Melanie Dunn wonders whether the Women’s Institute would appeal to feminists today – and is the organisation doing enough to appeal to young women?
FORMIDABLE OLD BATTLEAXES of sizeable girth bickering over who makes the best jam. This, blue rinses and village halls are some of the images more traditionally associated with the Women’s Institute.
However, the infamous ‘naked calendar’ and recent run-ins with the Labour party demonstrate the efforts of the increasingly publicity-conscious WI to modernise its image.
But are they just blowing in the wind? While the thought of old ladies selling cakes may seem amusing to many people, the WI, along with many other women’s organisations, could soon face an unprecedented membership crisis. Although the organisation currently has around 240,000 members, that membership is ageing as well as declining.
“The older members are falling off at one end and we are just not attracting young women at the other end,” says former Nottinghamshire WI county chair, Jackie Toplis.
Since the WI was formed in 1915, women’s lifestyles and ambitions have undergone radical and far-reaching changes. Many young women today feel movements like the WI bear no relation to their lives whatsoever.
“The WI is obviously a women’s organisation, but it is associated with very traditional attitudes and behaviours,” says Catherine Redfern, who runs thefword.org.uk, a website aimed at young feminists.
“There is nothing wrong with what they do but I don’t know if it would appeal to today’s young feminists.”
The problem is that the movement doesn’t know what young women want any more, according to Catherine Bearder of the Women Liberal Democrats. “There was a time when the WI was the only thing to do, but now women can work and have active and varied social lives.” And this seems to be the WI’s Achilles heel; it doesn’t know how to attract young people without alienating the older members.
However, some say that it is more a lack of willingness than a lack of know-how.
The vast majority of WI members are white, rural and Christian. Most meetings are formal affairs, where Jerusalem is sung at the beginning and the national anthem is sung at the end. Such a format may not be perceived as the most positive way of embracing Britain’s multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity.
“The WI isn’t doing anything to attract people of different religions or backgrounds,” says Catherine Bearder. “But if you bring that up at meetings, those people who don’t recognise other religions get very offended.”
With this kind of attitude, it could be argued, the WI isn’t doing itself any favours.
So if the organisation were to die out with the older generation, would it be a natural death or would it be a nail in the coffin for local democracy and community spirit?
On a local level, the movement does a great deal of valuable work.”The WI is a great galvanising force in the community,” says the National Federation of Women’s Institutes public relations officer, Melanie Taylor. “It pulls people together, gets them to do things and is very pro-active.”
And it isn’t just on a local level that the WI makes its voice heard. The WI is the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK and campaigns such issues as third world debt, fair trade, elder abuse and genetically modified food. The movement takes its role as an apolitical, multi-issue pressure group very seriously and lobbies politicians from a local to a European level.
“When the WI gets behind a campaign, they really get their teeth into it,” says Catherine Bearder.
“From equal pay to venereal disease, campaigning has always been part of what the WI is about,” says Melanie Taylor. “One of our recent successes was halting government plans to stop paying benefits at post offices.”
So why on earth doesn’t the WI do more to get itself seen as a radical, forward-thinking organisation, instead of a conservative movement that is stuck in time?
The national headquarters seem to have realised that campaigning is the way forward in terms of attracting younger members. The movement’s publicity leaflet asks: “What would YOU do to make the world a better place? By joining the WI you have a chance to change things.”
An ‘associate members’ scheme has also been introduced, whereby women can vote on mandates, receive updates on campaigns and attend national conferences without having to go along to village meetings. “Most of the associate members we have got so far say they want to get involved with our work but are too busy to attend meetings,” says Melanie Taylor.
Regardless of whether our enduring image of the WI is of jam-making, stripping, or heckling the Prime Minister, the Women’s Institute is a very significant women’s organisation. It has a quarter of a million members (more than the Labour party) and is a strong lobbying voice. With traditional forms of political participation in decline, the WI deserves to be taken very seriously as a formidable voice of reason.