It’s no small task rallying 16,000 Welsh women. But Ann Jones is looking forward to doing just that as the new chair of the Women’s Institute in Wales.
A member for 28 years, she has seen the organisation evolve as women’s lives change and is proud it now campaigns on issues as diverse as world food shortages and a local lack of midwives.
Ann, 52, who runs a beef and sheep farm in the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains with husband Evan, says the WI is as relevant now as it was when it was launched in Wales way back in 1915.
While still proud of its “Jam and Jerusalem” image, the WI has started diversifying to reach out to younger members, offering activities ranging from ice-skating to DIY and burlesque classes.
In Oxfordshire, for example, the local federation has organised white-water rafting, while a Leicestershire branch has had lessons in cheerleading.
But top of Ann’s agenda is the issue of global starvation.
Although it may seem a world away from the village hall cake sale, the WI’s new leader warns that if we don’t watch where our food comes from, how it’s produced and what goes into it, we risk not only more problems like the recent horse meat scare but possible food shortages too.
As a farmer, a farmer’s daughter and wife, Ann is acutely aware of the politics of food and is pleased the WI recently voted to campaign on the safety and security of food in its Great British Food Debate.
“We’re rolling this out throughout Wales and it’s an opportunity for members, non-members, farmers and everyone to debate the food we eat, where it comes from, what goes into it and whether we are going to be able to feed the world in future,” she says.
Rebuffing any suggestion that the WI is no longer relevant to 21st-century women, she points out “food is something that affects us all”.
Membership figures also prove women still want to join – especially when the WI started to attract younger members with wine-tasting as well as more traditional pastimes like arts, crafts and baking.
Although it has around half the members it boasted during its heyday in the 1950s, the WI is still the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK.
The total number of members now stands at about 215,000, and to keep up with growth, 352 new branches have opened.
There are now more than 50 groups in London, several of which have become so popular that there is a six-month waiting list to join.
One of the newest branches – in Barnes, south-west London – has attracted members ranging from young professionals in banking and nursing to retired women in their 70s.
Some of the younger members even attend with their mothers.
The first Manchester branch was opened last year by Lucy Adams, who runs a textiles website, and Alexandra Taylor, a brand merchandiser, both 24. They set up the group with the aim of combining the WI’s old traditions with a younger, more modern approach.
In Wales there are 16,000 members in 500 WIs, with new people joining and new branches opening regularly. Several new branches have opened in Cardiff in the past few years – a sign, Ann believes, of urban women seeking friendship in a busy world.
So what does the WI have to offer nearly100 years after it was founded on Anglesey in the shadow of World War I?
Back then the WI’s founding principles were to “revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War”.
In 2013 the focus has changed – although food is still an issue at its heart. The WI is still mainly a rural organisation but branches are opening in cities as women continue to want to learn from each other and make their opinions heard.
“I think a lot of it is you go to work and meet people but don’t socialise a lot and the friends you had when you were younger have gone their separate ways,” adds Ann.
“At the WI you meet like-minded women to talk to, socialise with and learn from. The need for friendship is as great as it was in 1915. We all need a social circle. Women find a voice at the WI and that’s really important.”
The WI is also a non-political, non-religious organisation, although it encourages members to stand up for whatever issues they believe in, she says.
As well as meeting to swap skills with their local branch each week, members can study at the WI’s college, Denman College in Oxfordshire, while closer to home in Wales they can get involved in Women Making a Difference, a scheme run in conjunction with the Welsh Assembly Government and the British Council to encourage more women into public life.
Then there’s the annual conference, famous for slow hand-clapping former prime minister Tony Blair during one speech.
The conference is where new campaigns are forged and where women discuss issues affecting them, joining voices to make sure they are heard.
As an active member for more than quarter of a century, Ann has spoken with AMs, MPs and MEPs and has been at the forefront of WI environmental campaigns in Wales.
Recent national WI campaigns include saving the high street, the closure of libraries, equal pay and the shortage of midwives, alongside wider issues like milk prices, she points out.
