It was announced recently that the Duchess of Cambridge had shown an interest in joining her local Women’s Institute in Anmer. According to Newsweek, “The Kate Effect may be worth £1 billion to the UK fashion industry,” as whenever she is pictured wearing something, it invariably sells out. So how will this news affect the increasingly blooming Women’s Institute?

The Women’s Institute was formed in 1915 in Anglesey, Wales. Its main aims were to revitalise rural communities and for women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Initially sponsored by the government, the gatherings proved popular and institutes began opening across the UK. Women felt less isolated with their husbands away at war. They made new friends and learnt new skills in home economics, boosting food and clothing supplies in their own households. By the end of the war, this rapidly growing movement of women turned their attention to playing a more active role in their community. They began campaigning on issues that mattered to them locally, and collectively the institutes campaigned nationwide. Across the decades they have successfully tackled issues including jury duty for both genders, to increase the number of female police officers and AIDS awareness. More recent campaigns have focused on recruiting more midwives and rescuing local shops. Currently their membership stands at 212,000, with 6,600 WIs across the UK.

Manchester Women’s Institute was founded in May 2012 by Lex Taylor and Lucy Adams. Both in their early 20s, they were keen to set up a WI with a more modern slant. To include both the more traditional jam making, knitting, sewing and national campaigns alongside upcycling, swishing (clothes swapping), self-defence and fundraising for local charities. President Lex invited me to attend their annual meeting and third birthday celebrations this May, to see for myself what the organisation is about and what it offers the women of Manchester today.

Held at the stunning Baronial Hall in Chetham’s School of Music, the annual meeting looks at the schedule for the year ahead. It elects a new president and chooses which local charity the members wish to support, as well as which national campaign they want to vote for. This year everything from long-term care for the elderly to ending female genital mutilation are on the shortlist. It’s also a chance to look back at all that has been achieved in the previous year, with an opportunity to hear from that year’s chosen charity and what their support has meant to them.

The evening’s celebrations begin with candyfloss, popcorn and some rather eerie fairground music. I’m surprised to see just how many women attend, with a good 50 in total and an average age of around 30. They arrive in pairs, groups or alone, the large tables encouraging them all to be sociable and communicate outside of their circles. To even, dare I say, ‘network’. It was very moving when they presented their final cheque to last year’s charity, MASH (Manchester Action on Street Health), coupled with a heartfelt talk from a woman who had personally benefited from the charity and how it helped her to build a better life. The election of President went right over my head with some rather old school procedures adhering to the constitution and rules for all Women’s Institutes. Lex was re-elected with everyone happy to leave it in her more than capable hands. But I would say I think they need to brush up on their baking skills this year, as I was shocked to find their birthday cake was not lovingly homemade, but bought from a local supermarket.

The Women’s Institute is now the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK and a campaigning force to be reckoned with. It may not yet have reached the numbers of its 1950s heyday, when members totalled over 400,000, but should Kate Middleton make that important decision to enrol, I think it will send out a very positive message to many women who may not have considered joining before, or ever felt it could be something relevant in their lives today.

I have frequently encountered the term ‘it’s not all jam and ‘Jerusalem’’ in current press and media, with the institute now appealing to the more modern woman, but I beg to differ. Although some of their activities are a little more modern, essentially their basic make-up remains the same – community and friendship. And it’s precisely because of these old fashioned, traditional values that the institute continues to thrive.

Manchester Women’s Institute meet on the fourth Tuesday of the month at Baronial Hall, Chethams School of Music.


YGR Erskine