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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 June 2005, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
Political force of the WI
By Clare Babbidge
BBC News

In 90 years of the Women's Institute the non-political charity has campaigned on subjects as diverse as nuclear testing, domestic violence, poverty and injustice.

As delegates gather for its annual meeting at the Albert Hall in London on Wednesday it is clear the 90th birthday marks much more than decades of cake-making for its 215,000 members.

Women campaigning against litter dumping. Picture courtesy of NFWI
The WI told the nation to take home its litter in the 1950s

The organisation began in Canada as a educational movement inspired by a mother who campaigned about health and hygiene following the death of her child.

Since then the WI has become a voice calling for change or awareness of serious issues.

As early as the 1920s the group called for more public health education to prevent venereal disease.

Nuclear testing, the danger of drugs and marine pollution have all been campaign issues for the WI.

But despite a long-established role of lobbying, many seemed surprised when the WI grabbed headlines five years ago when Tony Blair's speech to its annual conference was met with slow hand claps.

Blair 'hand-bagged'

"Hand-bagged" and "reduced to jelly" screamed the newspapers after the prime minister was heckled by women who believed he was using the meeting as a political platform.

The "Jam and Jerusalem" idea came from the media.
Ruth Bond
WI member

The women's group also famously gained prominence when their campaigning took a saucy twist. North Yorkshire's Rylstone and District WI's near-naked calendar led to a hit film as well as a cheeky new form of charity fundraising.

Ruth Bond joined the WI in Barton, Cambridgeshire, 30 years ago when she was 22.

"It was a chance to meet new people. I enjoyed the crafts and cookery, all the nice things.

"But I also enjoyed the resolutions, where we decide what to campaign on - that was what really grabbed my attention."

1930: Call for better medical supervision of pregnant women
1939: WIs help with war evacuation
1955: Keep Britain Tidy Group launched
1960: Concern raised over use of toxic sprays
1979: Concerns raised about village schools' closure
1986: Annual meeting calls for more information about Aids
1999: Delegates voice concern over GM food

As a young girl she recalls her mother, who is still a WI member, being involved in anti-litter campaigns.

Indeed it was the WI which launched the Keep Britain Tidy Group in the 1950s.

WIs around the country raised issues which concerned them and those to be taken up nationally were decided at the conference, she said.

This year calls to raise awareness that farmers get "an unfair share of profits" from milk sales will be one of the topics on the agenda at conference.

Brussels lobby

For Mrs Bond hazardous chemicals in food and household products is a "passionate concern".

WI campaigners in Brussels. Margaret Foulds, Helen Bacon, Jean Sheppard, Barbara Gill (Chair of NFWI).  Pictures from the NFWI
WI members boarded a bus in Brussels to deliver a petition

She travelled to Brussels in January to lobby MEPs for stricter legislation and is now preparing for a return trip.

"I have gained so much from the WI.

"It has given me the courage to stand up and speak out in public."

She believes younger women can also gain a lot, but feels the group's public persona changed in the 1980s.

"During the 1970s, many girls my age were joining. But the "Jam and Jerusalem" idea came from the media.

"Someone coined that and I think it has put a dampener on what we do."

A WI spokeswoman said non-governmental organisations and the government still regard it "as a powerful campaigning force and a powerful body of opinion" as indicated by the number of e-mails she received.

Health and care

The spokeswoman said the WI had been at the forefront of many issues, for example women's health.

"I think what they have done is raise awareness about women's health, particularly in rural areas, long before the more radical health pressure groups," she said.

WI campaign against domestic violence. Picture courtesy of NFWI featured in their 90th anniversary  brochure
The WI raised awareness about domestic violence in the 1970s

The WI called for the government to open clinics for breast cancer screening as early as 1975, she said.

On the issue of children's diet and health, she added: "Jamie Oliver has taken up the mantle for school dinners, but for years the WI has been campaigning on the issue in one way or another."

Ninety years after its inception the WI is still campaigning including calling for better provision for victims of human trafficking and raising awareness of how trade injustice effects women in developing countries.

But alongside lobbying the WI has kept up its traditions.

The official song Jerusalem will be still be sung at the start of Wednesday's conference.

And although there is less music and drama at the groups, the WI retains "a deep commitment to crafts", its website says.

And many new WIs are attracting women in their 20s and 30s, said the spokeswoman, who manage to successfully combine the more traditional past times such as flower arranging with other activities such as socialising down the pub.

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