Secretarial: The naked truth

I Work For... Cheryl Summers is PA to Eileen Meadmore, Chairman of the National Federation of Women's Institutes
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The Independent Culture
I was only 21 when I started work here and, like many, had an unfortunate "jam- and-Jerusalem" image of the Women's Institute, so it was quite a revelation to see what really goes on. Obviously, the members of the WI are famous for their jam-making and they do sing "Jerusalem" before their meetings, but there is so much more to our organisation than that. I had also assumed that membership just involved meeting up once a month, so I was quite shocked by how much the members do.

I've now been here nine years and some of my colleagues have been here for 30. I think there's something about the WI that appeals to professional and dedicated people. Of course, as a modern-minded organisation, we are changing all the time and are conscious of the need to be able to implement new ideas.

For example, our switchboard has been jammed with enquiries over the new calendar, featuring nude WI members from a North Yorkshire institute, and the shop which sells the calendar received so many calls that its phone line went dead. The response has been fantastic and has challenged the stereotype of the older WI member, for it shows the sense of humour many of us share. Eileen Meadmore was very supportive, as am I. Mind you, I don't think I would have had the guts to pose myself.

We want people to realise that there is so much more to us than meets the eye. Yes, there are cake-decorating courses but there are also a lot of members who want to participate in matters of international importance. We aren't merely interested in women's issues; anything involving the community, children and family concerns us. For example, we are involved in issues such as better screening for breast cancer, and the environment. We also have Denmore, our own residential college, where members can take courses in almost anything, including car maintenance.

I think my job has changed a lot over the years. I took over as head of secretariat in April 1997, having moved through many departments, including the member services department and the finance department. However, I had always wanted this job because I enjoy being in contact with everyone and I didn't really have a head for figures. I like the challenge of organising, working out procedures and making sure that everything runs smoothly. Generally there are good communication links between us all; very rarely do I have to chase any of my 30 colleagues, four of whom are men. I receive many phone queries from any one of our 252,000 members on a wide range of subjects. If someone asks me who opened the first WI meeting in England, I will enjoy researching the subject; it's fascinating to get a picture of life so many years ago.

Eileen actually lives in West Yorkshire, so I don't see a lot of her. When she is here, her time is precious, but I keep in telephone contact with her, which seems to work well. We have a good working relationship and I enjoy using my own initiative. She spends a lot of time travelling and speaking to members on subjects of their choice. Among the most popular is her account of her trip to Buckingham Palace to present a WI centenary silver medal to the Queen and the Queen Mother, both members of the Sandringham WI.

Eileen is very approachable, positive and upbeat. Of course, it is sometimes disheartening when we get bad press, but one of our policies is to try and see the best in everything. As chairman, Eileen is a WI member herself and goes to all her local meetings, so she is well placed to implement both the executive committee's policies and the members' points of view. I, however, have never been to a WI meeting because - in common with most of the staff - I am not a member. The feeling is that since we are working on implementing policies, it might compromise us to have the interests of a local group in mind. But staff tend to join their local WI after they leave, reflecting the fact that many women become members on retirement, when they are looking for something more in life. Mind you, our youngest member is just 12.

I would never be embarrassed to say that I work for the WI. I think they are pillars of the community and my biggest high is the annual general meeting. To see as many as 10,000 like-minded people together is fabulous, and then to hear them sing "Jerusalem" makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

I've just got back from maternity leave and have had brilliant support from my colleagues, partly because - as a women's organisation - they understand the pressures.

The years have just flown by; in fact it wasn't until this interview that I realised how long I have been here.

Interview by Katie Sampson

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