Once the preserve of little old ladies with blue rinses and lemon drizzle sponges, the Women’s Institute in Islington has had a modern day make-over.
Now in its fifth year, the N1WI’s monthly meetings at St James’ Church hall in Prebend Street provide an opportunity for the ladies of Islington to socialise, network and campaign for the issues that matter to them – and today’s members are dedicated to overhauling their dusty stereotype.
From flirting to bike repairs
Just last month, flirting expert and social anthropologist Jean Smith hosted a Flirtology workshop, offering tips, tricks and advice to an eager audience. The first female Beefeater has appeared as a visiting speaker, and members have been treated to talks from bicycle and car repair men, comedians and burlesque dancers.
In December last year, N1WI secretary Georgina Fox travelled 130 miles from London to Blundeston Prison in Suffolk to visit Adrian, a life sentence prisoner, to raise awareness of the challenges faced by the families of prisoners across the UK. Though a little-known facet of the organisation, campaigning has always been a key part of the WI’s ethos, having historically pushed for change on a wide range of issues affecting women, their families and communities. These include equal pay in 1942, breast cancer screening in 1975 and Aids awareness in 1986.
One of their current campaigns is Love Your Libraries, which urges the government to maintain support for local libraries as an essential resource for the community. Next week committee member Bobbie Lewis will join other WI members from across the country on a rally in Parliament to raise awareness about the issue, and speak to MPs about the importance of libraries for learning.
Fiercely intelligent and dedicated to making a difference, the ladies of the N1WI also hold book, gardening and theatre sub-groups, including the popular knit and natter group. The resurgence in recent years of traditional crafts like crochet, sewing and knitting has opened the eyes of an entire generation to the skills and benefits that organisations like the WI can provide.
What can the WI offer the modern woman?
Friendship, essentially, says current president Amy Chapman. The 33-year-old first joined the group in 2007 to find friends around Angel. “I had lots of friends spread out all over London, but wanted to get to know other women in my local community. I first came across the N1WI after googling events in N1, and thought I’d drop by to see what it was like,” she says. “I’ve always been a ‘joiner’, as a child I was in the Brownies. Now as president, I’m responsible for chairing the monthly meetings, realizing our overall vision for the year and having the final say in our fundraising activities and visiting speakers.”
Emma Fitzgerald is a 21-year-old anthropology student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. “The WI is a fantastic movement for independent-minded young women to join. People who think it’s passé or kitsch are missing the point – it’s all about female unity.”
19-year-old political campaigner Daisy Grender agrees. “Girls our age aren’t taught how to make jam, darn socks or de-bone a chicken any more. We’re surrounded by inspiring women and encouraged to think independently and form our own strong opinions, but there is something incredibly rewarding about learning the tasks that make domestic life that little bit easier.”
With the professions of members of the group ranging from chefs to journalists to doctors, these are busy, independent and professional modern women who mean business. Such a variety of occupations yields great benefits for the organisation, with each member bringing a different area of expertise to the group. A lot of them also raise children alongside their WI commitments. By day, Amy is an audiologist performing hearing and balance tests at a London hospital. “Chairing the WI does take up a lot of my time, but I really enjoy it. It doesn’t seem like a chore at all,” she smiles.
With greater social networking links than ever, the N1WI Twitter feed updates followers hourly on the group’s exploits and future plans. Recently, they live-tweeted from an organised walk around the City. An overhaul of the website last month led to an increase in casual visitors dropping by meetings to see if this particular branch is right for them.
Different WI groups can focus on the topics closest to their collective hearts. The N1WI’s main focus is the honing of culinary skills and cooking demonstrations, but that doesn’t mean they’re not committed to renovating the old-fashioned image of the institute across a range of activities. “A lot of the older ladies have iPhones and Blackberries,” laughs Amy. “They’re well connected! Films like Calendar Girls have helped to create this stereotype about the WI in people’s minds that I am committed to trying to escape. You won’t find me balancing cupcakes in front of my boobs!”
The N1WI currently has 43 members ranging from those in their twenties to those in their seventies. Any lady over 18 is welcome to come along to meetings for a £5 fee, and the cost of annual membership, at £31.50, is cheaper than a meal out in London.
“The WI in the 21st century provides a sense of female fellowship, and of women supporting other women,” says Amy. “We’re a non-political organisation, and we accept members regardless of race, age, religion or background. Young women are offered fun and friendship, the chance to do something regularly and to always learn something new.”
The WI itself wants to set up more branches like the N1WI that appeal to the young generation. Ruth Bond, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, says: “We are delighted that many young women are now joining the WI across England and Wales and many new groups have been set up.
“Perceptions about the organisation are changing: women who wouldn’t previously have thought about joining are changing their minds. We believe the WI has something for everyone.”