Nos­tal­gia and word play with Paul Lit­tle.

It’s all go at the Women’s In­sti­tute.

North & South - - Contents -

IT’S ONE OF those “What – you’re still here?” phe­nom­ena. The New Zealand Fed­er­a­tion of Women’s In­sti­tutes may be down to a mem­ber­ship of around 4000 and not ex­actly top of mind for women look­ing to join a com­mu­ni­ty­ori­en­tated or­gan­i­sa­tion, but those are 4000 ded­i­cated mem­bers and the WI, as it usu­ally refers to it­self, plans to be around for a long time yet.

“The Women’s In­sti­tute was in­tro­duced to New Zealand by Miss Ann Elizabeth Jerome Spencer on her re­turn from war work in Eng­land, where she had seen the work of the or­gan­i­sa­tion,” says Brenda Bon­ner, pres­i­dent of the Browns Bay branch, in Auck­land. “On 7 Fe­bru­ary 1921, in con­junc­tion with Mrs Fran­cis Hutchin­son, Miss Spencer formed the Riss­ing­ton Women’s In­sti­tute, Hawke’s Bay – the first in New Zealand.”

And the WI has got where it is today with­out much out­side help. As Bon­ner ob­serves: “Whereas in­sti­tutes in other coun­tries have re­ceived fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance from their govern­ments, the move­ment in New Zealand has been built up to its present strong po­si­tion solely by the en­deav­ours of the mem­bers. A re­quest in 1927 for gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance was re­fused.”

Once launched, the or­gan­i­sa­tion soon spread na­tion­ally, of­fer­ing an ap­par­ently ir­re­sistible com­bi­na­tion of fun, friend­ship and fundrais­ing. Fundrais­ing is still a strong fo­cus. “I reckon the WI en­cap­su­lates char­ity at its best,” says ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Colleen Dry­den, not­ing that last year it “raised $120,000 in do­na­tions”.

The ques­tion of mem­ber­ship num­bers is a pop­u­lar de­fault space­filler for re­gional news­pa­pers; they seem to be split 50-50 be­tween tales warn­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion is on its last legs and those pro­claim­ing it’s in good heart and things are look­ing up. Dry­den tends to­wards the lat­ter as­sess­ment.

“Like any com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tion, it has its ups and downs, but at the mo­ment we have a lit­tle up­surge of younger mem­bers – women in their 30s and 40s – set­ting up new in­sti­tutes. They’ll meet at a cafe and go from there.”

A cafe? These days, things are a lit­tle more re­laxed at your lo­cal WI.

“Meet­ings back in the day were very busi­nesslike… a prim and proper af­fair,” says Bon­ner. “The ladies dressed up with hats and gloves, whereas today things are much more ca­sual and so­cial.”

But do make sure you’re on time. “Meet­ings are as reg­u­lar as clock­work,” says Dry­den. “If it’s at half past one, it’s half past one. Don’t wan­der in at half past two.”

Once the for­mal­i­ties are punc­tu­ally out of the way, how­ever, mem­bers get to work on their good works.

“Many hos­pi­tals rely on us knit­ting hats and booties for prem babies,” says Dry­den. “Or to make what they call cal­ico dolls, which are made out of plain ma­te­rial the chil­dren can draw on. For ex­am­ple, if they’ve had an ap­pen­dix op­er­a­tion, they’ll mark on the doll where their scar is.”

It’s hard to imag­ine such thought­ful, kind-hearted ac­tiv­i­ties ever go­ing out of date. And for­tu­nately for the WI, it’s very good at mak­ing friends in high places. The na­tional pa­tron is Gover­nor- Gen­eral Dame Patsy Reddy and, back in the old coun­try, the Queen pops in for a visit to the San­dring­ham branch ev­ery year.

Left: Mem­bers of the Do­min­ion Fed­er­a­tion of Women’s In­sti­tutes gather out­side the Welling­ton Town Hall in July 1946 to cel­e­brate the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Sil­ver Ju­bilee.

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