Unwittingly, I seem to have become part of a national trend. As more of my work is done at my studio at home, I decided I would investigate a new WI group I heard about. And it was just as well I was decisive, as the new local group formed and at its first actual meeting, had to declare itself full with a waiting list. The upper room above a local pub can’t comfortably fit any more! What has been happening in my neighbourhood is going on elsewhere, with a massive influx. In the last year alone 150 new groups have formed and 40,000 new members have joined. The trend is for younger members in urban rather than rural areas.
The WI is no longer an amusing stereotype. Now it’s a savvy collective quotes Kat Brown in Grazia magazine (11 April issue 571 p57).
There is increasing variety in both the age of WI membership, but also in the range of activities planned. As a Home Economist and textile artist, I have given talks & led workshops at WI meetings in the past, and even been asked to judge the results of a crafting challenge. But each group decides its own programme which may or may not have any traditional activities.
Dubbed the original social network, groups will supplement their usual monthly face to face meetings with both a social media group and other activities such as walking and book discussions as well as invitations to join in with other local group’s activities. This week I was invited to take part in “couch to 5K” running by another local group but I have hurt my toe this weekend…
Having thought traditional hymn singing was in my Methodist past, I was a little shocked at the great enthusiasm for singing the traditional hymn “Jerusalem” which was one of the first things my new WI group voted on! It also has a cooking and preserving summer fruit competition on the programme for September. Read on for more about jam later.
The next votes will follow discussion on the national resolutions on dementia care and food waste. Oh, and I must remember to clear out my bra drawer for the bra amnesty my group are involved with. Smalls for All is a charity which helps women and children in Africa meet their most basic hygiene and security needs.
Although there are set arrangements for the formation of WI’s, the programme for each WI can be very different. as groups focus on what their members are interested in. If you are investigating joining one you may need to visit a few before you discover the one that’s right for you. There is no obligation to join when you visit, but you may be asked to pay a small visitors fee and it is worth checking beforehand that there is space for a visitor at any specific meeting.
WI members can belong to more than one WI, by paying the full membership fee of £37.50 a year to the first WI, and a further £18 to any additional WIs. This entitles you to take a full and active part in any additional WIs and have full voting rights on matters relating to your primary WI.
Membership entitles you to eight copies a year of the WI membership magazine, WI Life. This has a mix of articles, a craft project and recipes. I enjoyed browsing my first copy, and booked a holiday through one of the adverts. However, I did feel the advertising generally was aimed at elderly readers. Let’s see if this changes with a younger membership.
The WI has been meeting for over 100 years, following the First World War, the WI was initially sponsored by the government with a mission to help boost food supplies and energise rural areas. But the gatherings proved so popular, it soon took on a life of its own. By 1921 the WI was campaigning for women to serve on juries and as early as 1943 it passed a resolution calling for “equal pay for equal work”.
In the 1990s Calendar Girls reintroduced many to the WI when the tale of a bunch of rural WI members who stripped off for charity was turned into a best-selling book, West End musical and film. As Helen Mirren says in Calendar Girls: ‘‘It’s not just a load of middle-aged women standing mysteriously behind fruitcakes, you know.’’
The image of the organisation has undergone a radical change. As diverse groups focus on what their members are interested in.
In 2010, the WI logo of a tree was deemed to be in need of change ,with the new logo “indicative of the evolution” of the WI. The strap line, `Inspiring women’ has a double meaning indicating that members are both inspired by the WI, and inspiring women in their own right.” said a WI spokesperson in a telegraph article.
Jane Robinson, the social historian whose account of the WI, A Force to Be Reckoned With, was published in 2012, is available at Amazon
And if you thought it was just vicars’ wives, ex-headmistresses and housewives who join the WI, think again. There are solicitors, bankers, teachers, women from all walks of life says Helen McGurk’s as she shares her WI experiences in Northern Ireland in More Than Jam and Jerusalem
If you are interested in joining the 212,000-plus membership visit the WI website to find groups near you.
So what about the jam?
I thought I would share my low sugar Strawberry Jam recipe with you:
250g strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 Tablespoon agar flakes
Place a small plate and some metal teaspoons in the freezer
In a small cup, combine agar flakes with lemon juice.
In a large pan combine all ingredients over low heat, stirring occasionally.
Bring heat up to a low boil and cook, stirring often, until jam has thickened, about another 20-30 minutes.
Stir in a figure-eight pattern about every minute.
The berries will get glossier looking and feel a bit thicker – you will see the change. Once you feel it’s ready, put a little on one of your frozen spoons and place that spoon back in the freezer for two minutes. Go back and tilt the frozen spoon of jam and if the jam on the spoon is thickened and not running thinly, your jam is done. It will continue to thicken as it cools.
Put your jam into small freezable pots.
Refrigerate up to three weeks, or freeze up to one year.
If you want to join me in a preserves workshop (perhaps ready for a preserves competition?!) then please get in touch.
I would love to hear about your experiences of the Women’s Institute, and/or jam making, please comment below