Nostalgia and word play with Paul Little.
It’s all go at the Women’s Institute.
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.