Handbags at dawn: WI threatened with schism over subscription rise

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Ever since they slow- handclapped the Prime Minister eight years ago, the ladies of the Women's Institute have maintained a somewhat feisty reputation.

But now the WI's 7,000 members have turned on their own leadership, threatening a grassroots rebellion and schism that could see renegade groups set up in opposition to the 90-year-old institution.

The dispute concerns a decision by the national leadership to raise the annual subscription rate by £4 to £26 and to force all members to take the WI's magazine, which is currently voluntary.

Outraged members say they were not consulted about the reforms and have accused the governing body of "Big Brother" tactics in the way the national federation of the WI is run.

All 17 members of the Cliburn branch of the WI in Cumbria have resigned in protest and have vowed to set up a breakaway organisation.

Joan Hodgson, the president of the Cliburn group, said: "We are very angry basically because we were not consulted. "We simply felt we had no choice because the WI nationally has become so undemocratic. It makes me very sad to be leaving because the WI has been a big part of my life."

She added: "I wouldn't have thought we were a rebellious lot, and that's why it feels all the more sad."

Other branches have also signalled their intent to ballot members on leaving the federation and starting renegade groups.

The subscription rises appear to have been the catalyst for the rebellion but older members seem to have spent some years becoming increasingly concerned about the direction the WI is taking.

Recent changes include a decision to set up stalls at next month's Isle of Wight Bestival music festival and at Glastonbury next year.

There have also been calls from within the federation for the term "housewife" to be dropped because it is derogatory, while a branch in Hertfordshire recently won a £5,000 grant for members to attend relaxation courses.

While the slow hand-clapping of Mr Blair and street protests outside big supermarkets such as Tesco have made headlines, they have not always been supported by grassroots members. Lyn Plumpton, a WI member for more than 50 years who lives in Wareham, Dorset, is one of those outraged by changes.

In a letter of complaint, she said: "It [the WI] has been a free-thinking, democratic organisation until eight years ago.

"I first realised the change when at annual conference a minority catcalled the Prime Minister. It was left to individual members to write letters of apology as nothing was said at HQ." She added, in a reference to the subscription rises: "WI members need to hitch up their bra straps and say a resounding "no"."

Other branches in Warwickshire and Cheshire have also registered their opposition, claiming that they should have been allowed to vote on the issue and that attempts to debate the reforms at this year's annual meeting in Cardiff were quashed by the national body.

Amy Bicks, spokeswoman for the National Federation of Women's Institutes, said: "There are some branches that aren't very happy about the rises but with more than 200,000 members and 7,000 branches, you would expect that. The problem is that subscriptions to the current magazine have been falling but we need the income generated by the advertising in it.

"The WI is unusual in being a large organisation that does not have a magazine that goes out to all members; to communicate with our members we are reliant on sending out mails to the local secretaries who then pass on the information at their meetings.

"But it does mean that not all of the information gets passed on to all the members."

She added: "More than 90 per cent of people have already signed up to the new subscription and once it has been explained to them what is going on, most people are happy."

Building Jerusalem

* The Women's Institute was founded in Canada in 1897; the first meeting in Britain was held in Anglesey, Wales, in 1915.

* Members were encouraged to help the war effort by growing fruit to combat food shortages.

* There are now more than 7,000 branches and 215,000 members who belong to local federations.

* Jerusalem was adopted as the WI's anthem in 1924; it was also used by the suffragette's campaign in 1918.

* In 1998, members of Rylstone and District Women's Institute in Yorkshire made headlines around the world when they posed naked for a charity calendar - a stunt that was later made into the film Calendar Girls.

* The WI hit headlines again in 2000 when members slow hand-clapped and heckled Tony Blair, for what they thought was "too political" a speech to their AGM.

* Recent campaigns have included protests against unnecessary food packaging and a complaint to the Competition Commission about the dominance of big supermarkets. One of the latest recruits has been the Duchess of Cornwall.