FEATURE: '˜There's more to us than cake...' says South Yorkshire WI chairman
The Women's Institute is about much more than just good cake.
101 years after it arrived in England and Wales, the all-female organisation is still going strong, with 215,000 members across 6,500 WI groups nationwide.
And Dorothy Meekins has a good idea why its popularity has remained throughout the last century - and it has very little to do with cake.
“The WI plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills,” explains the 67-year-old.
“Our members take part in a wide variety of activities and campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.”
And as chairwoman of the South Yorkshire Women’s Institute Federation for the last five years, Dorothy oversees 2,814 members in 69 thriving WI groups in villages, towns and cities throughout the region.
“Friendship plays a big part in it too,” says Dorothy, who joined the WI 11 years ago, after retiring from her job as a midwife.
“When I moved to the region in 2005 I didn’t know anyone. I joined my local WI in Penistone and they became my social circle, I’ve made wonderful friends through this organisation.”
The WI is open to all women aged 18 or over and, though Dorothy reveals the average age of a member is around 60, she says the organisation has seen a real surge in younger members.
“We’ve seen things like knitting, sewing and home-cooking make a comeback in recent years,” says Dorothy.
“And with that trend, we’ve had an influx of members in their 20s and 30s, which is just wonderful.”
Dorothy explains that each WI group is independent and responsible for organising their own schedule of events and activities - which can range from talks and craft groups, to wine tasting sessions and history walks; all under the education banner.
“With our younger members especially, we find that - although they tend to have a big social circle and many friends - they really enjoy meeting people with common interests in life skills like cooking, knitting and sewing.”
And the fascinating history of WI is something Dorothy says most people have never heard.
“Most people have no idea it all began back in 1897 in Canada, with one woman whose child died of food poisoning,” she says.
“This woman decided to make it her mission to educate women better about food preparation and the idea built from there.”
The organisation made its way to this country in 1915, to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. In the years since, the organisation’s aims have broadened and the WI is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK.
“We’ve seen its popularity continue to rise,” says Dorothy.
“It did dip a little in the 60s and 70s, when it became more acceptable for women to go out to work, but the numbers have seen a resurgence in the decades since.”
The WI saw one its busiest years last year, when the organisations celebrated its centenary with a host of events, as well as an invitation to the Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, where members, including Dorothy, rubbed shoulders with The Duchess of Cornwall.
“It was the icing on the cake of a wonderful year,” smiles Dorothy.
And this year looks set to be busy too. Four new groups have opened their doors already in 2016, three of them in Sheffield, and Dorothy is certain there will be more.
“Anyone can start a group if they live in an area there isn’t one already,” says Dorothy, who works several hours a week overseeing the running of the South Yorkshire Federation, as well as running her own local WI group once a month.
“All you need is a venue, some members - at least six to begin with - and at least 11 meetings a year. If you have that, get in touch and we’ll come along and get you started.”
As well as the local meetings, there are a variety of events throughout the year for all regional members.
“We have two big meetings a year, in spring and autumn, for all our members, as well as various walks, garden parties and a carol service at Christmas.”
And despite being a charity themselves, the WI makes it its mission to support other local charities, raising thousands of pounds every year for local hospices and women’s refuge centres.
“If it’s something that any of our members, or their families, could expect to ever take advantage of, we support it.”
Visit South Yorkshire Federation of Women’s Institute for details.
THE FACTS BEHIND WI
* In 1921, WI member Margaret Winteringham became the second woman to ever be elected as a member of parliament and became affectionately known among WI members as ‘Our Institute MP.’
* WI members supported Tommies during the First World War, growing vegetables and preserve food to aid the nation on the home front.
* In 1941, the WI sparked a national debate about child evacuees, after publishing the results of a survey they’d carried out showing young evacuees living in urban areas of Britain were malnourished, unclean and in poor health. This debate led to the establishment of family allowances to help those in poverty.