Jam & Jerusalem:
No longer is the WI the preserve of country life
The WI is no longer the preserve of country life
Last month I wrote about Grace Hadow and her connection to the WI. One of her very valued contributions to our movement was the formation of a WI in Cirencester. It is reported that this came about partly because the wife of the caretaker where the initial meeting was held -in Cirencester, to discuss forming WIS in the villages around stood up to ask rather angrily why there could not be WIS in towns. So when one formed in Cirencester it was rather an anomaly as at that time and for many years after, WIS were restricted to communities with a population of less 4,000. In other words WIS were for the benefit of countrywomen rather than townswomen. In typical WI fashion, a compromise was reached: the rule about rural formations stood but those already existing in towns, like Cirencester, were encouraged to continue as centres serving the surrounding villages. Nowadays, this rule no longer applies - it was rescinded in 1965 – and we have WIS which meet in towns, in offices, pubs, prisons and universities - wherever women wish to form one in fact.
However, our connections with rural communities remain very close, both in this country and abroad. In 1935 the NFWI decided to affiliate to ACWW, Associated Countrywomen of the World, and is one of the now 439 affiliated member societies from 78 different countries. ACWW is the largest non- governmental, international organisation which aims to connect rural and non-rural women and their communities and improve their living standards through small scale projects which are financed by a network of Member Societies and individual members including WIS. ACWW’S down-to-earth approach offers mutual support, friendship and practical help for these projects as well as individual scholarships for women who wish to carry out studies in social and community welfare. ACWW also maintains strong links to the UN and since 1947 has had consultative status with several of its agencies.
Established in the early 30s, with its central headquarters in London, Mrs. Madge Watt who had brought the WI movement to this country from Canada was elected as its first President. Membership quickly grew to the extent that by 1936 it needed an administrative office. It was decided to ask every member society to collect just 1d from each of their individual members once a year and ‘Pennies for Friendship’ was born. In my own WI we have a pretty Dorothy bag which is passed around at our March meeting but we now tend to give rather larger coins. The funds collected in this way represent a major source of income for the charity and support its whole operation: maintaining the central office in London, covering day-to-day running and outreach costs, covering Board travel expenses (where these are claimed, not all Board members do) and promoting international advocacy work.
In addition, ACWW raises funds to support their projects worldwide. Straightforward donations are always welcome, of course, but in GFWI a steady source of income has been provided by collecting members’ unwanted jewellery, pre-decimal and foreign currency. Our ACWW representative, Jan Cole, has a collection box in WI House and when she has collected 30 kilos she sends it in a postal sack to a recycling centre. With this money which has been raised quite painlessly -each sack makes about £100 to £130- we have been able to contribute to several projects in India, one in Trinidad, another in Romania and we are currently supporting our second one in Africa, in Cameroon, where a group of Muslim women who are mostly confined to the home and marry at a young age are being educated and trained. They are learning how to improve their families’ diets and health through improved cultivation and being trained in how to utilise cattle dung to generate an income.
This is a far cry from the lives of WI members in our country today but not so far perhaps from those women who joined in the early years of the last century. Maybe the young women in Cameroon will go on to form their own WIS one day?
Project supported in Togo providing wells and latrines with training