September saw hundreds of women flock to hear about a vibrant and modern group that was starting a new branch in Tunbridge Wells. That organisation was the 100-year-old Women’s Institute. We caught up with the leaders to find how the local WI is faring…
Looking back on the first meeting of Tunbridge Wells’ new WI, Hanna Sorrell recalled that her expectations had been somewhat modest.
“I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if 20 or 30 people turned up?’” she said. “Then if, say, 15 people had actually joined, that would have been really nice.”
So it was something of a surprise when around 300 women squeezed into King Charles the Martyr church hall.
“I was absolutely stunned – my jaw was on the floor,” she said. “But obviously it’s addressing a need in the area, because we wouldn’t have got that reaction if there was no demand.”
When web designer Hanna, 32, moved to Tunbridge Wells in late 2014, she was looking for ways to make new friends.
“My first instinct was to join the WI here because that’s how I was going to get to know people,” she said. “So I joined the Southborough branch and they were all really lovely ladies, but it wasn’t the modern WI that I was used to and was looking for. So I decided to start my own.”
The much-maligned ‘jam and Jerusalem’ approach still has its place in the 21st century WI, it seems, but Hanna was looking for something with a little extra, as she explained.
“I wanted to see a dynamic range of speakers and that’s very important to me. I want to hear about a variety of matters, from heavy issues to more fun topics. I think that the WI is changing – it still has a way to go and when you say you’re in the WI, people tend to associate that with old ladies and
bake sales. Although that’s an important part of what the WI is about, it’s not all it’s about.”
Evidently, other women in Tunbridge Wells felt the same. In fact, so many people wanted to try it that they could not be accommodated by the one branch Hanna had envisaged. So two new branches were formed – the Wells Angels, of which Hanna is the President, and the Wells Belles group, based in St John’s and headed up by Siobhan Young. Both meet monthly, at the King Charles the Martyr church hall and St Luke’s, respectively.
Like many others, Siobhan went along to Hanna’s event to meet new people, after moving here from Australia in 2011. Siobhan – who runs personal styling business WellStyled – was struck by the new energy that Hanna and others brought to the group.
Hanna’s view that even the older generation wants something different from the WI these days is shared by Siobhan.
“It’s definitely opening up to a new generation, but it was interesting to hear that one of our oldest members left another WI branch because she felt they were too ‘old’,” Siobhan said. “People want to have that energy and have been really impressed with the modern outlook.”
At the first meeting of Wells Belles, members were asked for their suggestions for future activities and, as Siobhan revealed, “no one suggested jam or chutney making!” Also, Hanna insists that her members are not ‘ladies’, but ‘women’. But what are these new things that the modern WI offers?
“Our January meeting is going to be a really exciting one for us, because we’ve got a speaker coming all the way from New York,” Hanna said. “She’s the campaign manager for Girl Rising, who campaign for girls’ equal opportunities to access education around the world. Then in February, we’re having a gin tasting event with Fuggles and in March we’ve got someone coming from the Feminist Library.”
For Siobhan, the focus is also on trying new activities and learning new things, possibly with trips beyond Tunbridge Wells.
“I think that, for a lot of women, they just want to make new friends,” she said. “You’ve got your work friends, your mum friends and your school friends, and the WI is a bit of an escape, where the people you meet don’t fit into any of those categories. One of the ladies who comes says that it’s her goal to know everybody in the group and I love that independent spirit from people who come on their own. I have three children and it’s interesting that most of the women on the committee also have three or four children – three of us have twins – and so we’re all busy people. But the WI has nothing to do with the kids, it’s all about our own enthusiasm and energy.”
In this day and age, when there are so many internet-based networks and social groups, why choose the WI over other, newer approaches?
“It’s the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the country and has over 200,000 members,” Hanna said. “The WI also has a really good history of campaigning, on causes like organ donation and getting more midwives, and that’s really important to me and the members”.
However, if you want to be a part of it, you might be out of luck for now. At 100 members, the Wells Angels have reached their maximum, although you can join the waiting list at www.wellsangelsWI.com
With over 80 people in their group, Wells Belles are also oversubscribed, but you can visit www.facebook.com/twwistjohns for more information.