The Women’s Institute has been rebranded in a bid to attract younger members.
CLAIRE DEVINE went to Cheshire WI headquarters to find out about the real women behind the second largest federation in England.
When I was tipped off that the Women’s Institute (WI) was being rebranded to modernise its image and attract younger members I must admit I was a bit sceptical.
However I decided to put aside my doubts and find out exactly what the WI was about by meeting Cheshire members.
The change started in January with the launch of a revamped logo dropping the tree of life.
The tree was introduced in the 1970s to represent the rural roots of the WI and groups were initially only set up in rural areas to help educate women on things such as cooking.
Now the tree has gone in favour of a bolder, typographical style logo (right) which goes alongside a new slogan: Inspiring women.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I arrived at Cheshire WI headquarters, in the heart of Chester city centre, but I was put at ease when greeted by two ladies at the door and promptly offered a cup of tea and encouraged to help myself to the cakes on offer.
Don’t let the tea and cake fool you though, these are pleasantries I imagine are offered to every visitor and are not a statement of what the WI is about – far from it.
I chatted to several ladies from different Cheshire WIs (there are 186 in total with 7,600 members) ranging in age from their early 30s to late 60s.
The first thing that struck me was the energy in the room.
When the women weren’t talking to me they were discussing their WI groups, activities and lives. There was a constant buzz of activity.
I realised that while I may not endorse the jam and Jerusalem stereotype I had underestimated what the WI stands for and what its members do.
During the course of the afternoon I was (pleasantly) surprised to find out from Haslington WI vice president Izzy Rutter that ‘we don’t drink tea, eat cake or sing Jerusalem’.
As this was a relatively new WI, established a year ago, I wondered if they had done this to try and drag the WI image into the 21st Century.
Instead, they had taken a vote on it and most were in favour of dropping the renowned hymn.
Not quite as hard line as I anticipated.
I was also surprised to find out from Cheshire WI executive member and adviser and recruitment officer Jean Harding (Eastham WI) that the federation was behind the Keep Britain Tidy campaign and instrumental in bringing about free breast cancer screening and cervical smears for women in the UK.
In fact, Jean went on, the WI was campaigning for equal pay for women in the workplace as early as the 1930s.
The jam and Jerusalem image couldn’t be further from my mind and WI campaigns, such as Keep Britain Tidy, and lobbying the Government came across as a key issue to members.
It was campaigning that attracted Whitley WI member Sue Abbott to the federation.
She said: “I felt very strongly about genetically modified (GM) foods and the WI campaign seemed the most sensible and effective of the various organisations campaigning against them.”
Another key theme which cropped up again and again was friendship.
It was the reason many of the women joined in the first place (to meet new people) and one of the reasons why they recommend others to join.
Upton Village WI president Louise Rushforth, 41, said: “You meet great people and it’s good way of groups of women coming together to do powerful things.
“It’s binding for the community.”
Although the tree of life has been removed from the WI logo its ethos of educating women is unwavering.
Denman College, near Oxford, is at the heart of the WI.
The residential adult education college was named after the first national federation chairman, Lady Denman.
Each year more than 6,000 students from across England and Wales study courses to develop skills, start a new hobby or just for pleasure.
As Lymm Jubilee WI member Diane Coulton explained: “When the WI first started there weren’t the same educational opportunities for women as there are now.
“People looked to the WI for instruction and advice and we still do that in the supportive atmosphere today.”
My afternoon with the WI ladies was certainly an education.
We spent all our time talking about the WI but most of the women also work (on behalf of the WI and elsewhere) and bring up their families as well as energetically taking part in WI campaigns and events.
The new slogan is right – these are inspiring women and I am sure the WI will continue to inspire women for years to come.
For more information on the WI call 020 7371 9300 or visit www.thewi.org.uk.