There was a time when the phrase ‘Women’s Institute’ conjured up a soft focus vignette straight from Hyacinth Bouquet’s daydreams: a room heaving with matronly bosoms encased in gingham pinnies, showcasing not only their bountiful home baking but arch Conservatism, xenophobia and withering sneers at the lower classes.
Today however, their heavily laden stall is just as likely to be found at Glastonbury as the local church; this year, the great great grand-daughters of Adelaide Hoodless who founded the WI in 1897 in Canada are just as likely to sport full tattoo sleeves than peach chiffon ones.
In its early incarnation the WI in the UK was set up in 1915 as a resource for women whose husbands were at war, as a social programme, in all aspects of the word, to encourage them to grow their own food, help bolster local food shortages and of course to ‘preserve’, hence the famous jam which has been forever hitched to their name.
I’ve often thought about joining the Scottish arm, the SWI. Well after all, Jerusalem was the only hymn sung at my wedding, but believe me, it was polarising: his side almost couldn’t quite bring themselves to sing of England’s green and pleasant land, however figurative. I do however still need more proof of life, bar the Royal Highland Show and making fabric boxes, I would however be first in line for the ‘oot and aboot’ tour of Orkney, it being my second favourite region in Scotland.
This week that mischievous pixie of a presenter, the historian Lucy Worsley regaled us with a potted history of the Women’s Institute to celebrate 100 years since the first meeting in Britain which took place in September 1915 in the Anglesey town of - deep breath - Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. She showed us one of the institute’s Holy Grails: the original urn from which an ocean of tea has now flowed over the past century. While I felt there were too many hands on hip/finger wagging moments, the BBC 2 documentary was a bracing corrective to the notion that the WI were a supine lot whose only concern was perfecting their crocheting and custard.
From the start there was an egalitarian spirit that meant every member was on equal terms with the other and each took turns pouring the tea with the result that a kitchen maid could well find herself being served by her mistress. A rather revolutionary act in the post Edwardian era of Downton Abbey. The WI was non-political, non-religious and was open to all women, regardless of age and class. Another revolutionary act was the idea of women leaving their men at home in the evening to spend time together in a congenial spirit of self improvement, a concept with which many husbands vehemently disagreed but which their wives fought to secure as a precious oasis of “me time”. Not that they would have recognised it as such.
As many of the founding members were supporters of the suffragettes, it was understandable that ‘Jerusalem’, an early anthem of the movement, should be suggested as an opening hymn for the WI annual general meeting in 1924, a practice that has continued ever since. Over the next 30 years the WI would swell in numbers until it peaked in 1954 with 467,000 members spread out across 6,600 groups. Looking back the WI has always been on the right side of the argument; advocating the female vote, arguing for equal pay 27 years before Parliament finally caught up; supporting the rights of single mothers, the importance of alternative energy and the grim recognition of rape within marriage.
The history of the Women’s Institute in Scotland seems to have been a little sleepier, at least judging by their website. The first meeting of the Woman’s Rural Institute took place at Longniddry in East Lothian in 1917 when Madge Watt, a Scots-Canadian who helped launch the WI in England came up from London to give the inaugural talk. The debut issue of the Scottish WI magazine “Scottish Home and Country” was first published in 1924 while in 1937 the Queen, later the Queen Mother, attended a meeting of the Craithie and Birkhill Institutes. She wasn’t asked to pour the tea but in a spirit of egalitarianism did graciously agree to be their honorary president. During the Second World War the organisation toured Scotland with a special van carrying a qualified dietician and a female gardener who dispensed lectures and demonstrations. The Scottish WI also collected money to pay for a new ambulance for the Red Cross.
The name used in Scotland has remained the Woman’s Rural Institute until this year when it was decided to drop ‘rural’ in a bid to bring in new members and highlight its continued presence in towns and cities. They are now running a new pilot scheme that aims to see meetings at more convenient times and locations with the inaugural pilot on the Isle of Mull attracting 20 new members.
It’s refreshing that the WI appears to be enjoying a resurgence with younger members creating branches in their own image such as the ‘Iron Maidens’ in Merseyside who share a passion for steampunk, the gothic and burlesque; and who wouldn’t want to join the wittily titled ‘Buns & Roses’ branch in Leeds?
The WI was founded to help unite women and provide camaraderie for wives on isolated farms and today I think it could be the antidote to the digital isolation so many people experience while living their lives online. In recent years even grocery shopping has become anonymous and automated. We are losing our physical connections to each other and for some, the WI could provide the answer. Why not try it? It could be just your cup of tea.