The Women’s Institute, famously portrayed in the 2003 hit movie Calendar Girls, has boosted its membership hugely in recent years with a range of unorthodox techniques
The Women’s Institute is boosting numbers and shaking off its jam-and-Jerusalem image by recruiting students and holding online meetings – and by inviting speakers including burlesque dancers and sex workers.
The organisation, famously portrayed in the 2003 hit movie Calendar Girls, boosted its membership by 30,000 up to 190,000 in 2022/3. These legions of new members are helping with the organisation’s important work to end violence against women, tackle climate change and improve women’s healthcare.
On Teesside, there are 21 local groups in the National Federation. Recent meetings included a speaker stripping down to stockings and suspenders for a burlesque night.
And a sex worker is booked to give a talk to educate members about her life. Another innovation that would have seemed out of place in years gone by is that supporters can join the WI without turning up in person.
Melissa Green, Chief Executive Officer of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, told the Daily Mirror: “The WI today is really thriving and more relevant than ever, with 30,000 new members joining us in the last year alone.
“We’ve introduced a new alternative to full membership, and more online WIs are being formed by local groups, which is great. We have also just launched a brand new WI Learning Hub, for all women, of any age, to learn new skills and forge new friendships.”
Local groups are devolved and offer their own activities. Homebirds WI groups are run by disabled and neurodiverse women. Melissa added: “We love and embrace the rich tapestry that is the WI movement.” She described the new approach as the biggest change in the history of the group, which held its first meeting in England in England and Wales in September 1915.
The modernisation was inspired by members sharing stories of their daughters, mothers, aunts, colleagues and friends who wanted to join in a way that works for them, Melissa added.
Last year, one of the original Calendar Girls became a Brazilian jiu-jitsu teacher, to help women defend themselves against attacks. Tricia Stewart, 74, was one of the members of Rylstone Women’s Institute, the North Yorkshire group that inspired the hit movie starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.
“It’s so important for women to know that they have this power”, said Tricia, who trains her students in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. She described martial art jiu-jitsu as a confidence-booster in the same way the calendar was for her.
She is one of 11 women who found worldwide fame when they posed naked behind baked goods and flower arrangements for the 1999 Women’s Institute calendar. They were raising money for a sofa for their local hospital, in memory of John Baker, who died from non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1998.
The original target was £5,000 but the calendar became such a phenomenon that they ended up raising around £6million. Along with the film, which also starred Annette Crosbie and Linda Bassett, the calendar inspired a musical and a stage show. The term jam and Jerusalem came from the Wi traditions of making jam and singing the hymn Jerusalem at the start of meetings.