WI sets out its stall to woo the Bridget Jones generation

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In what could be the end of the Women's Institute as we know it, "Jerusalem" is being jettisoned and musty village hall meetings replaced with workplace WIs. Evening demonstrations of origami are out; debates on GM food are in.

With an ageing membership and declining numbers, the WI is trying to lure the "Bridget Jones generation" to its ranks. It hopes that the new film Calendar Girls - based on the story of the Rylstone WI group whose members posed naked for charity - will trigger a renaissance for the organisation.

At its annual general meeting in London last week, the WI produced a "vision document", with a 30-point plan for the future. Thirtysomething career women are to be encouraged to set up WI branches with their colleagues or even hold virtual meetings on the internet. People will be able to join as "associates", so they do not have to attend monthly meetings but can enjoy the benefits of membership. And, perhaps most controversially, the head of the WI has said that meetings don't have to start with the traditional singing of "Jerusalem".

"I don't want us to forget our past and ditch all our traditions, but we need to adapt and change to survive," said Helen Carey, the WI's national chairwoman. "Singing 'Jerusalem' can put a lot of people off and, to be honest, it is sometimes sung abysmally. I don't think we need to sing it at the start of every meeting."

Weaning members off "Jerusalem" may be as hard as convincing younger women that the WI has any relevance. At the start of the AGM in the Albert Hall last week, 4,000 delegates gave a rousing rendition of the hymn - and refined whoops of delight greeted the decision to sing it again at the close.

Despite assurances that the WI had members of all ages, the dress code was country casuals and the average age was nearing 60. The WI has lost 50,000 members in 10 years and Ms Carey admits that most of the 230,000 women are "50 plus". It has no federations in London and few in other cities.

But it is still a force to be reckoned with - as Tony Blair found three years ago when he was slow handclapped and booed at the AGM. Delegates believed he was patronising them and became more incensed when his speech lapsed into party political rhetoric.

"We are intelligent, free-thinking women, and a powerful lobbying organisation," Ms Carey said. "We have this fuddy-duddy, jam-making image but that is wrong. We were talking about sexually transmitted infections in 1925, and HIV long before even the Government took it up.

"Now we are talking about GM foods. People go to our residential college and do everything from Indian cookery courses to public speaking or white-water rafting."

The Calendar Girls film will raise the WI's profile. Starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, it had its premiere in Cannes last month and will reach British screens in the autumn. The WI is hoping for a flood of calls from young women who have seen it.

But as AGM delegates ate their packed lunches at the Albert Memorial, murmurs of dissent could be heard. "I like making jam and I will never give up 'Jerusalem'," vowed one woman. "That is what makes the WI."


By Maxine Frith

Lucy Hutchings is 26 and about to set up a Women's Institute branch in Fulham, west London. She believes that women in their twenties and thirties want a forum in which they can debate topical issues - and learn traditional home skills.

Ms Hutchings, a PA, said: "I have been to dinner parties with my friends where we have talked about the WI and whether it had anything for us. I and a lot of my friends like cooking. I'd love to learn a new craft or something like flower arranging.

"We want somewhere we can meet up and debate topics and issues, or learn more about something, as well as somewhere to just be together. Men in the office go off and play football after work. I think the WI could do the same for women."

Ms Hutchings decided to set up a branch after working at the WI headquarters in London. "Working there made me realise what an amazing organisation it is and what it does for women. It could be perfect for younger women, who maybe move to London and want to make friends and have a social life.

"A lot of people my age see their friends as a kind of surrogate family, and the WI can be an extension of that ... It is nice to socialise with men and women together but sometimes, if you are having a political discussion, men will shout you down if as a woman you are not completely sure of yourself. Having something structured like a WI group would give an impetus to our discussions, and make it seem like a proper event.

"Lots of offices have a bit of a boys' club attitude. The WI doesn't just have to be for housewives. It can be a new way for women to network."