How the WI got in a jam over leadership

Battle broke out when the women's group with the tweedy image faced financial disaster.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was a boardroom battle with a difference. New chairman takes financial crisis by the horns, re-organisation and redundancies follow. Deficit remains, but board feels enough is enough. Chairman resigns on "point of principle".

The announcement to the press is simple, straightforward. "The chairman resigned last week as a result of difference of opinion about the financial position of the organisation and ways of dealing with it." New chairman appointed.

The difference is that this "boardroom" is the national executive of the Women's Institute, bastion of jam and Jerusalem in village halls nationwide, a cosy club of women in tweed, doing good works and tapestry.

The public image may be misleading. Eileen Meadmore, the new chairman replacing the outgoing Elizabeth Southey, says it is.

Mrs Meadmore regards the WI as one of Britain's biggest campaigning bodies, an organisation in which hot potatoes of social concern are debated as vigorously as in the House of Commons and in which its adult education college in Oxfordshire is as important as its market stalls. At this year's annual conference, the motions up for debate urge the Government to reinstate realistic living grants to students from families of limited income, to tackle the growing shortage of NHS dentists and introduce "skills for living" such as parenting classes as a compulsory part of the national curriculum.

Yet while Mrs Meadmore may lay claim to the WI as a modern women's group, the resignation of Elizabeth Southey follows considerable behind-the-scenes wrangling over finances which would certainly surprise many rank and file members. Indeed, many remain largely unaware of them. "We don't know why she resigned," said one long-time member last week. "All we've been told is that it's on a point of principle and we will hear more later."

Eileen Meadmore's appointment as the new chairman of the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) signals the end of a difficult period of cost-cutting. Her eyes are now set on "consolidation" and stability. To her supporters on the 17-strong executive committee that appointed her, the organisation had moved beyond the need for crisis management and further paring was unnecessary. Elizabeth Southey disagreed. Although she has said little publicly about the divergence of opinion on the executive, it is understood she feels the task of putting the NFWI on a sound financial footing was not complete. "People don't like to face up to realistic decisions," she said this week. "I can sympathise with that, but it doesn't alter the case."

In the early Nineties, with a drop in income from subscriptions (membership was down to 270,000 from a post-war high of more than half a million), the organisation was facing financial crisis. It had to cut costs to match the fall in income. Problems were made worse in 1994 when the relaunch of the WI magazine, Home and Country, cost more than anticipated.

Elizabeth Southey led the rescue attempt, but her plan provoked much anguish. In August 1994, four senior staff were dismissed in a re-structuring that left the federation without heads of finance, communications, public affairs or education.

Her critics said the redundancies struck at the very heart of WI work. The WI was founded in Canada in 1897 by a woman called Adelaide Hoodless after her fourth child died from what she believed was her own ignorance of hygiene and child care. She started classes for women on domestic science. When the first British WI met in 1915 in north Wales, it had the same ideals of educating women and campaigning to improve their lot. To Mrs Southey's opponents, cutting public affairs and education was biting into the very foundations of the organisation.

Furthermore, the manner in which the jobs were cut provoked anger. Heather Mayall, general secretary, who had parted company with the WI some months earlier, accused the federation of ruthlessness. "The way people have been treated smacks more of a hard-nosed City company," she said. "It's known as the jam factory, because everyone who works there comes to a sticky end."

Although it was painful, the executive accepted the need for cuts. William Garnett, the federation's solicitor, said: "The federation will continue to provide a high quality of services to members, while taking account of the need to match expenditure with income," he said. "There is no question mark over its credibility as a very important organisation for women."

But in recent months, the question taxing the executive was whether further action was necessary. Whereas two years ago, the federation's expenditure was more than pounds 106,000 above its pounds 1.3m income, the re-organisation had helped it come close to balancing the books. But it is understood Mrs Southey wanted more reductions. She was out-voted. Two months before she would have been up for re-election, she departed as chairman.

Her successor, Mrs Meadmore, said the whole matter was unfortunate. "But there was a difference in the perception of the situation. The majority of the executive did not take the chairman's view. We think we're on a fairly firm financial base. We've got sound finances and can go forward."

Although there is still a deficit, Eileen Meadmore says much of it can be accounted for by the cost of turning the WI's market stalls into an independent company on solicitors' advice.

What she is now interested in is what happens next. "I think we're coming to a time when we need to have a vision to work toward."

Her first priority is to look at membership. "I want to make sure we are giving our members what they want," she said. "In common with a lot of organisations, we have lost members over the past few years, but we are beginning to perceive that the drop is easing."

She also wants to update the Women's Institute's image. Contrary to public opinion, she claims the institute and its members are a mixed bunch who defy stereotyping. "Really and truly, the only thing you can say for certain about them is they are women. Many older members belonged as young girls and have never seen a reason to leave because they enjoy it. On the other hand, I was hearing the other day of a WI where every member was under 32."

But with more younger women juggling the demands of home and work, the middle-aged and older dominate. The WI is also, principally, a rural body which campaigns actively on rural affairs and which traditionally left towns and cities to the Townswomen's Guild. Mrs Meadmore is 62, a former teacher and social worker from Yorkshire. She is married and has three grown-up children.

Mrs Meadmore's interests include patchwork, reading, the countryside and her family, as well as Oriental cooking. While admitting people do tend to think "jam and Jerusalem", she said many were amazed when they discovered the range of WI activity. Yes, it does include arts and crafts and raising money for charity. But at the WI's education centre, Denman College in Oxfordshire - open virtually all year round - members are introduced to the Internet, learn advanced driving or take courses on science and technology.

A member since 1962, Mrs Meadmore thinks the institute has changed. Groups are less formal and more flexible. But she said the basis is still the same. "I went along because I wanted to meet new people. I was a new young mum in a village and somebody asked me."

There is a huge affection for the organisation and a great pride. "We started as an education and self-help group. Since then, we've been acting as a pressure group, concerning ourselves with all kind of things in the community," Mrs Meadmore said. "I would like to see us continuing to reflect modern thinking and today's women. I would like to see us continuing to be the lively mix of women that we are."

Of course, such affection is also shared by Elizabeth Southey. She is very anxious that the rank and file should understand why she has left and has written to all county chairmen to explain. But she is unwilling to have the private debate of the executive made public. "It's just something I've done because I felt strongly and that's it really," she said.

She did not want to comment, but she felt she had tried to do the right thing. "It has been difficult," she said. "The WI is very dear to my heart. I've given years to it because I love it so." But Elizabeth Southey has found there is little room for sentiment in the modern WI.