The WI is close to people’s lives and a force to be reckoned with that should not be underestimated, Ann warns.
Where else, after all, can women aged from their 20s to their 90s gather to discuss issues that affect them all and try to influence the world they live in?
At a recent conference in Cardiff guest speaker John Humphrys, known for his ruthless grilling of politicians on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, was told by delegates that he didn’t give our political masters a hard enough time.
As Ann puts it: “We believe politicians should be held accountable.
“The WI has women from all cultures and backgrounds. We are still predominantly white and British but we are there for all women. We are not political or religious. Women like to meet other women. There’s a safety about it. At the WI it doesn’t matter if you’re single, divorced, widowed, never married or never had children. It really doesn’t matter. We are there meeting as women. There are no labels attached and that’s a glorious thing.”
Being a member also means friendship and fun. Branches do everything from swapping recipes to meeting in the pub or organising visits to see MEPs in Strasbourg.
Ann, who says firmly that she doesn’t make jam, did learn to cook meals with help from WI friends and is looking forward to flying to Australia next year with the Ceredigion WI choir. The choir has been asked to sing at the Melbourne St David’s Day celebrations and she is among 30 members currently rehearsing Welsh favourites as well as the WI millennium song.
“The WI really can take you all over the world,” Ann says. “It is a good support network and women still want that. You make friends for life at the WI. I’ve celebrated births and been with people through very sad times.”
She’s also seen a move to modernise communication. Most younger members will communicate via Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, but older members may have missed the technology revolution.
With this in mind, the WI Federation of Wales loans out 16 laptops to groups wanting to get to grips with electronic communication.
Women passing on skills to other women has always been at the core of the organisation, she emphasises.
This way of learning from other women can be less threatening and more appealing to some members, who may feel nervous about joining formal classes.
“Some WIs still don’t use social media or even e-mail but a lot do. A lot keep in touch on Facebook and Twitter and pass on social media skills. We have a number of laptops we hand around to enable members to have a go if they want.”
The world has changed and the WI has moved with it since she joined the Llanddewi Brefi branch aged 15 in 1985.
“When I joined it was mainly Welsh speakers and the two or three who didn’t speak Welsh were learners. Now we have more non-Welsh speakers but still speak a lot of Welsh. Over the years there has been a change.
“There were 33 members when I joined and 33 members now. We have lost and gained members over the years. This year we got four new members.”
As a newly married farmer’s wife, Ann went along to her first WI meeting with her new mother-in-law and says she “never looked back”.
Running a busy farm and property-letting business with Evan and raising two now grown-up sons – Gareth, 22, and Stephen, who’s 27 – Ann was busy and saw WI meetings as time for herself that was also productive. As her sons grew up she got more active at federation level, becoming chair of the Ceredigion Federation of Women’s Institutes from 2010-13, serving as vice-chair of the Federation and as a WI advisor since 2004.
Ann, who hopes her baby granddaughter Alaw may one day join the WI, has also been an eco team leader on a WI eco project and was named on the first Green List awarded by the Welsh Assembly. As chair of the Federations of Wales Committee, she automatically becomes a member of the National Federation of WI Board of Trustees for England, Wales and the Islands for two years.
She hopes this role will widen her work and contacts further and says she’s looking forward to meeting members from across Britain. Women, she believes, can be a force for change if they let their voices be heard.
“The WI has given me so much confidence to take on new challenges and opportunities. I would recommend all women whatever their age to join. There are opportunities to do courses and you can improve your job prospects.”
Ann hopes the WI will continue to change as its members change.
She believes it owes its continuing appeal to adapting while still staying relevant to older members.
“We have been good at adapting and changing to suit modern women but still being attractive to members who have been with us 60 years. There’s a place for both. You can join at 18 and we have members in their 20s right through to their 90s. With the centenary in 2015, I want to look forward with passion so the WI is still a strong and relevant force for women in another 100 years.”