After over 130 years of rallying, campaigning and educating women in the principles and practices of co-operation, the Co-operative Women’s Guild will be voting on proposals to dissolve at a special general meeting on 6 October.
A pioneer of women’s rights, the Guild campaigned for the right to vote, maternity benefits and equal pay for working women. In its heyday it had almost 90,000 members and 1,800 branches across England and Wales; now it is reduced to a rump of 800 despite recent revitalisation attempts
The timing is particularly poignant as it coincides with a fanfare of celebrations across the country marking the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Institute. Like the Guild, the WI was in grave danger of closing down but successfully re-invented itself for a different generation.
One branch typical of the new wave is located in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire and was formed just five years ago by a bunch of enthusiastic younger women. Its president is Kirsty Hall, who organises everything from belly-dancing and self-defence classes to skydiving as well as more traditional meetings with a range of speakers.
“By the 1970s WI numbers had dropped and we had become a victim of our own success,” she says. “We had campaigned for equal rights and the vote – that’s why our official colours are the suffragettes’ green and purple. Then feminism happened and we suddenly started to seem very old-fashioned.”
The WI has a federal structure; the Hebden Bridge branch belongs to the West Yorkshire Federation, which is based in Leeds. Each branch manages its own affairs. Within a radius of 15 miles, there are also thriving branches in areas such as Huddersfield, Mytholmroyd and Todmorden.
“We have about 50 members of whom the majority are in their 40s and 50s, but there are older women too, including a lady in her 90s – we welcome everyone. We also have sub-groups which do things like walking and go to the cinema. There is also a book group,” says Ms Hall.
She believes one of the reasons for the WI’s survival is the fact it also moved into towns and cities as well as keeping its traditional base in villages and market towns.
“That was the big thing that upped the numbers. There has also been a big revival in crafts like knitting and baking so there was still a place for the traditional stuff.”
The WI’s staid ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ image also changed forever with the decision of the Ryedale WI in the Yorkshire Dales to raise funds for cancer research by posing for a calendar; their story was the subject of the 2003 film Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.
“Calendar Girls changed everything,” says Ms Hall. “We had been seen as a bit fuddy-duddy before that but it gave us a national and international profile.”
Unlike the Co-operative Women’s Guild, the WI has never had any particular political links.
“We are not party political, there are all kinds of views. None of our speakers are allowed to promote a particular party, but we welcome talks about what it is like to be a women in politics and we explore all kinds of issues, just as we always have done. The WI promoted sexual health in the 1920s because so many soldiers had come back from the First World War with venereal disease; we have always been at the forefront of women’s issues.”
The WI is not quite back to where it was in the 1950s when it had well over 200,000 members – but it is now one of the largest voluntary organisations in the UK.
So what’s the secret?
Ms Hall says: “As president I try to ensure we have a really mixed programme. One of the aims of the WI is around education and empowering women within communities.”
She also believes social media has played a huge part in the WI’s revival with websites, Twitter and Facebook sites all used to promote the organisation across the UK.
“But what matters most is friendship – that’s why the WI has had such resurgence. Although we started as a rural organisation women in villages are quite connected. Women in cities can find themselves very isolated and that is a huge part of why women join. It is fun learning new things.”
WI branches also raise money for charity – this year’s cause for the Hebden Bridge branch is the Women’s Centre in Halifax, while last year they raised over £1,000 for a local homeless charity.
Sadly, Ms Hall admits she had never heard of the Co-operative Women’s Guild. “It sounds amazing and it would be sad if they closed down. Perhaps they could re-brand. ‘Guild’ is an old-fashioned kind of word.
“My advice would be broaden your scope. One of the huge advantages of the WI is it is a place where you can meet women of different ages and experiences. You can change an image but if you don’t have an image to start with that is very difficult.”