The Women’s Institute
Rainy afternoons are plentiful in Oregon, and on such a day there is nothing quite like a jigsaw puzzle, Miss Marple, and a little benevolent neglect of your child. I recently watched our heroine solve a mystery of poison pen letters that had been typed using a machine at the Women’s Institute. I’d heard that term before in other BBC contexts and resolved to learn more. Happily, my favorite documentary presenter, Lucy Worsley, did a show on the Women’s Institute. Unhappily, the version on youtube is poorly formatted. Still, I learned a lot.
Evidently the Women’s Institute is a Canadian and British organization for rural women that began a century ago and involves monthly meetings where women gather to learn skills, do crafts, and enjoy treats. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Well as I was watching the documentary I couldn’t help thinking “I want to be in the Women’s Institute! I wish we had them here! I wonder if I could start one?” After a moment I recalled that I do, in fact, belong to a women’s organization. Why wasn’t it exciting to me then? What was different about the WI?
According to Ms. Worsley at chapter meetings the women hold regular votes on “everything from the choice of an assistant treasurer, to the day’s great issues.” We then see a scene from a WI meeting in which a woman reads out a resolution to the group: “As we mark the first 100 years of the WI, we deplore the unacceptable level of gender discrimination that still exists today.” The camera cuts to the members voting on the resolution — some for, some not, and secretary carefully tabulates the votes and records them in the minute book. Lucy underlines out how brilliantly democratic the system is, predating the time when women could vote in national elections.
Later in the presentation, she explains the national structure for WIs: “The Women’s Institute’s democratic structure gives individual women a powerful voice. Any member can propose a resolution, which is voted on in the Institute’s AGM [Annual General Meeting]. And if it’s passed, the Institute throws its full weight behind a national campaign on that issue.”
Here then are some of the key things I noticed about the WIs:
- They choose their own leaders by vote.
- Members vote on specific rules to guide their chapter meetings (e.g. “only one kind of cake shall be served” after a meeting in the Llanfairpwllgwyngyll WI)
- They discuss issues and vote on them
- Consensus is not expected or required
- Dissenting votes are also recorded
- Members propose the agenda of the larger organization
- Members have an opportunity to dissent publicly from that agenda
- The organization uses its united power to effect change on a national level for issues that women feel are important to them.
In many ways, the WI as portrayed in the documentary looked remarkably like any Relief Society meeting I’ve ever been to. They began by singing Jerusalem to the accompaniment of an electric organ. Most of the members were older. They had craft fairs, and canning classes and homemaking lessons. They sat down for refreshments after the meeting. And yet the structure had a key difference: The voice of the women mattered.
When have I ever been asked to help decide the RS goals or focus for the year? Do I have any choice in who the presidency will be? Do we ever discuss current affairs in a way that allows for a variety of opinions? Is there a mechanism for the general leadership to hear my voice? Do they care at all what I think or feel is important?
The reason, I submit, that I felt so energized and excited when I learned about the WI is that it is a women’s organization. It is run by women, led by women and the voices of women matter. It is an organization that exists to meet the needs and improve the lot of women. I don’t feel excited about Relief Society because although it has much in common in terms of format and content with the WI, it is fundamentally not a women’s organization. The leaders are chosen by men, the classes are about the experiences and teachings of men, the budget and activities must be approved by a man and the proposals and opinions of women are entirely dependent on the goodwill of a man to be carried forward.
Do you feel excited about being part of the Relief Society (or have you in the past?) What would make you feel more engaged with it as an organization?