I scribbled down a few notes on my bus journey home yesterday evening about what the Women's Institute (the WI) means to me and how my generation has been brought up to perceive the national club. Considering my limited knowledge and stereotypical perceptions of what goes on at said groups' meetings, I was rather surprised to find myself excitedly jotting down ideas after attending my first social organised by the new Cambridge City WI and even more pleasantly surprised to find out what the new group has in store for its potential members.
"The WI" takes me back to some early memories of attending playgroup in the village I grew up in, held in the purpose-built, possibly government-funded, WI hall in the centre of the small community. There was a small stage, wall-mounted electric bar heaters which glowed bright red and orange in winter, and a tiny kitchen with an urn. To me, at age 3, the WI was a building central to my little daily routine, not a group of people. Fast-forward to teenage years and some equally hazy memories. The WI hall, 10 or so years later, is again a focal point as me and my peers enjoy discos and parties at the hired hall and hang around on the WI steps swigging alcopops. A few years after, I relive the memories of the WI as a playgroup when, working as a nanny, I'm the adult taking a toddler for their first time at the WI hall to learn how to play with other children, join in with games, and get ready for school. I didn't once question what else the WI hall was used for.
Once, my mother asked me and my siblings to help her provide the entertainment for a "sisterhood" group at the local church. I think this is the closest I got to attending a Women's Institute meeting. Mum played the piano and my sisters and I performed "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound of Music, complete with popping out from behind each other and warbling "cuck-oooo" as we pretended to be the Von Trapp children. We practised it for weeks and the ladies from the sisterhood loved every second. When we were waiting for our performance slot, however, we had to sit quietly on plastic chairs in a church hall and listen to all manner of notices and formalities. This is perhaps the image I had of WI meetings.
Then a few weeks ago some intriguing and beautifully designed posters started to pop up around the city of Cambridge, advertising a new Cambridge City WI. I noticed references to a new, vibrant, younger focused, less traditional WI group appearing on Facebook and Twitter. My boss mentioned in passing that she was off to an open meeting of a new "thing" in the area. I investigated and found that the proposed new Cambridge City WI sounded rather fun, different and a great way to take up a hobby, meet new people, and to embrace being a grown up. Let's face it, there's plenty to do in Cambridge but it can be somewhat lacking in nightlife options once your clubbing or student days are drawing to a close.
I unfortunately missed the first open meeting (but you too can find out LOTS more here: Cambridge City WI on Facebook), in which brainstorming about potential activities took place and tea and cake was served. Forget the stereotypical baking, sewing and jam making (although hopefully these and many more very useful skills and hobbies will be catered to) and think DIY, dancing, photography, first aid and vintage hair and make-up! The Committee will be providing an interesting and varied programme for the monthly meetings, including fundraising activities, socials, and ongoing consultation with members about what they want from a local WI group. I chatted to one of the committee members, Claire, and she said they were thrilled at the huge amount of interest from local women so far. I also met many women at the social who were very interested in joining the group at the first official meeting in October, for reasons ranging from a love of crafts and baking, to getting to know the area and learn more about Cambridge's history, to meeting new people, or wanting to establish a new skill or hobby. The friendly and diverse environment and an instant common ground was also a great start to the new group.
You can read write-ups about the first open meeting on local blogs and in the local press, here:
I'm really looking forward to the next open meeting and many more to come! Join us! :-)