A few weeks ago, I was invited to join the Barford W.I. (Women’s Institute). And last night, I did just that! At a cost of a mere £29 (@ $60)—and two jars of homemade preserves—I aligned myself, for the next 14 months at least, with what has always been to my mind the quintessential establishment of British womanhood.
The Womens Institute (www.womens-institute.co.uk) was first formed in 1915. At that time, it was established with two objectives: “to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War.” Since that time, the W.I.’s aims have broadened to “play a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.” The W.I. is the largest women’s organization in the United Kingdom with 205,000 members. Plus one!
Of course, to the rest of world England’s W.I. was immortalized in the popular imagination by the film Calendar Girls, starring Julie Walters and Helen Mirren, as two best friends, leading a heady brigade of plucky women determined to give cancer a run for its money. Central to the plot is their controversial—and highly successful—idea of producing a calendar with teasingly provocative portraits of their local W.I. membership.
What impressed me most about the women in that film was their incredible sense of community, and their willingness to tough it out together. The cause that spurred them on was immediate and personal - one woman’s loss became the community’s crusade. I remember vividly how I cried at the end of that film, when the Calendar Girls’ ‘representatives’ returned to their tiny village after a somewhat fraught trip to L.A. They arrive back home, as the monthly W.I. meeting is about to start, they rush into the hall shyly, but are enthusiastically gathered into the fold, just in time to join in the singing of “Jerusalem.”
Unlike my mother, two sisters, and even my sister-in-law, who are all proud sorority sisters, I never had the good fortunate to join a sorority in my undergraduate or post-graduate days. And, truth be told, from what I could see, and I confess my experience is limited, the sorority scene that I have witnessed over the years had more to do with partying with frat boys and being “the pretty clique,” than supporting or engendering community. So, perhaps, at this stage in my life, I am searching for sisterhood, beyond the standard bonds of family or friendship - an “incorporated sisterhood,” or sisterhood with a mission statement.
It’s about community. And I above all else, I want to be a part of my little community here in Barford, and not just live and breathe in Barford. As I learned in my wonderful, wonderful, blessed community at St. Luke’s back in New York, the only way one can feel and truly be a part of a community is to get involved. So, I have rolled up my sleeves and joined the Barford W.I.
When I told my dear friend and mentor, Sue (a.k.a. “Greatest Directing Teacher on Earth”), that I’d joined the W.I. she chuckled and said, “How English of you. You must be settling in well.” Indeed, I think I am. However, I don’t intend to just settle into my new status as a Barford W.I. member. (I don’t need to state that I was the youngest person in the room last night, do I?) I refuse to be merely a casual observer, I intend to get involved.
The Barford W.I. is a group of terrific, dynamic, engaged and engaging women. I think I shall come away from this experience with far more than just two jars of green tomato chutney and blackberry jam.
Post Script -
Shall hopeful see a few of my new “W.I. chums” at the “Harvest Supper” tonight at St. Peter’s Church. The D.E.B. just phoned, he has dutifully completed a short Sainsbury’s run for us. He had to also gather a few things for us to take along to the Harvest Supper tonight. The Harvest Supper is a fundraiser for St. Peter’s Clock and Bell that both need repair, and a means of gathering goods for the winter for those in need.