Jam and Jerusalem

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!

29 comments

  1. That sounds amazing Rachel! I like the idea of positive, female affirming groups! I can already make jam, but I don’t seem to be able to knit… What other things do you have lined up?

  2. That sounds fantastic! If y’all learn how to do bookbinding I will be truly jealous – I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that, but never had a chance to learn.

  3. Sounds great! I’m put off by the number of older women in my local one. I’m sure I’ll join when I’m 50, but for now I get all that sort of socialising through volunteering for the NCT. It is great that your WI branch has so many young people. Have fun!

  4. I like the idea of ousting the stereotypical notions about WI and building a supportive, modern environment for women. It’s really interesting to hear about the organisation’s involvement in politics, I remember that Tony Blaire speech where ladies from the WI got annoyed about the content and I think one was ejected, but I didn’t know they were so involved. I think you’d get older people in our area, but in more modern places I bet it’s a great way for single women who’ve moved away to make new friends. Looking forward to hearing more!

    1. Yes – it’s actually quite surprising how wrong the stereotypes of the WI can be – there are so many younger women in the organisation now that most of the traditions have been shaken up quite significantly already, and they have just rebranded themselves to appeal to a younger audience. Politics and campaigning are why so many younger women are joining, apparently; it’s the only organisation through which they feel they can make a difference. It’s a powerful force for good!

  5. I love multi-generational groups of women who support and encourage each other. I find there’s so much to learn from one another, no matter what our ages or skills. I find this camarderie in my church, and also a bit on-line, but how lovely to have an actual group meet such as this one you described.

    1. Yes, it’s so true – multi-generational groups are wonderful. I find the same thing at church too and now the WI is yet another extension of this dynamic, which I love. As a young twentysomething, I like to know what life is like in all stages of womanhood, and get some much needed perspective – it’s good to be told by a thirtysomething to enjoy myself more and stop worrying so much!

  6. That sounds like the kind of group I’d love to hand with! I don’t think we have anything at all like WI in the states. At least not on the national level. Good for you for thinking outside of the young urban box and finding out that this opportunity isn’t what the stereotypes suggested.

    I’d a bit overawed thinking of you as a greater force to be reckoned with than you already are. : ) Watch out UK; Rachel is empowerd and ready to go!

    1. Thanks Traci! I think they might have similar organisations in the States…I know Canada does. Check it out and see!

      You better believe it! I’m off to take over the world!

  7. How I envy you! I have wanted to be part of this for as long as I’ve known about it. Though I would prefer keeping the jam and jerusalem. My sense is that even in older days it was for companionship. Maybe women weren’t working outside the house, but often they were working inside and didn’t get out much. The Grange in the US might be a similar idea but more farm oriented I think. And you do live in a green and pleasant land that so many of us over here long for. :<) Though I loved the movie, Calendar Girls, what I loved the most were the extras, where they showed the real-life women taking walks together each morning. I would be a different person if I lived there and had that company every day. If you haven't seen it, I think you'd like it. Have fun at your meetings and please give us reports.

    1. It’s very true – women’s lives can get very isolating if they revolve solely around the home and historically the WI has been a wonderful support network for women of all backgrounds and interests, which it continues to be. I love Calendar Girls! I think that film has been key in reviving the image of the WI and encouraging younger women to join. Companionship is what life is all about – maybe you could set up your own WI branch in New England, Nan?
      Funny that you long for this Green and Pleasant land…I long to live in the States!!! The grass is always greener!

  8. That sounds lovely, and a little like what our group Sew Make Believe do. We are only up in Wawrickshire, and we are a little but fast growing group who like to bake and read and do crafts, but in a young and non-stuffy way!

    We were inspired a while ago by the Shoreditch WI, and it sounds like that type of WI is growing in popularity!

    1. Your group sounds lovely! It’s so wonderful to see women banding together to share their interests and learn new ones. It doesn’t matter how old you are and it doesn’t have to be stuffy at all! So glad you are having fun with yours and I hope it continues to grow!

  9. Awesome! I’m a bit scared by the idea that I can’t make anything for myself.

    I’ve managed to get similar benefits from meeting up with the London readers/commenters of Jezebel.com – it’s just nice to meet people with similar viewpoints that you otherwise would never have met!

    1. Yes, me too – I am hopeless with anything other than food. One day I want to take a dressmaking class so I can make dresses as so many people here at the V&A are brilliant at it and I’m jealous!

      That’s great – I hadn’t heard of that – I’m going to look Jezebel up!

      1. The Jezebel demographic is female (obvs), feminist, smarty-pants, and pretty diverse! Especially nice for me to get some other expats in the group. Later this month we’re having a scone/movie/book swap party.

  10. Such a wonderful group to get involved with! Associations and groups like this are so important, I think, especially for women. Since leaving school, I find that I’m more isolated than I’d like and far less challenged socially or mentally. I’d love to join a group like this, but there doesn’t appear to be anything like it in my city and certainly not something with a multigenerational membership. My mother has been involved with a University Women’s Club for many years, which has very similar aims to the WI, though seems to tend less towards crafting than debating (though I do recall some jam and chutney making sessions). As soon as I move home (one day…) I’m planning to join and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

    1. Yes, I agree – once you leave the structure of college it can be really hard to find a group of other similar women. It’s a shame there isn’t a group out there for you right now but one day you can benefit from the warm embrace of a woman’s group, I’m sure!

  11. Your post had me digging around on the internet to see if there were any WI groups in Ontario. There’s a Federated Women’s Institute which from what I can gather is affiliated with the UK. The closest group is an hour’s drive away in a farming community but a conference will be taking place in Hamilton this year….something to keep an eye out for.

    I would jump at the chance to meet with other women interested in sharing knowledge and skills!

    1. I think the WI actually started in Canada, Darlene! In a place called Stoney Creek! Oh I hope you get to go to the conference in Hamilton and maybe join a group…it would be wonderful to know an international WI member!

    1. Yes it’s quite odd that in some areas there are loads in a small space and then in others hardly any. You could always set up your own! Get some friends together and off you go!

  12. Funnily enough on the Book Jam & Jerusalem by Simon Goodenough is a photo of my mother wearing a pill box hat in the 60’s id love to tell him!

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