It might come as a surprise to know that gin-making, photography, life drawing, Pilates, llama-walking, curling, archery, bowling, falconry, self-defence, dancing, genealogy, shooting, axe throwing and theatre trips are just some of the activities on offer at the Women’s Institute here in West Kent. As one of the largest WI districts in the country, West Kent celebrates its centenary this year. Sophie Astin, herself a WI member, looks at how this phenomenal movement has grown and evolved since the days of making jam during the First World War.
Inspired by an idea from Canada, the Women’s Institute was formed in Wales in 1915, midway through the First World War, its purpose to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food while their husbands were away at war. Women made jams and preserves – hence the now over-used reference to ‘Jam and Jerusalem’.
By 1918 there were 11 Institutes in West Kent alone and at an informal meeting held at Sessions House in Maidstone it was decided to form a County Federation of Women’s Institutes. By the end of the year 25 WIs had formed with a membership of approximately 2,400. The thirst for more branches hasn’t abated and West Kent, which shares its borders with East Kent, East Sussex, Surrey and London, now boasts more than 180 WIs with 7,500 members in towns and villages stretching from Catford to Hawkhurst, and from Edenbridge to Lenham.
So what is the enduring appeal of the WI? Annette Smith, Chairman of the West Kent WI Federation, believes diversity is the key: “Across the county we have small branches of 10 or 11 women, who are a lifeline to each other, especially in rural areas – but we also have larger, urban groups of younger women who meet after work, such as Borough Belles in London. There is no right or wrong with the WI.”
Catford WI, in South East London, was formed in 2010 and, like many branches, operates a long waiting list on top of its 70 members. President Alison Strawbridge explains: “We have a range of additional activities that we open to our members and waiting list – a book group, theatre trips, walks both in Kent and in London, gallery tours, supper club, cocktail club, and darts. The darts team has been running for four years and they won the Federation league in their second year. It’s been a great chance to get out and meet women from other WIs across the Federation, and this year we have been able to enter two teams into the competition.”
There’s no denying the WI is changing with the times. Mrs Anne Harris, CBE, was National Federation Chairman from 1981-85, but her history with the WI began much earlier: “I joined Paddock Wood WI in 1948. Everyone was addressed formally – Mrs/Miss Surname – and all meetings included WI business, a speaker, tea, a social half hour – singing, dancing, a quiz or competition – to encourage members to mix.” Anne urges women of all ages to find out more: “Visit more than one WI as there are wide interests – we also have our own educational college in Oxfordshire [Denman College] with opportunities to learn new skills and crafts, a huge variety of things to do and learn.”
In September 2015 Hanna Sorrell was on the lookout for something in Tunbridge Wells that was ‘a little jazzier than just Jam and Jerusalem’, so, with the help of social media, she organised an exploratory meeting, hoping to attract 20 or 30 women and tell them about their vision. What happened on the night, was that 300 ladies turned up at the meeting, queuing out the door, and by the end of the evening, not one, but two brand new WIs were formed – Wells Angels and Wells Belles.
“Many of our members are working mums and while the meetings are a fantastic opportunity to learn, meet, debate and have fun, a more dedicated commitment doesn’t necessarily fit in with modern life,” said Kate Waugh, President of Wells Belles.
With its ideals of truth, justice, tolerance and fellowship as strong now as in 1915 when the first WI was formed and over the past 100 years, members have campaigned hard, bringing a series of controversial issues into the public domain, successfully bringing about many changes in legislation and government policy.
When the Queen, herself President of Sandringham WI, attended the national centenary celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall in 2015, she spoke of her pride at the achievements of the WI: “…So much has changed for women in our society. There has been significant economic and social change since 1915. Women have been granted the vote, British women have climbed Everest...and the country has elected its first female prime minister. The Women’s Institute has been a constant throughout, gathering women together, encouraging them to acquire new skills and nurturing unique talents.”
Current campaigns include: no more violence against women, employment of more midwives, climate change and organ donation, while past campaigns have included:
• Jury Service - In 1921, the WI first campaigned on jury service, urging women to ‘accept their full responsibilities as citizens in whatever way they may be called upon to serve their country’ and later urging the government to open up jury service to all.
• Female Police Officers - Starting with a resolution in 1922, the WI campaigned throughout the 1930s and 1940s to increase the number of women police, lobbying the home office and winning the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
• Family Planning - 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.
• Equal Pay - The WI passed a resolution calling for ‘equal pay for equal work’ in 1943 and was represented for many years on the Equal Pay Campaign Committee.
• Protecting the Countryside - In 1954 a resolution to ‘inaugurate a campaign to preserve the countryside against desecration by litter’ led to the formation of the Keep Britain Tidy group and was influential in transforming litter policy following the introduction of the 1958 Litter Act.
• Smoking in Public - Members were among the first to debate the dangers of smoking when the WI passed a resolution to ban smoking in public places in 1964.
• Breast Cancer Screening - In 1975 the WI started informing members about the importance of breast examination and lobbying the government to set up screening clinics. A national screening programme was eventually introduced in 1988.
• AIDS - In 1986 the NFWI was one of the first organisations to talk about AIDS and used its unrivalled network of local organisations to educate the public and get people talking about the issue.
• Fairtrade - In the early 1990s the NFWI joined with CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Traidcraft and the World Development Movement to become a founding member of the Fairtrade Foundation.