Red Brick On the Road #2 – The Women’s Institute

 

In the second in our series of Red Brick On The Road research projects, we embarked on a trip to the rural Norfolk village of Ludham to talk to the Women’s Institute – a far cry from Comic Con but no less interesting in terms of what we might learn about Followings.

Entering the thatched Church Rooms building, we were there to probe the myths of Jam and Jerusalem, to understand what role the WI played in the lives of these women and this community, and how an organisation with such well-known traditions that they’ve entered pop culture was evolving to attract the next generation of its movement.

 

5 Key Learnings:

  1. Shared values and attitudes are more powerful in defining a Following than the profile of its members

Whilst all members recognised the importance of having a group for women, as a counterbalance to the many male-focussed clubs, the real commonality between members wasn’t being female – it was being outward-looking.

One of the founding tenets of the WI is ongoing education and sharing of skills, with members looking to learn from others via ‘dabble days’, listening to guest speakers and through work in their local area.

Far from some outsiders and members’ initial perceptions of the WI being for introspective old ‘fuddy duddys’, members embrace stimulation and learning.

 

  1. Respect your traditions but evolve with the times

There are many long-standing organisationsacross Britain with a reputation for being bound by traditions and reflecting old social hierarchies, but the enduring success of the WI can be partly attributed to how it willingly reflects modern life, and continues to evolve.

Its membership is becoming more diverse, with groups across England and Wales welcoming the older members we may expect, as well as younger groups holding gigs and events, all through the lens of traditional WI values – resulting in a movement whose power lay in the roots, rather than restricted by top-down rules.

 

  1. Give outsiders a taste of what being an insider feels like

Much like with many other Followings and groups, perceptions of the WI can be a barrier to joining. Many people presuppose it’s only for older women, meaning they can easily discount it as ‘not for me’, or the togetherness of the group itself making it seem difficult for outsiders to become ‘insiders’.

The WI’s guest policy – attending two meetings as a guest with no requirement to join – means that people can sample what the WI is about – and many current members joined that way. The best way for an outsider to begin that shift to Follower is by showing what a group is like from the inside.

 

  1. Don’t underestimate the galvanising effect of a ‘badge’

In other Followings such as football fandom, songs and chants are widespread, but their role is to build atmosphere and unite a group of people in the same venue.

The WI, being a nationwide body, means that the role of Jerusalem as their anthem is different. Far from being used to ‘build atmosphere’ in one location, it’s used as a badge of identity in church halls and meeting places across England, and to signal the start of meeting.

More importantly, its use at annual conferences and the Royal Albert Hall is what galvanises members, giving the feeling of nation-wide unity as a singular movement.

 

  1. The strongest movements play a role in culture beyond just their group

For many moving to a new community, rural or urban, the thought of developing new social ties and relationships can be daunting.

Rather than being a niche interest, or a Following in isolation, the WI is a Following that infiltrates all aspects of a community, by nature of its members being members of other groups, or in their role as community guardians wanting to make a difference in the local area.

The nationwide reach and cache of the WI can be a key to the community.

 

So, we’ve experienced the other-worldly Comic Con, and the traditional-but-evolving Women’s Institute – vastly different groups but bound by their ability to generate and maintain a dedicated Following.

Watch this space for where we explore next.