BIG READ: '˜I've done far more than I could ever have imagined...'
Images of older women doing craftwork and baking cakes might be what springs to mind at the mention of theÂ Women's Institute. But today, being part of such a group in villages, towns and cities across the country, is about soÂ much more than that.
As well as empowering women and making a difference to the lives of people in their communities,Â these ladiesÂ have made their mark on journeys that have shapedÂ society and changedÂ laws.
Hampshire County Federation of Women's InstitutesÂ (HCFWI) celebratesÂ its centenary this year, and the impact institute members across HampshireÂ makeÂ is only going to get stronger as more women joinÂ groups each month.Â
They are keen to destroy the imageÂ of them as being retired grandmothers, and bring the younger ladies on board.Â
Emily Olson, pictured on front page with Valerie Mitchell, joined Rowlands Castle WI because of the work it does to make social change.Â 'DuringÂ my time withÂ the group I've done far more than IÂ could ever have imagined,' says the 33-year-old.Â
'˜A cause particularly close to the heart of the HCFWIÂ is the decriminalisation of prostitution.
'˜Myself andÂ 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 backgroundÂ 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 '“Â that's simply not true.'
The HCFWI believes sex workers should be able toÂ workÂ in safer and healthier environments and that they should have access to healthcare.Â
Emily, who grew up in Rowlands Castle, adds: 'Groups welcome all women to joinÂ '“whether you're 18 or 100,Â it's never too late.Â Â
'I'd really encourage younger women to get on board with an institute.
'˜It'sÂ the perfect place toÂ learn, develop new skills, and ultimately have fun.Â
'I've made dozens ofÂ friends and learned about topics as broad as you can imagine.'
The RCWI, formed in 1946, holdsÂ monthly meetings at the village's Parish Hall, and sub-group meetingsÂ during the day and in the evening,Â for groups such as craft and reading.
It has a healthy membership of more than 80 women and its president's motto isÂ '˜bridging the generations'.
The first WI was started in Canada in 1897, and the first in England was inÂ Singleton, West Sussex, in November 1915.
The HCFWI acts as a link between the National Federation of Women's InstitutesÂ (NFWI) and individual groups.Â AcrossÂ Portmsouth, Gosport, Fareham, the borough of Havant and East Hampshire tÂ here are at least 35Â WIs.Â
Maureen Levenson, chairman of the HCFWI, carried out a survey of the amount of different community activities Hampshire WIs wereÂ 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'mÂ interested in campaigning to make life better for womenÂ inÂ this country and across the world.
'˜Campaigns are very much a cornerstone of the WI and manyÂ of our resolutions have shaped society.
'AllÂ groups fundraiseÂ for themselves andÂ local causes.
'˜They contribute to need, by buying sanitary products forÂ homeless women, food for food banks, comfort cushions for those recovering from breast cancer, and so on.Â
'˜The age range of Women's Institutes is wide and growing wider.
Â 'Those with younger members often meet inÂ pubs and some haveÂ pole dancing and life-drawing classes.'Â Â
The HCFWI marked its 100thÂ birthday this year with a WIFEST at Eastleigh, where individual groups had theÂ chance to show the public what they haveÂ to offer.
Over the years the NFWI, along with individual groups and members, have helped to achieve big things.Â In 2015, citing the NFWI'sÂ More Midwives campaign report, NHS England ordered a major review of maternity services.Â
WIs helped to secure Â£10m in funding for research into pollinator health in 2010, used to carryÂ out research into bee diseases and the effect of pesticides onÂ theÂ honeybee population.
The federation has a number of campaignsÂ currently running '“ from ending microplastic pollution, toÂ calling on the government and the NHS to provide facilities for carers ofÂ those with Alzheimer's disease and dementiaÂ to stay with them while they are inÂ hospital.
And as well as making a difference in the wider world, Janet Heath, the joint-president of Alverstoke WI,Â says being a member of an institute is extremely rewarding.
The 68-year-old says: '˜I live aloneÂ 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 endÂ up doing all sorts of different things, it really hasÂ enriched my life.'
To find your local WI, call (023) 8061 6712 or visit hampshirewi.org.uk.
The changing face of the Women's InstituteÂ
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: '˜IÂ think younger women either don't know aboutÂ WIs,Â which is something the Rowlands Castle groupÂ is really keen to address,Â or fearÂ they wouldn't be welcomed or interested.Â Â
'˜Neither of these areÂ trueÂ and since I'veÂ become a part of the group,Â two members younger than meÂ have joined, with our youngest being 20.Â
'˜To move with theÂ times,Â I've helpedÂ toÂ set up the group's Instagram and Twitter accounts, which is in part to attract younger members.
'˜We have also beenÂ increasing social aspects of the group, likeÂ introducing the option to haveÂ wine as well as tea and coffee andÂ 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, saysÂ the age range of WIsÂ is '˜wide and growing wider'.
She adds: '˜WhileÂ it's trueÂ WIs mainly attractÂ womenÂ who haveÂ retired, evening meetings are being set upÂ to meet the needs of younger, working women.'