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‘Calendar Girls’ – the modern WI, feminism and the post-nude years

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The Women’s Institute was long a byword for a sort of outdated, old fashioned femininity. That is, until 1999, when a few middle-aged members from Yorkshire shed their crochet cardigans and posed for a millennial calendar - naked.

This would go on to become one of the most famous calendars in history. In fact, the Queen still has a copy in Buckingham Palace. The public perception of the WI was altered forever – or so it was thought at the time.

Nowadays, as it celebrates its 100-year anniversary in the UK, the WI is the country’s largest female membership organisation and world’s largest women’s voluntary organisation, with over 200,000 members.

And yet, negative stereotypes persist. People wonder how, or if, the WI is still relevant, and how an organisation devoted to traditional ‘women’s skills’ fits in with modern feminism.

Andrew Lawston, advertising manager at the NFWI (which allows male employees, just not members) says that while the WI isn’t strictly a feminist organisation, “lots of members, and staff, are feminists.”

“You can certainly argue that it’s becoming more feminist in recent years, with an influx of younger members, particularly in larger cities, but the average member age is still 60+, and many are deeply socially conservative.”

However, Julie Chalder-Mills, lecturer at the University of Southampton, and member of the ‘Cambridge Feminist Network’, says: “It is the antithesis of feminism to me, which is how I define myself.”

Her mother had encouraged her to join the organisation, in order to make friends. But according to her, “the WI was full of retired women who were the epitome of white, middle class housewives, which is everything I never aspired to be”.

So clearly, the image revamp has fallen short. To understand the root of the WI stereotypes, it is necessary to look beyond the calendar at the organisation’s history.

In 1897, the first WI group was formed in Ontario, Canada, as a branch of the Farmers’ Institute. It was designed to bring women from rural communities together to learn traditional ‘home skills’ and ‘women’s farming’, such as housework and poultry keeping.

However, when the WI came to the UK in 1915 at the start of the First World War, it began to take on more of a community service role. The idea was to encourage women in the countryside to become involved in food production for the war-torn nation.

Although the focus was clearly still on domestic skills, there was now a galvanising, philanthropic nature to the organisation. By the end of the war, a national federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) had been formed, and over 1400 WIs existed in the UK.

But the stereotypes were already in place, and would persist for most of the 20th century: baking, knitting, ‘jam ‘n’ Jerusalem’…the average WI member was a caricature: a late-middle-aged, blue rinsed do-gooder.

So, on the eve of the millennium, the image was ripe for a rebranding.

After losing her husband to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Angela Baker of the Rylstone and District WI decided to raise money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In 1999, Baker and some fellow members between the ages of 45 and 65 posed for a calendar – with an edge.

Instead of the traditional calendar of innocuous rural landscapes, photography Terry Logan shot the ‘Alternative WI Calendar’, which had the Yorkshire ladies flout this stereotype by posing provocatively behind strategically-placed vegetables and kitchen tools.

Though some were shocked, the calendar became an instant success. The naked ladies were voted women of the year, and over the next decade their photoshoot managed to raise £3.5 million.

The story was even turned into critically acclaimed film ‘Calendar Girls’, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.

Joanna Rayner, the Press Officer for the WI, was quick to emphasise that the calendar was not an official fundraiser: “It was an individual WI project so we don’t have much information on it.”

Nevertheless, the calendar made enough of a splash to draw national focus at the turn of the century. But was it sufficient in keeping the organisation relevant to young, modern, feminist women?

Although still with a focus on arts and crafts, rural life, and agriculture in general, the WI is nowadays above all a charitable organisation that dedicates considerable effort to worthwhile causes, such as human trafficking and HIV awareness. And despite the enduring stereotypes, there is a modern face to the Institute.

Open to all women, of any age, nationality or ethnicity, many WI groups consciously challenge these stereotypes. More and more groups are established in cities or targeted at younger members, or even a niche market, like the ‘Iron Maidens’ in Wirral.

According to President China Lou, this group is aimed at anyone with an interest in “burlesque, punk, tattoos, rockabilly, all the things not associated with the WI. But we are all about raising money and awareness for good causes.”

She is quick to point out that feminism and so-called ‘traditional female’ skills, are not in any way mutually exclusive.

“I do not see doing the housework as anti-feminist unless the female is the only one doing it.”

Joanna Burigo, MSc in Gender, Media and Culture from LSE, is of the opinion: “Any organisation that brings women together is relevant - and will continue to be, for as long as the world works within patriarchal structures.”

Lucy Gonzalez, the PR director for the Cambridge Blue Belles, a WI group targeted specifically at younger women, agrees. “Any time women claim a space to be who they are, I believe feminism is happening.”

She continues: “The WI is absolutely relevant, now as much as 100 years ago. Women still need spaces where they can be themselves. The WI offers that space – a space to be me.”

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