PUBLISHED: 10:06 18 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:21 20 February 2013
The WI in Kent is 90 years old this year, so how is the largest voluntary organisation for women in the UK faring nearly a century since it began in the Garden of England? Kent Life visited the HQs of East and West Kent WI to find out more
The Womens Institute was formed in 1915 with two clear aims: to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Since then, its aims have broadened, and it is now the largest womens organisation in the UK, with 205,000 members in 6,500 WIs grouped together to form 70 county and island federations, each with a regional office.
While building new skills and taking part in a wide variety of activities are still at the heart of the organisation, the WI also campaigns on issues that matter to them and their communities. It has close international links through affiliation to the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), and through this has links with several million women in 70 countries.
Its voice is listened to, and so it should its a powerful one, with current campaigns ranging from climate change and food waste to ending violence against women. In 1942, the WI campaigned for Equal Pay; in 1975 it was Breast Cancer Screening; AIDs in 1986; and the introduction of new EU legislation to reduce the threat of hazardous chemicals in everyday products in 2006.And lets not forget that Keep Britain Tidy was originally set up by a conference of 26 organisations in 1955, a conference that was initiated by the Womens Institute after a resolution was passed at its 1954 AGM to start a national anti-litter campaign.
No wonder that Prime Ministers and the Home Office listen to, and seek out, the opinion of this powerful body of women.
West Kent Federation of Womens Institutes The West Kent Federation moved into its headquarters at the Hawkwell Business Centre in Pembury three years ago, having previously owned a house in Maidstone.
We searched for two years to find somewhere suitable to buy, chairman Chris Klempau tells me. Since its the members money, we felt we should use it wisely.
We can have 12 downstairs for day school, and weve got the same space upstairs for the staff two secretaries, a bookkeeper and our cleaner. My role is keeping everyone happy, but the staff are very good and helpful.
There are an impressive 6,500 members in West Kent, but that figure does include several large WIs in London, such as the branch at Goldsmiths College. They are a young group and do things quite differently there, says Chris.
They enjoy the cookery and crafts side, but they also enjoy thinking about women in other parts of the world we try to be outward- rather than inward-looking as an organisation.
Chris has been chairman for a year and on the executive committee for 20 years, but always sidestepped being chairman because words arent my big thing. She cleverly got round
that in March at the annual council meeting held at the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells by presenting the chairmans alphabet as her address.
I pinned what I was going to say on the different letters of the alphabet. Everybody seemed to like it, but now Ive got to think of something clever for next year! she laughs.
The West Kent Federation extends from Tenterden to Stockbury, near Sittingbourne, up to Blackheath and down to Edenbridge, with Wrotham roughly at the centre of its triangular area. And there have been several 90th birthday celebrations Tenterden, Brasted, Hildenborough afternoon, Edenbridge afternoon, and Plaxtol have all been hanging out the bunting and last year there was a group garden party held at Great Comp, the home of their first chairman.
Weve opened a lot of new WIs this year, says Chris. Theres a new one in Gillingham, which is young-ish and has 40 members I think my daughter is going to join, and shes 42. In my own branch in Matfield, our age range is from the thirties to the eighties.
Theres been a definite resurgence of interest in the WI weve had quite a lot of high-profile coverage, lets be honest, like The Calendar Girls, which we wont mention, of course! But it was so cleverly done, and now its a stage play, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
And the WI has a big presence at the Kent County Show, with this years 90th anniversary display attracting a large number of enquiries and a chance for members to show off their skills in art and craft.
So how has the WI changed and how does it see its role today? We are quite a powerful body the government often asks the opinion of the National Federation on matters to do with women, such as international trafficking, says Chris. For example, the National Chairman recently went to meet the PM and his wife at No 10.
The WIs near London are very different to the ones like our Tenterden branch that have been going for 90 years, but they all have the same aims in life trying to make life better for everyone, meeting and socialising, making crafts. Our day schools are very popular, we do things like bead necklace making, and we have a dabble day with a choice of 10 crafts and you get to do at least three.
Its also a very caring organisation, and it does include a lot of ladies who have lost their husband but can feel comfortable coming to meetings alone. WI members tend to look after one another. Its a place where you can learn, whatever age you are.
Expenses, including the cost of speakers, are covered by an annual subscription (29, rising to 29.50 next year), part of which goes to the branch, part to the Federation and part to National. Members are encouraged to attend 11 meetings a year, although there are often sessions in between such as a knit and natter, where some members have been knitting hats for sailors.
And with sales of knitting wool up by 40 per cent since the recession began, its not surprising younger members are joining to rediscover the skills of their mothers and grandmothers.
East Kent Federation of Womens Institutes
Over in East Kent, WI members have been popping into their headquarters in Canterburys Beer Cart Lane for more than 30 years. A listed building, dating from 1760, it was bought in 1976 with members money for just 9,000 and has its own delightful little walled garden.
Sue Maylam has been a WI member for 26 years, and is in her fourth year as chairman. Its usually just for three years, but I was greedy and wanted to do 2009 because it was our 90th anniversary year. We started off with a holiday to Monets Garden, which was very popular, and we had a lovely garden party at Goodnestone Park in July attended by more than 300 members.
The group wanted to choose a rose to mark the anniversary, and that proved an opportunity to remember a much-missed member. Maureen Kemp was a secretary here for 13 years and had sadly just died, so we decided to name the rose after her, explains Sue. But her husband thought it was a little bit formal and he suggested Ask Maureen, which was perfect, because thats what everyone said oh, go and ask Maureen, shell know.
Fourteen WIs in East Kent have now passed their 90th birthday and the oldest, Wye, is particularly significant as its founder, Edith Dunstan, was the very first Federation Chairman. Smaller than West Kent, it has 118 WIs and 3,847 members, ranging in age from early thirties to 96 with one president still going strong at 90.
I was 39 when I joined and thats the age range we want to attract and build up, because in time they will be our future, says Sue. When the WI was first formed, they were afternoon meetings, then, as more women worked, we got more evening ones coming in and now we have quite a few morning groups as well.
Sue, who is also a WI adviser and belongs to two WIs, clearly enjoys her role as chairman and while she confesses to not being particularly skilled at the crafts side, she says she has loved learning to use watercolours and is seeing many women in their thirties joining because they want to learn the old skills like preserving.
I love the fun and friendship side of the WI youve got your friends there who are there for you through happy and sad times, she tells me.
Like Chris, she doesnt deny The Calendar Girls effect upon a rising membership, and, in fact, when the film was first shown, East Kent hired venues at Westgate, Herne Bay and Ashford
so they could all watch the film at the same time, attracting a lot of publicity and new recruits. We do a calendar every year, but there arent any iced buns on it! she laughs.
The WI is reliable; we are called upon to do the teas, and make the cakes, but we also join in campaigns and get things done. Last year, our Operation Paddington raised nearly 9,000 to fund a well in Peru.