Women’s Institute: More than jam and Jerusalem

Helen Dunlop at the Balmoral Show
Helen Dunlop at the Balmoral Show

As the Women’s Institute celebrates its 100th anniversary in the UK we hear from local chairman Margaret Collinson about the work of the organisation

The Women’s Institute used to suffer from an image problem. It was the sweet sherry and sensible court shoe of the club world.

But the organisation famously shook off its stuffy image in the 1990s when members started off the craze for posing naked for calendars, the most famous example of which was featured in the 2003 film Calendar Girls.

This edginess was also on display in 2000 when members booed and slow hand-clapped the then Prime Minister Tony Blair at their annual conference. Like a pitbull in a pinny, the WI showed itself to be a fearsome opponent.

The WI was formed 83 years ago in Northern Ireland and currently boasts 161 branches with approximately 6,000 members. And those figures are continually growing; from January to March 78 new members were welcomed into this progressive organisation.

But it’s not just numbers that give the WI clout. This is an extremely efficient campaigning organisation, often bringing these dynamic women into contact with politicians, government bodies and trade unions, as Helen Mirren says in Calendar Girls: ‘‘It’s not just a load of middle-aged women standing mysteriously behind fruitcakes, you know.’’

Current NI chairman Margaret Collinson says: ‘‘Each year at our AGM and autumn council meeting we give Institutes an opportunity to put forward resolutions on subjects relevant to all – most recently health care, school milk, nursing home standards, to mention a few.

‘‘If the resolutions are accepted the information is forwarded to MLAs, MPs and appropriate statutory and regulatory organisations.’’

As the biggest women’s group in Northern Ireland, the WI prides itself on being a voice for women and making its views and thoughts heard.

But while on the one hand it is there to influence decision makers, on the other, it is a vehicle for women to meet, share friendships and enjoy each other’s company.

‘‘Our motto is ‘Women involved in family, friendship and community’ and this is always foremost in our thoughts,’’ says Margaret.

And on a personal level the WI has always played an intrinsic role in Margaret’s life.

‘‘I was brought up in the country. WI was part of life. Moving to Belfast in the early 70s I enquired about my nearest WI – Ballysallagh in the Craigantlet hills - and I was delighted to be invited to join there.’’

There is a definite association between the WI and rural life in Northern Ireland; it’s ‘anthem’ is the Countrywoman’s Song, which is sung at the end of every meeting (in other parts of the UK, the WI ladies sing Jerusalem); the WI badge depicts the traditional white pillars of the Ulster countryside and five-bar gate; and it’s monthly magazine is called the Ulster Countrywoman.

However, as Margaret points out members come from all parts of Ulster, not just the countryside.

‘‘They are from throughout the Province, villages and towns, and we have WIs on the edges of the cities of Belfast, Londonderry, Newry, and Lisburn etc. Lisburn Belles meet within the city of Lisburn.’’

‘‘Individual Institutes involve themselves with their local communities in a wide variety of ways,’’ she adds.

‘‘For example, WI is involved with North Belfast Senior Citizens Forum/Camberwell Court (a sheltered dwelling complex). Other external activities include: craftwork in schools; agricultural shows; festivals; local exhibitions and helping organisations that use Moneyreagh Community Centre with catering, gardening, and fun days.’’

She adds:‘‘We have a province-wide competition, The Macausland Rose bowl, which is presented to the Institute that ‘must have displayed a real and effective interest in their local community as well as participating in events organised by the Federation’.’’ 

The Calendar Girls film may go some way to explaining why, after a slump in numbers, the WI is attracting more (and younger) women.

‘‘Younger members join because of their interest in cooking, baking, sewing, etc, and then get involved with our general activities,’’ says Margaret.

‘‘We strive to make our organisation appealing to all ages, so naturally we have had to accept change, so we encourage a wide range of views and ideas so that we continue to have wide support.’’

And if you thought it was just vicars’ wives, ex-headmistresses and retrograde housewives who join the WI, think again. There are solicitors, bankers, teachers, women from all walks of life.

‘‘Members are drawn from all backgrounds. Many have family connections, over many years,’’ says Margaret.

And as Margaret’s three-year tenure as chairman comes to an end next month, she reflects on some of the organisation’s highlights.

‘‘We had celebrations at Greenmount for 80 years of WI in Northern Ireland, which was wonderful. Also it is very pleasing to see the increased interest and support for our events.

‘‘Other highlights were our attendance at the world conference of Associated Countrywomen of the World in Chennai India in 2013 and the European Conference in Norway 2014.’’

And there are plenty of exciting WI events coming up in NI this year.

‘‘This month is our annual general meeting when we will review our activities and enjoy our main speaker – Julie Summers, author of Jambusters – an account of the effect of the Second World War on women in Britain. It has inspired a six-part drama series entitled Homefires due to be seen on ITV later this year.’’

So as the WI celebrates its centenary in the UK, Margaret has no doubt the organisation will still be around in another 100 years,

‘‘Yes, because we have a wide appeal for all ladies.’’