In this occasional series I will be interviewing women and discussing what feminism means to them in 2014. Over the last thirty years the lives of women in this country has changed rapidly with growing numbers of women in the labour market, getting access to an expanding education system and having greater economic and social freedom.
But in the last few years all these gains have been put under threat due to the declining economy and a Tory Government that has attacked the public services which many women depend on for jobs and services. For some women this has meant taking a role in the many single issue campaigns that are active in opposing the government including the Anti Fracking, Bedroom Tax, Against Atos, and Keep our NHS Public. Other women have made different choices.
In this post I am interviewing Lex one of the founders of the Women’s Institute in Manchester and discussing with her why this is the organisation she has chosen to be active in.
The WI is the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK. It was founded in 1915 in the UK during the First World War and was involved in food production. There are now about 6,600 branches across the country with over 200,000 members.
The WI says that it plays “a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.”
The image of the WI is that is rural, socially conservative and well-off but in branches such as Manchester younger women are redefining this stereotype. Lex Taylor, aged 25, who formed Manchester WI with her friend Lucy Adams in 2011, is not from a traditional WI background. Lucy’s grandmother was a member of the WI and taught her traditional skills such as baking and knitting.
“I am from a working class background in Liverpool. My dad worked abroad and my Mum was a housewife who brought up three children. She did not have much opportunity but over the last 15 years has trained up to be a nurse. Seeing what she has done for herself, has made me want to progress and encourage other women to take up opportunities.”
Lex came to Manchester to study but did not find any women’s groups that she wanted to join.
“I am a feminist. When I was growing up the word feminist was seen as an ugly one. It is only in the last few years, for me, that I have felt alright about using it and to me being a feminist is about owning and control your own body and mind.”
Setting up a WI branch came about because of the lives that women, particularly professional women, face when living in big cities such as Manchester.
“Women are losing the ability to connect as women. We sit behind a screen all day working, dashing to and from work, looking after our children but have little opportunity to interact.”
Lex and Lucy are in their mid-20s but the age profile of their WI branch ranges from 18 to 67. They now have 120 members.
“The issues for women today have massively changed and we reflect those issues, including education, charity and friendship, a mixture that is completely varied.”
The WI is a charity and as such is not a political group.
“But both nationally and locally we adopt a charity to raise money for each year. This year we are supporting the Booth Centre in Manchester which is a homeless charity.”
After several of their members were attacked in the city centre they organised a meeting with the Greater Manchester Police for advice and had a talk on self defence. Other talks have included speakers on women’s history, and women in business.
Next year the WI is one hundred years old. It is seeing a growth in groups in urban areas such as Manchester and across the north-west, tapping into a need felt by professional women to link up with other women to socialise and develop interests.
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