Denny believed had always been the case.
“But I don’t see that as a major problem, provided we have them on board with the actual principles of the organisation,” Mrs Lansman said.
Mrs Denny said promoting the WI was “hugely important”. “It’s no good if you just disappear into the background, then you will die. You need to keep in the forefront of everybody’s mind as often as you can with new and exciting things.
“Our latest campaign is about the Old Cattle Market in Ipswich. When they redid the bus station there were no toilets.”
The WI plans to deliver a petition for public toilets to the county council on October 22.
Mrs Lansman said the Suffolk West Federation - which has 59 institutes - was stable in terms of group numbers, adding they come and go.
The Long Melford institute has now reopened after it closed for a couple of months, there is a new group in Drinkstone and they may be forming in Bildeston and Lawshall.
It is a similar situation in Suffolk East, which has 110 WIs.
Mrs Denny said: “We are always looking for new places to open in. If people want to start a WI, they can be the nucleus.”
To set up an institute, contact the Suffolk West Federation on 01284 754520 and Suffolk East on 01473 251632.