There have been few moments in my life more powerful than one I had a few months ago in Leamington Spa. On a bright, spring day in March, I found myself in the auditorium of the Spa Centre, in the midst of roughly 1,000 Warwickshire women, standing shoulder to shoulder, singing a rousing rendition of “Jerusalem”. My heart swelled with pride, and I fought back tears, as I surveyed the sea of sisterhood that surrounded me.
I am proud to be a member of the WI.
I will confess, when I first joined the Barford WI in 2008, I was secretly harbouring an ambition be “Miss August” – but I soon realized that there is more to being a member of the WI than Calendar Girls.
Surely, I can be forgiven for my initial, naïve assumption. In my American imagination, fueled by novels, television, and films, I envisioned the quaint world of the WI as one teeming with formidable, handsome women, dressed in sensible skirts of year-round tweed; gliding through idyllic, English villages to their monthly meetings on little bicycles, with wicker baskets affixed to their handle-bars, filled to the brim with flowers that had been arranged with great care. To be sure, I also understood that the niceties and tweed of this Marplesque world were on occasion put aside, or rather, shed for the camera in aid of a good cause.
First formed in 1915, the Women’s Institute, was established with two key objectives: to revitalise rural communities, and to encourage women to become more involved in food production during the First World War. Since that time, the WI’s aims have broadened to play a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities, the chance to learn new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities, and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.
The WI is the largest voluntary organization for women in the United Kingdom, with over 205,000 members. Of course, the WI was emblazoned upon the global imagination by the film Calendar Girls. However, beyond the delightful characters, and the wonderful controversy of the film’s storyline, I was most impressed by the incredible sense of community these women espoused, 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 was moved by the evocative ending of the film wherein the dynamic Calendar Girls returned to their tiny village, after their somewhat fraught promotional trip to Los Angeles. They arrive just as the monthly WI meeting has commenced, they creep into the village hall tentatively, unsure of their welcome; but rather than being shunned, as they expect, they are enthusiastically gathered back into the flock, just in time to join in singing “Jerusalem”.
I recall my own apprehensive approach into the WI on a brisk, autumnal night in 2008. I slipped shyly into the Barford Village Hall, unsure of my reception, and was met immediately by the warm, smiling face of Jean Tuck, Barford WI Registrar at the time, who encouraged me to sign the book. With a giddy heart and trembling hand, I added my name, just as then-President, Angela Watkins, lowered her gavel to start the meeting. There and then, I, too, was welcomed and embraced into this incredible fold. Never once feeling out of place, out of step, or out of sorts. I felt, and still do, that I belonged.
I never had the opportunity to join a sorority in my undergraduate or post-graduate university days – as nearly all of the women of my family have done. So perhaps, now, at this stage in my life, I am seeking out sisterhood - beyond the standard bonds of family or friendship - an ‘incorporated sisterhood,’ or, a sisterhood with a mission statement.
Despite long-held views of the WI being merely a composite of ‘middle-aged, middle-class, Middle England,’ in truth, the modern WI is a thriving and evolving organization that has a solid appeal to women across ages, cultures, economic backgrounds, races, and geography.
Notably, in recent years there has been a rise in the number of newly-formed WIs, particularly of a younger generation variety, who have dubbed themselves “WI Lite”; as well as a steadily growing number of urban and inner-city WIs, springing up in places as seemingly un-‘bicycles-with-wicker-baskets’ as Hackney and Manchester.
Such evolution should be no surprise in our age of economic re-evaluation, clarion calls to thriftiness, and communal goals of living more simply and responsibly. With its utopian ideals of ‘building Jerusalem’ from the hearth, home and garden, the WI has always been at the fore of progressive thinking, long before the now-fashionable ‘mend, make, and recycle’ trends being championed today by such social commentators as India Knight.
But just what does the WI mean to the diverse range of women who are being drawn into its ranks? I can only speak for myself and surmise what it has meant to and for me.
The WI has helped me to re-connect with the more practical and crafty side of myself; offered opportunities to campaign for a tidier village, the British honeybee, trees in Ethiopia, AIDS prevention in South India, and against violence to women; provided an outlet for my longstanding trivia addiction with its regular Quizzes; and has renewed my interest in the all-important hearth and domestic realm; which, in turn has rejuvenated my professional life as a Shakespeare scholar, by inspiring me to pursue a cookery book project centred on Shakespeare and food. In short, the WI has improved the overall quality of my life.
In addition, and in some ways more importantly, the WI has shown me the true meaning of community. My status as a newcomer to this area could not have been more pronounced for me than last year, when my ‘Darling English Boy’ proposed (on Christmas Eve, no less) and we decided to marry in May 2009.
Here I was, a lone bride-to-be with family and friends an ocean away. My WI chums became the mothers, aunts, and sisters that I so desperately needed. They were quite literally and metaphorically, anchors of support in the midst of my nuptial travails.
Their ingenuity, creativity, good humour, and endless cups of tea helped me through the drama of orchestrating a transatlantic wedding: from offering advice on wedding music (“Jerusalem” was the chosen as the closing hymn, of course); to churning out vats of the Lavender Jam (made from a recipe we invented) that became the precious wedding tokens given to our reception guests.
Their role and importance on the wedding day itself cannot be overlooked. As Queen Victoria once noted, every bride, no matter who she may be, is ‘pale and anxious’ on her wedding day. As I stepped into St. Peter’s Church, that glorious May afternoon, I was indeed somewhat pale, and undoubtedly anxious.
Then, I heard the sturdy tones of my fellow WI-er, Philippa Wilson, who declared resolutely in my direction, “Beautiful.” My nerves subsided instantly as I looked up and saw her, and a gaggle of the Barford WI filling the rear pews of the church.
Just as they shepherded my arrival, the Barford WI enriched our coming forth. As my new husband and I exited the church, to our surprise, we were flanked on either side by a stunning WI guard of honour, holding aloft long wooden spoons decorated beautifully with garlands of flowers and streaming ribbon.
It was an incredible moment. Like a scene from a Jane Austen novel! But more than that, it seemed to encapsulate my rite of passage from one phase of womanhood to another, shielded by the matrons of the WI.
Clearly, on that fortuitous evening in October 2008, I came away from my first WI meeting with far more than just a jar of green tomato chutney and blackberry jam. The Barford WI is a group of terrific, dynamic, engaged and engaging women. Women I am proud to call my friends. Our membership spans an age range of ‘the nearly 100s’ to the ‘nearly 40s’. The fellowship, exchanges of ideas, sharing of wisdom, tradition, history, and life experience that transpire therein are quite remarkable.
I have yet to master ‘the merciless Marmalade’ (my sole attempt at the great WI institution that is “Seville Orange Marmalade” was more akin to congealed orange Fanta), I doubt I will ever win the Annual Corsage competition, and sometimes, I still hanker to be “Miss August,” but beyond a shadow of any doubt, joining the WI is one of the best life choices I have ever made.