1:00pm Saturday 23rd March 2013
By Debbie Waite
THE Women’s Institute has just celebrated its 94th birthday in Oxfordshire.
But instead of winding down in its old age, new, younger branches are springing up and adding ‘social networking’ and even ‘Speed WI’ing’ to their Jam and Jerusalem.
OFWI (Oxfordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes) was formed in 1919, four years after the opening of the first Women’s Institute in Britain.
The WI was originally set up to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War, but it quickly became a prominent force, even influencing government policy.
Here in Oxfordshire, rural libraries were established as a result of OFWI action in the 1920s.
And sinks were provided in every home following a county WI resolution in 1942.
By 1973 there were 442,158 WIs across the country. But attitudes were shifting.
The traditional values and customs of the WI were seen by some as outdated and, as older members passed away and were not replaced, some branches were forced to close.
Sue Cox, chairman of OFWI, said: “During the 1990s there were more WIs closing than being formed. Age was probably a major factor. And while it was more a steady trickle than a flood, we were losing members.”
In 1992, Kelmscott, the county’s oldest WI which had been formed in 1919, closed its doors due to a lack of members.
Then a group of WI ladies stripped off and changed everything. In 1999, the members of Rylstone WI posed naked for their 2000 charity calendar.
They inspired the film Calendar Girls in 2003, and the setting up of a new “urban” WI in Fulham.
The WI was suddenly ‘sexy’.
Mrs Cox said: “Oxfordshire experienced a big surge of interest and new branches in 2009/10/11 and since then new groups have continued to set up – as many as six new ones a year – many with members in their 20s and 30s. And alongside that we have also seen new members joining existing WIs.”
She continued: “The new generation is interested in campaigning on a national and international level. But interestingly we are also getting a lot of requests for the home crafts including cooking, sewing and knitting.
“Social media like Facebook and Twitter is definitely attracting new members, too.
“New groups like West Oxfordshire, which set up in 2011 and is thriving, have been able to attract members from a wide area via the internet.
“People are used to instant messaging and this type of contact is suiting the new generation of WIs.
Mum-of-one Rebekah Pugh, 29, set up the county’s newest WI, Folly Dollies, in Faringdon, last month.
She took to Facebook and Twitter to gauge interest and got 50 replies from women all over the town.
She said: “Our first meeting at the Old Town Hall attracted 30 women and we took part in a session of Speed WI’ing to get to know one another.”
The Gingham Girls WI was formed in October 2011 in Botley, Oxford, and also views itself as a WI for a new generation.
Describing themselves as: “A friendly, dynamic group” their Facebook page and website are filled with pictures of young, vivacious women learning new skills – and even making jam.
Their vice president, Bea Longthorpe, said: “I think the essence of the WI is still very much alive. We love meeting up to have a chat, to learn crafts and share ideas. But after a session learning to knit for example, our members will chat online and swap pictures. It’s a perfect combination of the old and the new.”
There are currently 152 WIs in the county boasting 4,800 members and numbers are growing every year.
A further new WI, the Tea Birds, will be meeting on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 8pm in Upton Village Hall.
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