Last night I went to my first meeting of the newly inaugurated V&A WI. We didn’t make any jam and we didn’t sing Jerusalem; the stereotype of the WI certainly doesn’t apply to us. We are mostly young, urban women with careers and busy lives that make it difficult for us to take time out for ourselves, to learn new skills or make new friends. Many of us have joined because we want to learn traditional new skills, such as crafts; we are the generation who grew up without being taught how to make our own clothes, knit socks, or crochet blankets; we want to be able to create our own treasured items with our fair hands rather than buying them from faceless chainstores. Many of us also want to learn more about other things, such as cooking, photography, DIY, bookbinding…and there will be plenty of opportunities for us to do so as we plan on inviting plenty of external speakers to come and talk to us and give us hands on sessions.
Some of the women who came last night said they wanted to be involved in the campaigning that the WI does; as the largest women’s organisation in the UK, it has a powerful voice and can affect policy. Did you know that it was the WI who introduced bottle banks to the UK, and started the Keep Britain Tidy campaign? I am looking forward to becoming more politically active and supporting the work of the WI in this area; one of their main areas of current interest is stopping domestic violence against women, and, in keeping with their rural roots, the WI are also currently involved in the campaign to save Britain’s dying bee population; I am sensing a visit to Fortnum and Mason’s to view their rooftop beehives may be in order to help educate us about this increasingly important issue!
However, most of us have joined for the companionship, and to feel part of something. Living in London makes it difficult to feel part of a community, and also, if you have moved here from another part of the country, or from a different country altogether, making friends can be a struggle. Even making friends at work can be nigh on impossible in an organisation as big as ours where hardly anyone leaves their own office. So, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful things about the WI is the friendships and support networks that develop as a consequence. I attended a London wide meeting last week and was astounded by the warmth, generosity and affection in the room, despite the fact that many of the women had never even met before. Women loving, supporting and encouraging each other to become the best women they can be is a wonderful sight to behold, and is such a welcome contrast to the increasing anonymity and individualism of our daily lives.
I am excited to be part of an organisation that empowers women to become who they want to be, no matter their age, location, skill set or beliefs. There is so much more to the WI than jam and cake making, summer fetes, and musty village halls. Most of these traditions are lovely, and I look forward to being a part of them, but as more and more younger women are joining, and more and more WIs are springing up in cities, the more these stereotypical notions of the WI are being flung out of the nearest window and replaced by the interests and desires of a modern generation of women who are eager to make the WI relevant to the way they live now. Telling my friends about my WI membership has been an eye opener; many have responded with rolled eyes and yawns, thinking I am going to be spending my evenings knitting scarfs for orphans, drinking tea and making small talk with old ladies. Not so! I am part of a dynamic, inspiring, exciting, energetic, wonderful organisation that acknowledges the importance of women in society; their skills, their opinions, and their incredible capacity for friendship and compassion, and enables them to channel these into making a difference to the quality of their own lives, as well as those of their friends, family members and wider communities. What more could a woman want?! So watch this space for updates on all the new skills I’ll be learning…I’ll be a jam making, jumper knitting, positive and encouraging political force to be reckoned with before the year is out!
And, if any woman reading this would like to join a WI, please do check the website for your nearest one…and if there isn’t one near you, read this about setting up your own!