Three weeks ago I had a pleasant evening with one of our local Women’s Institute groups, not so far from Bristol.
The WI’s Keynsham branch had invited me to give a talk about my long and varied career as a writer. So I stood at a lectern in a room full of women of all ages, who listened appreciatively, laughed in the right places, and asked searching, highly intelligent questions at the end.
It was as enjoyable as the much bigger WI conference and lunch in Bristol I addressed a few years ago: same terrific women, same lively atmosphere, same sense of the good old Women’s Institute doing what it’s done best for over 100 years.
Which is what exactly?
Campaigning for women’s issues, from domestic violence through equal pay, modern slavery and health. Bringing all sorts of women together to talk, create, campaign and (most important) provide sociable companionship for each other in craft groups, coffee mornings and charitable work to name but three.
Petra Wenham (pictured right) from Elmsett, Ipswch. Petra is the first transgender person to appear on the cover of the Woman’s Institute magazine. Her wife is Loraine (pictured left)
The old patronising stereotype of the WI — summed up by the phrase ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ — referred to the organisation’s wartime activity.
Members canned or made jam to feed the population, proudly singing the patriotic hymn Jerusalem — the poem by William Blake set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916 — which was also associated with the Suffragettes. A noble history.
If the Women’s Institute seemed to represent conservative values, those time-honoured attitudes had nothing at all to do with party politics.
They were deeply rooted in love of family, locality, community and country — and would challenge anything which threatened what they held dear. Britain’s biggest organisation for women was, in fact, the sisterhood in action — long before 1960s feminists like me even thought of the term.
To me, the greatest achievement of the WI is summed up in the words of a widow in her 60s I spoke to in Bristol. She explained that after her husband died very suddenly, her life seemed over. The loneliness after 35 years of marriage was crushing.
She was depressed and didn’t know where to turn. But then a friend took her along to the local WI and everything changed. She felt she belonged. The WI gave meaning to her life and brought joy to her heart.
I wonder what that lady is thinking now that the WI is split over the inclusion of trans people in what used to be their all-female spaces.
Loraine (pictured right) is pictured with Petra Wenham on their wedding day in 1973. Petra transitioned aged 68 and became the first trans person to feature on the WI’s magazine cover
A group of WI members calling themselves Women’s Institute Declaration are in revolt over the 107-year-old organisation’s recent policy of accepting transgender women. Their petition asks — surely quite reasonably — for members to be able to debate and hold a vote on the issue.
The clash is between the umbrella organisation, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI), which had formulated the top-down policy, and the supposedly independent local groups who may object to equality rules being forced on them.
They’re pointing out that nobody consulted them — and their new petition calls for a pause in admitting new trans members, while allowing current trans members to remain. That last point is very important. These women are not zealots for total exclusion. But they refuse to be told what to think and do.
Some people will agree with former Conservative leader William Hague, who has now attacked those WI members who cannot agree with the mantra ‘trans women are women’. He says they have to ‘get over that . . . and welcome new people’.
Others might snap back that it’s none of his business — and agree with the dissenters who say that the NFWI risks not fulfilling its purpose as a charity to ‘advance the education of women and girls’ if it cannot properly define what a woman is. After all, that capital letter ‘W’ in the name should tell us everything we need to know.
Plenty of people who have never had anything to do with the WI may view all this as a storm in a teacup. Others will see the row as yet another example of the insidious spread of woke ideology which is now rife in all our institutions — and I include myself among this category.
For there seems to be no escaping the creep of wokedom. As someone who happens to care about the WI and all the good it does within the community, I was surprised to see a transgender person, Petra Wenham, on the cover of its magazine WI Life in 2021.
Why the virtue signalling, I wondered, when you have thousands of female members who might just love to be a cover girl later in life?
Until then, I had no idea of the extent to which trans rights activism had penetrated the venerable and valuable WI. In fact, a 2017 policy document states that ‘anyone who is living as a woman is welcome to join the WI and to participate in any WI activities in the same way as any other woman’.
It says that it is ‘unhelpful’ (to whom?) to ask if there is a difference between a transgender woman who has undergone gender reassignment surgery and one who has not — and calls it ‘very offensive and hurtful’ to ask for written evidence about an applicant’s legal sex.
Another more recent publication insists that including transgender women ‘enriches our membership’ to ensure that ‘we are a place for all women to celebrate who they are’.
That second 2021 NFWI document — called ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion — Glossary of Terms — lists about 50 separate terms WI members are supposed to know, from ‘Bi-gender’ to ‘Pansexual’ to ‘Transphobia’ to ‘White Privilege.’ It is all straight from the woke-campus activist’s rulebook.
It gives six entries for ‘gender’ and lists five different sorts of ‘discrimination’. An ‘ally’, for instance, is ‘someone who uses their privilege from being part of a dominant group to take action to challenge oppression by supporting and advocating with the oppressed/discriminated against group.
‘For example, if you are White and live in a White dominant society, acknowledging White privilege (defined below), educating yourself about racism and speaking up when you see a racist act.’
What on earth has all that tedious, ideological posturing to do with the needs of my sad widow who found safety and friendship in the activities of her local WI?
According to the woke trustees at the top of the NFWI (advised by outside activists, of course) she is now supposed to ‘educate herself’, listen to St William of Hague and accept that these days there can be no such thing as a women-only space. Should they be surprised if she dares to stand up and shout, ‘No’?
Currently the Facebook page run by the magazine WI Life is asking how local groups are ‘planning to celebrate Pride month’ and suggesting they ‘get in touch with your local LGBTQ+ organisations and find out how you can join this June’.
But why on earth should members of the Women’s Institute care anything about Pride month (an American import) and its frequently provocative displays of LGBTQ+ activism often in the shape of glitter, rainbows, drag queens, leather-fetishism and other sorts of semi-sexual posturing in the streets?
It might be fun for some, but Pride month — which is clearly important in its own way — has nothing to do with the traditional activities of the WI.
The real pride of the WI goes back generations and was summed up by our late Queen: ‘The Women’s Institute has been a constant throughout, gathering women together, encouraging them to acquire new skills and nurturing unique talents.’
The organisation has always had the stated aim of supporting democratic values — which is exactly why the current split is happening.
The powers that be in the NFWI should realise you cannot impose the views of what is still a minority (in terms of attitudes among the British public) on the strong women who are its raison d’être.