The Women’s Institute has shed its jam and Jerusalem image. We speak to four Essex women who have found friendship and fulfilment with the organisation

When the film Calendar Girls came out in 2003, as the women shed their clothes, the WI seemed to shed its image. It’s the largest women’s organisation in the UK, and over the years, it has led campaigns, marched in support, fostered community spirit and brought generations of women together.

During the war, the WI arranged houses for evacuees and then checked on the children. It was the first organisation to highlight litter in rural areas, and from that came the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. And let’s not forget those delicious cakes with the occasional pot of homemade jam!

The Essex Federation has 174 institutes with more than 8,000 members – one of the biggest in the country. Today, far from just a gossip in the village hall, the Women’s Institute is inspiring a new generation.


Great British Life: Jan Curtis with Jennie BondJan Curtis with Jennie Bond (Image: Clare Woods)

Jan Curtis, 59, WI adviser

Chair of the Essex Federation and president of Bulphan WI

After bringing up her boys, Jan found she needed a bit of me time. She says, ‘Two of my friends said they would take me to the WI. I said, “I don't wear a twinset and pearls; I'm more of a Dr. Martens and a parka type of person – and I've got purple hair!”’

However, Jan found the Bulphan WI welcoming, and 12 years later, is now its president. ‘I always say one size doesn't fit all; some WIs are more campaign-based, some are more craft-based. Find one that suits you. If it’s not quite a fit for you, then try another one – they are all welcoming.

Jan explains that the WI is all about community, from setting up a borrow-a-bucket beach scheme to decorating the church with ‘bottle-bottom poppies’ or supporting women’s sport. During the pandemic, Bulphan WI made masks and scrub bags, checked on members and delivered meetings in a bag. Jan says, ‘We put a little bag together with a mini non-alcoholic cocktail, a birthday cake and some playing cards, then had a magician on Zoom. I think it was Lorraine Kelly who said during the pandemic: “We need the WI on this; they would get it sorted straight away.” It’s so true. Everyone targets us with that jam and Jerusalem thing, but we are so much more than that.’

This includes more than 100 years of campaigning. ‘Essex had the first resolution passed on social housing in 1918; something that is still relevant today,’ explains Jan. ‘In 1948, the WI resolution was about equal pay – even before the wonderful Dagenham girls. And two years before David Attenborough started talking about plastic in oceans, we passed a resolution on it. We’ll let him have that one though, because he's very nice and we like him! Essex also has 25 climate ambassadors – dedicated members that are concerned about the current climate crisis.

‘Two hours once a month I turn my phone off to be with like-minded women, put the world to rights, have a speaker or do an activity. I’ve done some amazing things since I've been a member, from camping with 500 women in a field to hearing 5,000 women singing Jerusalem. But I would say my number one highlight is the amazing friends I've made. People think it's a group of little old ladies that all get together, but it is so much more than that.’


Great British Life:  Lynsey Jackson campaigning Lynsey Jackson campaigning (Image: Lynsey Jackson)

Lynsey Jackson, 32, product developer for Burberry

Member of Elsenham WI

Lynsey’s mother, Moyra Jackson, is president of Elsenham WI, and Lynsey thought it would be a fun thing for them to both be involved in. Lynsey says, ‘I saw the WI as a group for an older generation where they bake and sing Jerusalem, but I got that very wrong. It’s open to all ages and is about friendship and learning.’

The 32-year-old loves the different types of meetings, from learning a new craft and listening to a speaker to socialising with others over board games or at the summer and Christmas parties. ‘I have gained a lot of knowledge and skills through the organisation,’ she says. ‘I’ve learned about vintage jewellery, discovered the importance of bees and even about working in cabaret!

‘One month we are gin tasting and the next we are learning sign language. An Elsenham WI meeting is always a fun, interesting and positive evening, and the committee do so much for us to make sure each month is exciting. There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, and these people don't get enough thanks.’

Through the institute, she has made friendships that span generations. ‘I have made friends with people my age and up to their late 80s, and I love it. I have such a wide range of friends now and I can sit and chat with any of them and enjoy their company. I also have lots of ‘WI mums’ and feel very loved and protected. These ladies all look out for me, and I am extremely lucky to have that support network.’

