BIG READ: ‘I’ve done far more than I could ever have imagined...’

Emily Olson and Valerie Mitchell from Rowlands Castle Women's Institute
Emily Olson and Valerie Mitchell from Rowlands Castle Women's Institute

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Images of older women doing craftwork and baking cakes might be what springs to mind at the mention of the Women’s Institute. But today, being part of such a group in villages, towns and cities across the country, is about so much more than that.

As well as empowering women and making a difference to the lives of people in their communities, these ladies have made their mark on journeys that have shaped society and changed laws.

Alverstoke WI's recent trip to Wilton House

Alverstoke WI's recent trip to Wilton House

Hampshire County Federation of Women’s Institutes (HCFWI) celebrates its centenary this year, and the impact institute members across Hampshire make is only going to get stronger as more women join groups each month. 

They are keen to destroy the image of them as being retired grandmothers, and bring the younger ladies on board. 

Emily Olson, pictured on front page with Valerie Mitchell, joined Rowlands Castle WI because of the work it does to make social change. 'During my time with the group I’ve done far more than I could ever have imagined,’ says the 33-year-old. 

‘A cause particularly close to the heart of the HCFWI is the decriminalisation of prostitution.

Members of WI's from around the Portsmouth area on a march through the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth to HMS Victory

Members of WI's from around the Portsmouth area on a march through the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth to HMS Victory

‘Myself and one of our oldest members went on a workshop last year about it and it’s something we’re looking at campaigning on more in the future.

‘It’s great that as a group we can use our experience, whatever background we come from, to work on social issues.

‘I think there’s an assumption older women don’t care about the same issues as younger women – that’s simply not true.’

The HCFWI believes sex workers should be able to work in safer and healthier environments and that they should have access to healthcare. 

A fashion show by Gosport and Fareham area WIs

A fashion show by Gosport and Fareham area WIs

Emily, who grew up in Rowlands Castle, adds: 'Groups welcome all women to join –whether you're 18 or 100, it’s never too late.  

'I'd really encourage younger women to get on board with an institute.

‘It's the perfect place to learn, develop new skills, and ultimately have fun. 

'I’ve made dozens of friends and learned about topics as broad as you can imagine.’

The RCWI, formed in 1946, holds monthly meetings at the village’s Parish Hall, and sub-group meetings during the day and in the evening, for groups such as craft and reading.

It has a healthy membership of more than 80 women and its president’s motto is ‘bridging the generations’.

The first WI was started in Canada in 1897, and the first in England was in Singleton, West Sussex, in November 1915.

The HCFWI acts as a link between the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) and individual groups. Across Portmsouth, Gosport, Fareham, the borough of Havant and East Hampshire t here are at least 35 WIs. 

Maureen Levenson, chairman of the HCFWI, carried out a survey of the amount of different community activities Hampshire WIs were involved with in 2016, and it amounted to 170.

She says the future of the federation is bright and optimistic.

The former local government officer, whose WI is Titchfield Abbey, says: ‘I'm interested in campaigning to make life better for women in this country and across the world.

‘Campaigns are very much a cornerstone of the WI and many of our resolutions have shaped society.

'All groups fundraise for themselves and local causes.

‘They contribute to need, by buying sanitary products for homeless women, food for food banks, comfort cushions for those recovering from breast cancer, and so on. 

‘The age range of Women’s Institutes is wide and growing wider.

 'Those with younger members often meet in pubs and some have pole dancing and life-drawing classes.’  

The HCFWI marked its 100th birthday this year with a WIFEST at Eastleigh, where individual groups had the chance to show the public what they have to offer.

Over the years the NFWI, along with individual groups and members, have helped to achieve big things. In 2015, citing the NFWI’s More Midwives campaign report, NHS England ordered a major review of maternity services. 

WIs helped to secure £10m in funding for research into pollinator health in 2010, used to carry out research into bee diseases and the effect of pesticides on the honeybee population.

The federation has a number of campaigns currently running – from ending microplastic pollution, to calling on the government and the NHS to provide facilities for carers of those with Alzheimer's disease and dementia to stay with them while they are in hospital.

And as well as making a difference in the wider world, Janet Heath, the joint-president of Alverstoke WI, says being a member of an institute is extremely rewarding.

The 68-year-old says: ‘I live alone so being part of the WI which formed in 2013 means I’ve widened my social group.

‘It’s very rewarding for a lot of our ladies and I know in some cases, a bit of a lifesaver.

‘We’re very active and have more than 100 members with a long waiting list.

‘We’re twinned with a group called the Whiteley Wags WI and they have many younger members because they meet in the evenings, and it’s brilliant to be able to see what they do and get ideas from them.

‘Being part of a WI means you can end up doing all sorts of different things, it really has enriched my life.’

To find your local WI, call (023) 8061 6712 or visit hampshirewi.org.uk.

The changing face of the Women’s Institute 

Although Women’s Institutes are predominantly made up of older women, like those wanting to stay active after retirement, groups across the country are seeing young mothers, teenagers and working women join them.

And they are keen to move with the times to get a younger demographic on board.

Emily Olson, 33 and a member of the Rowlands Castle WI, has been using social media to try and draw younger members into the group.

She says: ‘I think younger women either don’t know about WIs, which is something the Rowlands Castle group is really keen to address, or fear they wouldn't be welcomed or interested.  

‘Neither of these are true and since I’ve become a part of the group, two members younger than me have joined, with our youngest being 20. 

‘To move with the times,  I’ve helped to set up the group’s Instagram and Twitter accounts, which is in part to attract younger members.

‘We have also been increasing social aspects of the group, like introducing the option to have wine as well as tea and coffee and sitting in groups at tables rather than in rows like a classroom.’

And Maureen Levenson, chairman of the Hampshire County Federation of Women’s Institutes, says the age range of WIs is ‘wide and growing wider’.

She adds: ‘While it’s true WIs mainly attract women who have retired, evening meetings are being set up to meet the needs of younger, working women.’