It used to be seen as dated and old-fashioned, but with ‘stitch and bitch’ sessions and bee-keeping classes, the Women’s Institute in Northern Ireland is changing.
It was once lampooned for its ‘jam and Jerusalem’ image, but it seems the perception many people have of the Women’s Institute may have to be rethought as young members at one of the province’s newest branches are doing their best to put a more modern spin on the traditional group.
Salsa dancing and ‘stitch and bitch’ are listed among the activities on offer at the fledgling Lisburn City Belles WI, which was formed just over a year ago by two local women.
The WI is no stranger to controversy, though, and the matronly perception of the group, considered the housewife’s choice, was famously shaken up when the Rylstone branch in England decided to publish a nude calendar in 2000. The calendar began as a modest money-raising venture aimed at raising funds for a local hospital following the death of one of its member’s husbands of leukaemia.
The tastefully-shot pictures of real WI members indulging in traditional crafts minus their clothes shot the Yorkshire women to global fame, leading to the Calendar Girls movie and a stage show that recently played at the Grand Opera House.
And, it seems, the latest members to join the ranks of the WI here are going to play an important part in the evolution of this much-loved institution.
The Lisburn City Belles were formed in October 2011 by Kathryn McCamley (29), a married civil servant from Lisburn, and her friend, married mum-of-one Lorraine Yarr (32), who works as an environmental and quality controller at local quarries. A year-and-a-half later the pair are now president and vice-president of the city’s group, and both agree the WI has much to offer young women in the 21st century.
Kathryn says: “The WI in Northern Ireland tend to meet in rural areas, and I’m not from a rural area. I got some of my friends together and we founded the Lisburn City Belles as there wasn’t a WI in the town.
“We wanted a WI as it is fun and especially as most of my friends like to cook and bake.”
And while the Lisburn women range in age from 25 to 70, it is mostly thirty-somethings who are keen to learn traditional skills, as well as being open-minded about trying new things at this branch.
“We wouldn’t rule anything out. We had an open meeting and all the women who came along were invited to write on the walls what they wanted. It’s their WI, after all,” says Kathryn.
“Someone said they wanted to learn burlesque dancing and if enough people want to do it, then that’s what will happen.”
And while there is no history of the WI in Kathryn’s family, she proudly says: “My mum is in it now.”
So, with a full line-up of activities including old-style butter-making, what is it about the WI that is appealing to a new generation of women?
“Many women of my age don’t know how to hem a pair of trousers or make jam. I didn’t know how to sew on a button. We didn’t learn how to do it when we were growing up, yet we love to watch Kirsty Allsopp making things on TV. I think we enjoy learning things like sewing and knitting because it is a choice rather than something we were made to do at school.”
But don’t expect a demure group at the monthly Lisburn City Belles gatherings with genteel and polite chit chat.
“We are not particularly traditional. Some of the women wanted to bring their children along to meetings, and we had to say no — we’d have to keep the talk clean and mind our language, and we’re just not like that. We all like to go out and have a drink, we all went out for Christmas dinner together and it was good fun. We’re not too sensible.”
The Lisburn women plan their programme for the 30-strong group about a year in advance, and Kathryn says there is one event that is currently highly anticipated.
“We have a vet coming to do a talk, and he has been described to me as ‘hunky’, so we’re all calling it the hunky vet talk,” she laughs.
There will also be WI favourites such as book clubs and talks on local history, all of which makes for a happy mix, according to Kathryn.
She adds, though, that they are not setting out to shock anyone and, of course, pursuits such as quizzes and cooking are still on the agenda.
WI favourites such as book clubs and talks on local history will also feature.
“I have attended classes at the Northern Ireland WI Federation and listened to local women talking about traditional skills. The things that these women know, like dress-making, are fantastic. They can teach skills that you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.”
And while the recession may be driving us to reach for the knitting needles, Kathryn is quick to dispel another myth about handmade goods.
“It is actually more expensive to make things yourself. I have now developed a luxury wool habit after attending one of our knitting events with a local wool supplier. It would be much cheaper to buy something at Primark. It is the joy of making something yourself. People are making more things, but perhaps the reason they are turning to crafts when money is tight is because you are less likely to throw something away when you have made it yourself.”
So, how does the WI fit into the future?
“The WI is still totally relevant because it is primarily about community, and everybody is involved in community. Even with people leading busier lives, there is always a place for community.”
And in a changing world, fellow founder Lorraine, who is married to Richard and mum to Lexie (5), says the group offers her a social outlet where she can meet other like-minded women. Like Kathryn, she is the first generation of her family to join the WI, apart from her mother-in-law who is signed-up member.
“I have never had a desk job and spend my working day outdoors in a hard hat and hi-vis vest in local quarries. Nearly everyone I work with is a man, so the WI has enabled me to make female friends. I love my job, but I can’t really ask one of my male co-workers where he got his hair done or does he like my shoes?
“Being a mum, it is hard to have a social life, so the WI has helped me do that. I have clicked with some of the other women and we meet for coffee and go for lunch on a Saturday — I consider them good friends now.
“As a group of women who are working, being a mum or a grandmother, we are all facing the same things.”
She agrees the WI has got a bit of a stuffy image and needs to evolve in a bid to attract younger women: “Most WIs in Great Britain are doing this, but in Northern Ireland the average age in most groups would be around 50, whereas our group is definitely younger. There is still a lot of work to do before young women feel welcome at the WI. Women need to know we aren’t all brilliant cooks — I’m not the best cook in the world, I’m not one of these people who can make buns. We are trying to break down those doors. Everybody is good at something. Times are changing. One of the events we have planned is bee-keeping, which is not your typical WI activity.
