There may well be a man or two concealed somewhere in the vast expanse of the Royal Albert Hall, but if there are indeed any members of the weaker sex present, they had better not hear the urgent tinkle of nature’s call. Five-thousand members of the Women’s Institute have gathered to mark 100 years of their foundation, and as the defiant “Ladies’ Toilet” signs stuck on the doors of the gents’ affirm, for one day at least, this is decidedly a women’s world.
A century after the first group of determined women gathered in a shed in the village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll on Anglesey, the organisation founded in part to encourage women to farm while their husbands were away at war retains many traditions that its founders would recognise. Graced by a visit by the Queen, their honorary president, for the centenary AGM, the vast majority of delegates have turned out in Sunday best: smart floral dresses, sensible sandals.
They rise and stand poker-straight, as they have always done, to sing a passionate version of Jerusalem, and after awarding a cup for flower arranging and being presented with something called the “federation centenary link baton”, Her Majesty is pressed into cutting the centenary fruit cake, a piece of which will be distributed to each member as she leaves. (“There’s a lot of rum,” reveals one institute insider.)
But as is fitting for a society whose roots partly lie in the suffragette movement – which also had Jerusalem as its anthem – there is a pleasing bolshiness to the WI that has never faded. The organisation was campaigning on venereal disease in 1922, calling for full, free family planning in 1972, and demanding the prohibition of female genital mutilation as early as 1983. In 1920 it was key in the introduction of the bastardy bill, which compelled fathers of illegitimate children to provide them with financial support. No mere craft club this.
“Jam, knitting and no brain!” scoffs Carole Holland, a longtime WI member from Sheepscombe, in Gloucestershire, when asked how the organisation is viewed by outsiders. “People don’t recognise that we are all capable. We don’t just cook. We don’t just sew. We’ve all got a brain – some of us have good brains. Look at us as us, rather than little women!”
As Tony Blair famously discovered in 2000 when a speech deemed to be patronising and overly party political was roundly booed, it does not do to underestimate the WI. Today, indeed, it’s the organisation’s leadership itself that is brought to task, when a motion proposing the government stop distinguishing between healthcare and social care is kicked back by members after being deemed by many to be poorly framed.
From its peak of more than half a million members in the 1950s, the WI now claims 212,000 adherents in 6,600 branches around the country, making it still the biggest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK. Crucially, it is growing again, particularly among considerably younger people.
Jennifer Taylor was one of a small group of women from Stoke-on-Trent who founded a WI branch after their course at WeightWatchers ended and they realised they wanted to continue meeting regularly. Its name: Let’s Make Jam.
She and fellow member Rebecca Brown didn’t get tickets for the Albert Hall but came to London anyway, in part to lay a collection of crocheted wreaths at the memorial to female victims of WW2 at Whitehall. They were made by WI members across the country, after Brown launched a Twitter campaign when the memorial was vandalised by anti-austerity protesters last month.
Taylor is a truck driver, Brown a teacher (Dushyantha Piladitiya, also picnicking with them outside the hall in on a union jack blanket, is 20 and a former biology student of Brown’s). “In my line of work, where else would I ever get to spend time with a teacher?” asks Taylor. “But we all have things in common – in jobs or married, with children, not much time for getting together. I’ve met so many different people.”
What does the WI mean to them? “Friendship,” says Brown. “You can walk into a WI meeting anywhere and you will leave with 30 friends. You’re not going to be judged on your profession, your life or your weight.
“This is not just about being a good housewife.”