Another highlight for Lynsey is seeing how loved and respected her mother Moyra is. ‘I know she is fantastic, and now lots of other people know that too. She is passionate and really cares about the WI; I love hearing her speak at the start of every meeting. She has a little bell to get everyone's attention that I am sure she'd like to use at home too when my dad and I are annoying her.’


Great British Life: Vanessa Milligan, president of Westcliff-on-Sea WI.Vanessa Milligan, president of Westcliff-on-Sea WI. (Image: Vanessa Milligan)

Vanessa Milligan, 61, celebrant

President of Westcliff-on-Sea WI

Vanessa’s mother had been a member of the WI ‘forever’. When she moved back to Essex from London, Vanessa found she wasn't meeting like-minded people, so when she heard about a new WI that had opened, she went purely to make friends.

Vanessa tells me, ‘There was a big resurgence around 13 years ago of new WIs springing up, and mine was set up by people in their thirties who were stay-at-home mums. Women were tending to do more handicrafts and interest in the organisation had increased. We also had a lot of publicity after Tony Blair was booed at our national conference!’

Vanessa feels that although they do have younger members, the WI satisfies a gap for women 40 and over. ‘Some WIs are more traditional, but I like to make things fun; I don't like too many rules and regulations. It’s about friendship – you've got the people that you can have fun with and those that you have your heartfelt conversations with. The only thing to say whether you're allowed to join is that you must be a woman. We have just got a new member who has recently transitioned; as far as the WI is concerned, they are a woman and they are welcome.

‘Although I am very cake driven in my life, we don’t have cake competitions! However, we do sing Jerusalem at every meeting. Each year we have a vote on it and it’s a resounding yes. It was the suffragette's marching tune and that’s why the WI took it over. I like the tradition and singing together is lovely, but it does concern me that it's a Christian hymn and we are not a religious organisation.

‘We've had all sorts of speakers, from radio and TV's Dr Annie Grey talking about the history of the Christmas feast to Jack Monroe on food poverty. We've also tried our hand at a wide variety of crafts: rag wreath making, calligraphy and sewing pillowcase dresses to send to Africa. And we've moved our bodies to burlesque, barn and belly dancing.

‘We have reenacted 1970s game shows, had an evening of online Taskmaster challenges during lockdown (making a mask out of a slice of bread was my favourite game) and laughed to an improv comedy group. A talk on mudlarking was followed up by a treasure-seeking expedition along the Thames and a camping weekend of willow weaving is in the planning stages following a particularly inspiring speaker. I've learned so much, made great friends and laughed until I couldn't breathe. I love my WI!’


Great British Life: Laura Pisaneschi enjoys the WI's campaign work.Laura Pisaneschi enjoys the WI's campaign work. (Image: Laura Pisaneschi)

Laura Pisaneschi, 38, mental health clinical practitioner

President of Chafford Hundred WI and resolution coordinator for Essex Federation

Laura had always wanted to be a member of the WI, but thought it was for older women who may be retired. She says, ‘When I walked in to my first WI meeting, one of the committee members greeted me and asked if I was there for aerobics, which was upstairs; they were shocked but pleased that I was joining!’

As well as making lifelong friendships, the group has introduced Laura to activities and events that she would never have tried. ‘I’ve listened to a variety of music, some of which I have no idea about, which amuses the older members,’ she says.

‘During the pandemic, I was in a busy central London A & E working long hours as a nurse. Our WI meeting was held remotely, and a few members got together and sent me a hamper as a thank you for all the work the NHS and I was doing; it really helped get me through some difficult days. We also set up a WhatsApp group as a committee and hearing from others about what they were up to helped.’

But it is the campaigns that have captured Laura’s interest, and she is now a resolution coordinator for the county. Campaigns close to her heart include mental health matters (under-represented and underdiagnosed), a campaign to help women with ADHD and autism, as well as End Plastic Soup, which aims to reduce microplastics in the oceans.

‘Being able to represent my WI and network with lots of other women across the country is an honour,’ she says. ‘I am attending the annual meeting in Cardiff as an observer this year, and I can’t wait to be with other likeminded women.’

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