The Women's Institute…. another meeting, a new role for Battleaxe

Yesterday, I went with a group of colleagues to the East Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes Annual Meeting at the Winter Garden, in Eastbourne. We went to display some of our prize-winning items, to collect a winner’s certificate, to accompany our designated delegate, to observe, and for me to be introduced in my somewhat surprising new role as an East Sussex Board Member and Trustee.

Battleaxe at Eastbourne

    Battleaxe readers know that I have been to a big WI meeting before, in 2015, at the Royal Albert Hall – see previous post.  This meeting was small in comparison, but there must still have been seven hundred women there.
    Built in 1875, The Winter Garden is a classic old Victorian seaside building – think tea dances, music hall, concert parties, but it also has redolences of housing conferences, regional political gatherings and other such dull but worthy affairs.

The Winter Garden

    After the official business, the big event was a presentation from Mandy Hickson, the first woman Tornado jet pilot. She was a really excellent speaker, but I’m not sure that I really want to be inspired to pilot a fighter jet in some distant theatre of war. I’m too busy….
    We showed off some of our prize-winning things from last year’s South of England Show at Ardingly, including this knitted mermaid in her pool, and my ‘Scoop of the Century’ story, which was about the invention of the Barbie doll.

Our mermaid in her pool.

     The meeting had been arranged for a Saturday presumably in the hope of attracting some of the ‘new-wave’ younger WI members, who, apparently aged about 30, hang out in hip outfits such as the Brighton Belles.  However, either they prefer to do things with their families at the weekend, or they think an event like the Eastbourne meeting so far away from their own experience that it would not be worth attending. Whatever, I didn’t see any young ones. The average age of the women in Eastbourne was very high. Battleaxe and her chums felt like teenagers.
     Our WI, Hastings Ore, falls nicely between the two camps. We’re not traditional, and most of us would fall into the ‘younger active retired’ group, although we do have young working women, and also elderly ladies. I love our group, and I’m proud to be President. However, I’d be nowhere without the brilliant women on our Committee team.
     I’ve just read an article about the WI in this week’s Grazia magazine – obviously designed to appeal to the average Grazia reader. Even so, I don’t like the patronising, ageist tone of it. I suppose I should be grateful they didn’t use the word ‘nana’ which makes Battleaxe want to kill. But what the hell are ‘hipster name-generator group monikers’? Should I be ‘adding a socially conscious banner to my Twitter avatar’? Should our next meeting include a professional dominatrice talking about her work while we sip bespoke cocktails made from hand-crafted gin?

    I do think this age gap is an issue for the WI. Most, if not all, of the
women who run the organisation are in the older age-group. How do they
stay in touch with the needs of the new hipsters? Would older women feel
welcome in these ‘girl gangs’? I don’t know yet. In my new Trustee role I’ll pull on my
new rose-embroidered Doc Marten’s and go and find out. They’re a bit Goth but I love these boots – made of softer leather than old-style Docs which were desperate to break in, and they even have zips up the side to avoid all that lacing….

New Docs…

     So what on earth is this Trustee business?  I’ve just met my new colleagues, and barely know them yet, so I can’t comment (and anyway, I wouldn’t get into such stuff on here).

Next year I’ll be up there with the Trustees…

     I’ll try hard to get more WI resources, services and events down our end of the county, which has been under-represented in the decision-making process, and also to make those services and events accessible to more women. Our Hastings community is very mixed, and includes some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. It’s a big contrast to most areas of affluent East Sussex.
      Here’s an example. The WI runs Denman College, its own residential training centre, a Georgian mansion near Abingdon in Oxfordshire. It is justly proud of the wide variety of courses available for WI members. However, the average fee is £350 for two days, unaffordable for many of our members. One of my fellow trustees said that people could apply for bursaries. This may be so, but it is also the case that down in Hastings, rural Oxfordshire is like the dark side of the moon. Many of our women lack the confidence to travel to London on their own, let alone get to Abingdon. They just wouldn’t go.
     Denman devours masses of WI money, and currently needs more to stay viable. Should we be supporting it? I don’t know yet.
    In her working life, the Battleaxe spent many years on various boards rattling cages, upsetting apple carts, putting cats among pigeons and so on. While I’ve lost some of my appetite for such combative activities, the fires still burn brightly. Get ready, WI!


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