`Greying grannies' get radical

Gay parenting is the Townswomen's Guilds' latest issue, reports Jane Hughes
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The Independent Online
FORGET KNITTING. Forget jam. The neatly dressed members of the Townswomen's Guilds have become the radical activists of provincial Britain. A year after supporting the legalisation of cannabis for medical use, they are turning their attention to gay parenting.

Around 200 delegates representing the UK's 80,000 Townswomen will gather for the Guilds' national conference on the family this week to discuss gay parenting and single parents, subjects that have triggered outrage in less progressive circles. They will hear Angela Mason, the executive director of the lesbian and gay pressure group Stonewall, argue for a review of family law and policy to accommodate the needs and rights of gay families.

The radicalism doesn't stop there. This summer's council meeting will cover genetic engineering, compulsory donor cards and quarantine law.

Marjorie Hall, the Guilds' national secretary, says the issues it raises reflect the interests of its members: women, she says who have "a zest for taking part in current affairs".

"Our purpose has always been to educate and inform," she said. "We have a strong reputation for fairness and tolerance and we want to give people the chance to listen and debate without imposing a particular set of views on them."

The conference will look at how family structure is changing and dispel many of the misconceptions of modern family life. Home Office minister Paul Boateng will also talk about the Government's recent consultation paper on the family, and delegates will discuss step-families and the need to establish clearer rights of access for grandparents.

The Guilds' national executive included gay parenting on the conference agenda in an attempt to present its members with as wide a picture as possible of modern family relationships. Interest in the role of grandparents came from the grassroots.

Many of the Townswomen are mothers with grown-up families or grandparents themselves, and while they may tire of being misrepresented as "middle- class greying grannies", in some cases this is exactly what they are.

It's this mix of tradition and radicalism that makes the Townswomen's Guilds at once such a curious and powerful force in modern British life. Visit their web site and you will be greeted by the smiling but decidedly mature faces of Marjorie Hall and the 16 members of the national executive committee. Its publications contain reports on subjects ranging from long- term care to the internet. Nor are they shy of making their views known: they talk to supermarket managers about the need for better labelling of genetically modified food and protest over traffic congestion.

Being social activists is not so much a dramatic change for the Guilds' members as a return to their roots. Their origins go back to 1929, when the Guild was founded by a group of suffragists, the peaceful arm of the suffragettes. They wanted to set up an organisation that would provide women with an informal education to make sure they didn't waste their vote.

It was the urban equivalent of the Women's Institute network that already existed to promote ties between women in rural areas. The WI, too, has changed. It still does "village halls and jam" but its 250,000 members also campaign on many issues including women's health, human rights and Aids awareness. Many Townswomen, including Mrs Hall, joined the Guilds in the Sixties as a way of escaping the isolation faced by young mothers and housewives. She saw the Guilds as her university, a place where she could take part in debates and make new friends.

The shift of young women from the home to the workplace has meant that the average age of Townswomen is now over 40 and new members are increasingly women who have taken early retirement. According to Maggie Chiltern, a member of a Guild in west London whose 80 members range from their 40s to their 80s, one of the organisation's major aims concerns is the lack of younger members.

Just how powerful the Guilds can be - and how in tune with current thinking - became clear during its debate on the legalisation of cannabis. They mobilised a powerful army of letter writers who appealed to medical bodies and politicians to take their views on board. It was a turning point for the campaign, and the Guilds' view on the use of cannabis on the grounds of compassion for people suffering from painful illnesses were fully endorsed by the House of Lords.