I’ve never been much of a joiner, truth be told. I didn’t pledge a sorority in college, nor did I join a Women’s Circle at church or a service organization like the Rotary Club. I got wrangled into a local mother’s group only because the mom of one of my daughter’s very best friends invited me and I couldn’t think of an excuse not to. And I was the vice-president of the PTA for one year when my kids were in elementary school – I was there all the time so I figured why not dive into the deep end. Alas my political aspirations were non-existent so I didn’t return for a second term.
Recently I found a WWII-era drama series called Home Fires that made me start to wonder if I would ever consider joining one of the most enduring and established women’s clubs in the UK. In it we become acquainted with the residents of a rural Cheshire village, and in particular, the members of its Women’s Institute group. The chapter is threatened with closure by its own president due to the impending war. Nonetheless, another faction of determined ladies within the group keep the chapter going through a coup of sorts in order to provide vital services and leadership to the village.
The Great Paxford WI Chapter big wigs
image credit ITV Studios
For those who think they aren’t familiar with the WI, if you’ve seen the 2003 film Calendar Girls, you have been exposed. You know, that movie where Helen Mirren and her middle-aged friends got their kit off in order to raise money to buy a memorial gift for a local hospital.
Awkward posing among and around baked goods, flower arrangements and cider presses aside, what you may not remember is the way the ladies ridiculed and disagreed with the dated and less than enlightening way their chapter’s leader was running things. In fact, Mirren and company had to plead their case to the national congress of the WI when their president Marie (Geraldine James) initially refused to sanction their slightly titillating calendar.
Another source of cultural context for me regarding the Women’s Institute was a series called Jam and Jerusalem. Note that the series title was changed to the name of the village, Clatterford, for its US DVD release. I can only think that distributors figured since Americans aren’t familiar with the WI they wouldn’t understand the J&J reference and assume it was some sort of religious cooking program? I’ll touch on the sources of the alliterative title shortly.
Although the show’s creators, Jennifer Saunders and Abigail Wilson, called their organization the Women’s Guild, it was obviously a thinly veiled alias for the WI. This series depicted a newly widowed Sal Vine (Sue Johnston) forced into retirement by her own son and looking for something to fill her days. Self-proclaimed Guild chairwoman Eileen Pike (Maggie Steed) pounces on the opportunity to recruit Sal as a new member. So along with her best friend Tippi (Pauline McLynn), Sal agrees to give it a go, but with no serious intentions of sticking with it because, in her view, the club is for lonely old ladies or women of leisure.
The ladies of Clatterford participate in a wide variety of activities; from cake baking and flower arranging to net ball tournaments , rambling and charity fashion shows. Always under the watchful eye and rigorous planning of Eileen, no doubt.
So that was my impression. The WI was a social club for wealthy country ladies with time on their hands. Its main goal was the preservation of homemaking and hostessing skills. Like a roomful of Martha Stewarts, but with less superior attitudes.
However after watching Home Fires, I learned a bit more about the origins and on-going purpose of the WI. According to their own website, “The Women’s Institute Movement in Britain started in 1915. During the First World War it was formed to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation. Once the war was over the newly formed WIs began to concentrate on planning programmes of activities to suit their members. This new organisation attracted members from the Lady of the Manor, to her housemaid and cook; from the local shop keeper to the wife of the farm labourer: working together in the WI helped to break down the social barriers between countrywomen who had rarely met in the past.”
Sure there were still tensions and even rivalries among certain members with leadership aspirations, but during WWII, the Women’s Institute was committed to the Home Front effort. Among their many undertakings, members sheltered evacuees, wrote to “friendless” soldiers and, probably their most remembered accomplishment, preserved over 5000 tons of fruit into jam to boost the domestic food supply.
The Women’s Institute is currently celebrating its centenary year. Members recently held their annual meeting at the Royal Albert Hall where the traditional hymn “Jerusalem” was sung. Adopted by many during the women’s suffrage movement, members of the WI felt the song was in accordance with their goals for women as well.
Apparently the Queen doesn’t sing in public or perhaps she forgot the words.
So the question is, would I join the WI if I had the opportunity? I’m not that into crafts or cooking. I might get annoyed with political in-fighting and I’d definitely roll my eyes at strict adherence to meeting rules and procedures. However, if you could guarantee me a diverse and supportive group of friends like this, I’d be more than happy to sign up.
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