“We want to be open-minded, but the idea of the WI is still good.”
Aside from learning how to be a better cook, Lorraine is evangelical about the WI: “The reason we have such a varied programme is to appeal to younger women. We are very democratic and want to know what other women want from this WI. One thing may interest someone and hopefully we will gather them up along the way.”
As well as enjoying crafts, Lorraine says it is the practical experiences at the WI that often bring the most satisfaction.
“We had a workshop where women who have a sewing machine learned how to use one. It is amazing how easy it was when someone was sitting beside you showing you how it is done.”
And another big tradition that may have diehards burning the Victoria Sponge is the fact that Lisburn City Belles don’t sing the Countrywoman’s Song, which replaces Jerusalem here in the province, but only because, according to Kathryn, they’re tone deaf.
But it’s not all parochial stuff for this group. The latest Women’s Institute anti-human trafficking campaign gets the Lisburn group’s support. “There’s a big feminist legacy to the WI, dating from the time when women couldn’t easily leave the home and a night out once a month to enjoy themselves,” says Kathryn. Their logo, a wartime-looking woman making a defiant arm gesture beneath the slogan ‘WI can do it’ makes the point. As does the invitation to potential members to come and learn to use a drill.
And it’s WI for the modern age with a Facebook page and blog keeping everyone up to date as well as proving another layer of social interaction for women.
The redoubtable WI, though, seems to have always attracted strong local women.
Solicitor Elizabeth Warden (56), the chair of the Ballyblack WI in Newtownards, says as a young woman she had reservations about joining what she felt was a ‘fuddy duddy’ organisation. “Yes, I resisted joining the WI because my mother was in it and I thought it was for older women. But eventually my sister and I joined and I’ve been a member for 20 years.”
What they found appealing in the end was the camaraderie, the crafts and the traditions, but Elizabeth didn’t particularly enjoy her very first outing. “The first meeting I remember was the AGM and it wasn’t very exciting. But it was a good opportunity to hear what was going on.”
She adds: “There is prejudice about the WI, but it’s a great organisation that gives women every opportunity to do different things. It’s not all about great baking or jam and Jerusalem. There’s public speaking and people get the chance for self development.”
She describes it as the equivalent of the Young Farmers, adding: “It’s a night out for the ladies and I feel members of the Institute see things in a more traditional way.”
Old-school or evolving, the WI’s clout is undeniable. Who can forget that defining moment, the beginning of the challenge to Tony Blair’s self-satisfied smile at the Women’s Institute’s 2000 conference? They disapproved of the way the Prime Minister had used his address to their annual conference to make party political points and showed their disapproval in time honoured fashion, with a slow handclap and some heckling.
As a few thousand women expressed their feelings in London’s Albert Hall, they produced an impressive snub that went on for several minutes. In fact, the Prime Minister said later that this handbagging was one of the most unnerving criticisms he’d ever had.
There was a kind of homegrown radicalism in the air that afternoon. Although Margaret Collinson, in her mid-70s and the new WI NI Federation Chairman wasn’t there, she said she saw the scene on television and thought ‘Good on them’. She adds that had she been present, she would probably have reacted in the same way.
In other respects, though, Margaret, who is married, has two grown-up children and several grandchildren, represents the more traditional wing of the Women’s Institute.
She reveals that she joined the Women’s Institute in Ballysally over 40 years ago as a young wife and regarded the meetings as “pleasant evenings with good company”, adding that there was a kind of traditional division of men’s and women’s social lives back in the ’60s. “We did female things like going to the Women’s Institute and the men went to the farmers’ union.”
Since Margaret’s introduction to crafts and conversation, the organisation has moved enthusiastically into the 21st century.
There have even been reports of pole dancing in English WIs in the north. Meanwhile, the WI campaigns against sexual exploitation are ongoing, they even got massage parlours banned for a time in Northern Ireland.
Whether you like your WI radical or wholesome, it seems the women here are leading the charge against the staid image of the past with a more inclusive attitude to their sisters ... but don’t expect Jerusalem or The Countrywoman’s Song to be replaced with a racy burlesque tune just yet.
For more details on WI meetings and groups in Northern Ireland visit the Federation of Women’s Institute of Northern Ireland at wini.org.uk
How the Women’s Institute was laid bare in Calendar Girls
The 2003 multi-award-winning comedy film, starring Helen Mirren (pictured), Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton, was based on a true story about WI members trying to raise money after one of their member’s husbands dies from leukaemia. When Annie Clarke’s husband John dies at an early age, her close friend Chris Harper wants to help buy a comfortable sofa for the visitors’ lounge in the hospital where he was treated.
Despite initial scepticism, the two women persuade fellow WI members to pose for a nude calendar. The success of the calendar, which has a WI theme, soon overwhelms the women and their village is besieged by the Press, culminating with the women appearing on the Jay Leno show.
Where it all began and how the Women’s Institute has gone from strength to strength since 1897
The first Women’s Institute group was founded in Stoney Creek, Canada, around 1897 when Adelaide Hoodless addressed the wives of the local farmers’ union, and the local arm of this venerable organisation started in Northern Ireland 80 years ago. This community-based organisation for women had two clear, practical aims: to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War.
Now the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK, it boasts 208,000 members who belong to 7,000 local Institutes.
Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, is a supporter of the WI while the Queen is an honorary member of the Sandringham branch. When the Queen went to a January meeting two years ago, as she always does, she said: “In this time of change and uncertainty, I think the WI’s traditional values of playing your part through education and public debate are just as important as ever.”