Phew, tiring week – and would you believe my achilles tendon is bad again – too much walking too soon. I was over at Hailsham for a East Sussex WI Federation Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, it was our Federation big day, the Annual meeting (held in Hastings this year), on Wednesday, and on Saturday I met my friend Jan for yet another WI session at the Royal Albert Hall. Hastings Battleaxe has a good think – and a rant, about the WI in general. I know my thoughts may be controversial….. and represent only my personal view….
|Massive multitude of women at ES Annual Meeting
This first bit is fine – about us in East Sussex. I have been on the East Sussex Board of Trustees now for two years. As well as being Editor of the WI News, I am once again Second Vice-Chair. I see that this time last year I wrote another post about the WI, the Annual Meeting etc. Did my fears from last year come true? We’ll see….
Wednesday’s Annual Meeting was held at the Hastings Centre on The Ridge – a new venture for us because the Winter Gardens in Eastbourne are closed for refurbishment. Everyone seemed in a panic about it – partly because for many of them, journeying to Hastings is like visiting the dark side of the Moon – but in fact the venue was excellent and the staff were very helpful. Basically it is a huge shed that seats hundreds of people. However, it is modern, has excellent facilities and is very comfortable. The hall was full to capacity with around 600 women.
Before the meeting started I helped set up the event – much rushing about. By the end of the day I had walked 10.019 steps according to my Fitbit – over 4 miles… and I wonder why I have a bad ankle again?
The guest speakers this year were Sam Taylor, Editor of the ‘Lady’ magazine, who has a house in Hastings Old Town, and Tom Hart-Dyke, celebrity gardening guru from Lullingstone Castle near Sevenoaks. Both were just fine. Sam told us about the history of the magazine, and its WI links – cabbage puree and knitting your own strong man anyone?
|Sam Taylor with Chairman Gill Nokes
Tom was held captive by guerillas in the Colombian jungle for about 10 months in 2000, but inexplicably they let him and his companion go, unharmed. He said it was because he talked too much – and indeed he spoke to us for an hour, with no notes, almost without drawing breath – but he was an excellent speaker. Don’t suppose those guerillas would have enjoyed hearing all about indigenous orchids… no wonder they let him go!
As one of the Federation officers this year I had to sit up on the platform the whole time, along with Gill, our County Chairman, Anita the First Vice-Chair, Vicky the Federation Secretary and Kim, the County Treasurer. I felt reasonably OK – had put a proper ladies frock on, and hoped my face looked awake and sufficiently interested.
|Top table – Battleaxe seems to have trouble sitting down..
Of course, I had to speak as well – thanking Sam Taylor – that was easy because it was her birthday, and I got the 600 to sing Happy Birthday – and then, the task I mentioned with dread in last year’s post – reading out the long list of names of individuals and their WIs as they came up on stage to collect certificates, awards etc. It was a bit like reading out the football results on telly. However, there were no exotic names to trip me up at all – all solid middle England – as I have said before, diversity is not the WI’s greatest strength. I could not see a single non-white face in the entire audience. Age-wise, we did seem to have more younger women this year – in fact, the youngest member in the entire Federation, aged 17, was introduced to me – she comes from a family with five generations of WI women. But, as ever, we had little, if any, representation from the ‘young’ WIs who don’t care to participate in Federation activities (see more about that below….)
As ever, the event went well – it is quite stirring to sing ‘Jerusalem’ with all those hundreds of others, and there was a very friendly atmosphere. Our own WI Group, Hastings Ore, provided the stewards for the event. Here they all are, with me in my best frock.
|Stewards – and Battleaxe
Saturday’s do, at the Royal Albert Hall, was organised, I think, by the RAH itself, to celebrate 100 years of somen’s suffrage and the national movement’s long links with the RAH. The theme was WI past, present and future. The first speaker was our own East Sussex Anne Stamper, former national WI archivist, historian etc., and as ever, her talk was very interesting – I wish we could have heard more from her. I had not understood until yesterday that the very formal meeting approach which many of our ‘older’ WIs still cling to is a relic from the time the first WI’s were formed – a procedure written up by Lady Denman, one of the founders, to teach women who had never been involved in meetings how such things worked, thereby ‘enabling them to participate in local democratic activities’. As I say, some of our older WIs still operate with a formal top table, ‘Madam President’, reading out and agreeing of minutes, matters arising etc., and most younger women find this off-putting…. Maybe if people understood the history better they might be more willing to let go of some of the formality.
But having said that, at work we used to run ‘Effective Meetings’ courses, which included teaching people formal meeting procedure…. people don’t pick this stuff up by magic…. maybe WI women still need to learn such things but we don’t have to do it all the time….
|The Albert Memorial – from our room in the RAH. Looming storm clouds….
The next speaker was a young woman from the Shoreditch Sisters. This is one of the new young hipster cool WI groups that have sprung up around the country, all bright-eyed youth and ‘radical’ energy…. They are held up to the rest of us as the role-model future of the movement. If you actually look at what they do, it is no different from the activities of any other WI group.
For example, the Shoreditch Sisters do a hell of a lot of knitting. (Does Battleaxe knit? No. Do the women in our WI who do brilliant knitting make a song and dance about it? No). Modern, cool, hipster knitting seems to be about knitting for protest. They are proud of knitting a ‘Solidarity Blanket’ for the women in Yarls Wood Detention Centre. Is this any more commendable or interesting than the thousands upon thousands of WI women who quietly get on with knitting clothes for premature babies, twiddle muffs for dementia patients, daffodils for Marie Curie Cancer Care, toys to sell to benefit their chosen local charities and so on ad infinitum?
We also heard about their ‘Vulva Quilt’, sewn to raise awareness of FGM…… These women describe themselves as being different from the rest of us because they are ‘feminist’. Well, we may not all be out with banners on pussy-hat marches but in fact the WI is one of the greatest and most powerful women’s movements ever.
To me personally, the Shoreditch Sisters and their ilk do not represent the future I’d like to see for the WI. I think the strength of the WI is about being inclusive – women from all backgrounds and all generations working together, learning from each other, helping themselves and their communities in practical, meaningful ways as well as having fun. The big challenge we face for the future is making that happen – combining the life experience and knowledge of the older members with the enthusiasm and energy of the new. That is why I am an East Sussex Trustee. That’s why I’m President of Hastings Ore WI – a really mixed group. (Oh Battleaxe you lie – I also like bossing people about…)
Sadly, the final speaker of the morning, Lynne Stubbings, the national NFWI Chair, did not address these challenges.
So, Jan and I stomped/limped off feeling disappointed.
Finally, in last year’s post I showed the cover of the WI News, which I had just started editing. This is what it looks like now. Am proud of it.
Only problem, Battleaxe is not a ‘completer finisher’. It has mistakes in. I try and blame it on the printers but it is probably me…. The ‘young’ WIs say – we would only read this magazine on-line. The older ones say – we like a paper copy. So – we’ll have both….
Philosopher is the unsung hero of WI News – the cover photos mostly come from him.
I have edited this post. I thought I was merely stating a personal opinion, with the aim of fostering healthy debate….. it ihas been twisted out of all recognition.