Photo by Oliver Rossi

The clue is in the name

The Women’s Institute should be exactly that

Artillery Row

That’s why it’s called “The Women’s Institute”: it is for women. Adult human females, that is — except that the WI leadership has decided, in defiance of biology and truth, that this is not so. A “woman” is anyone who says “they” are — with no questions asked.

In April this year, the Daily Mail published a short piece about the newly-formed Women’s Institute Declaration. The founders had asked the Board of Trustees of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) to grant a moratorium on trans-identifying men joining as members, as well as a wide-ranging debate and a vote by members on whether to allow them to join in the future. A petition to this effect was set up on the website. Although the submission was well-balanced, measured and not hysterical, the item was a one-day wonder, not even covered by all the newspapers. It did send me, a W.I. member of long standing and current President of my local Institute, to the MyWI website to see what was going on.

My eye was caught by a section, entitled “Let’s talk about … ” where members were recommended a number of resources to inform discussions at WI meetings. One of the subjects to discuss was “LGBTQ+”. All the organisations cited as resources were those that believe in gender self-identification: most notably Stonewall, Schools Out and even Mermaids, which is presently being investigated by the Charity Commission and has just failed in a spiteful attempt to get the LGB Alliance’s charity status rescinded. Nowhere was there any mention of the LGB Alliance, the Women’s Network, Sex Matters or Fair Play for Women. Nor did it include the works of gender critical writers like Dr Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Helen Joyce or Julie Bindel. I then read the “Transgender Policy”, which welcomes anyone who “lives as a woman” and says that no potential member will be asked whether she has undergone gender reassignment as that “could be very offensive and hurtful”.

I discussed the matter with my Institute, and we sent a letter to the NFWI chairwoman, asking that the resources be much more balanced and inquiring why “transgender women” were welcomed as members. As a result, I was invited to recommend other resources, which I did. I am glad to say that Mermaids at least has disappeared from the website, but no other changes have yet been made. I was told that the National Federation would not hold a vote on the issue since the organisation was “membership led” and “democratic”, and members had been welcoming “transgender women” into their WIs for decades.

For women, biology is their lived experience

I can just see how that happens. No WI committee wants to give offence, even if it has misgivings. Everyone is terrified of being called “transphobic”. The trouble is that, since the NFWI changed the rules in 1965 so that WIs could be founded in towns and cities as well as the countryside, there are many urban groups with well over 100 members. If I were a sexually predatory man, I would be tempted to put on a frock and seek membership in one of the larger WIs in cities, where not everybody knows everybody. The membership also has a younger average age than in rural Institutes. The NFWI says it has a robust safeguarding policy in place. Is it really so robust if local Institutes are not allowed to ask any questions of an applicant who appears to be a man? This prohibition means that the NFWI has no idea how many “transgender women” have joined already. By altering the meaning of an important English word, the organisation has made it almost insuperably difficult to evaluate the impact of a significant change in policy.

Women’s Institute members are “the good sorts” in communities. Their unflappability, humour, common sense and work ethic benefit every kind of respectable voluntary organisation. In 2001, when there were perhaps 200,000 members, the NFWI surveyed 1,000 Institutes (out of 7,000) and discovered the members carried out 3 ½ million hours of voluntary work a year. Across the entire W.I., that computes to about 25 million hours of unpaid community activity.

Status and wealth have refreshingly little meaning for them. No one talks party politics or religion. I have been a member of the “Institute” since I was a young married woman, forty years ago. As a solitary writer, I have always looked forward to spending an evening every month in female company. Uninhibited sociability pervades a WI meeting like the smell of freshly-baked bread. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve encountered unexampled kindness and a brisk, unsentimental sympathy.

Yet countrywomen, especially those who live alone, are generally disregarded members of society. Many aspects of modern life — the closure of banks, cash machines, bus routes and police stations, and the almost universal lack of personal customer service — hardly suit people for whom human connections are their lifeblood. Being extremely family-minded, WI women also worry for their daughters and granddaughters in an era of social media trolling and pornography-fuelled misogyny, but they feel utterly powerless. Now the NFWI tells them they need to be “educated” about LGBTQ+ matters, but it doesn’t take the trouble to give them a balanced account of the issues.

In a Guardian interview published in April, Melissa Green, CEO of the NFWI, said that “being part of the WI is about the experience of being a woman, and that is a combination of both biology and lived experience”. The use of “lived experience”, so often deployed to defeat claims of objective truth, speaks volumes. For women, biology is their lived experience: the roll-call of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and associated health conditions; breast-feeding, child-rearing, female cancers and the menopause; not to mention the atavistic fear all women feel, as a result of comparative physical weakness, when in a confined space with a strange man — which is why “gender-neutral” lavatories unnerve us so much. No self-identifying man, given his biology and resulting “lived experience”, can possibly understand all that.

WI members are easily ignored, even by their national leadership

To wish to retain the “women” in “Women’s Institute” does not make me a transphobe. I have sympathy and respect for people with genuine gender dysphoria, and I wish them well. I don’t think it unfair that they shouldn’t join the WI, though, just as I don’t think it unfair that I can’t join the Garrick Club because I’m a woman. If men join the WI in any kind of numbers, they will change the character of an organisation that for more than one hundred years has permitted women to organise themselves exactly how they want (away from often controlling men). It has given them confidence, education, practical skills and the chance to share and laugh about the best and worst aspects of those particular female life experiences. WI members are so easily ignored, even by their national leadership, because they are courteous consensus-seekers. They are pushovers because they are generally open-hearted and all too ready to do things to their disadvantage — the consequence of having spent most of their lives putting themselves a distant third, behind their spouses and children.

It is true, as the NFWI is keen to point out, that the organisation has always had a strong campaigning element. Not every campaign is worthy of its support, however. In the 1920s, for example, WI campaigned for improving rural sanitation. This directly affected women, many of whom were rearing children in substandard housing. The WI has also fought for better midwifery services, ovarian cancer awareness, the banning of female genital mutilation and more comprehensive cervical screening. Most members, I feel sure, do not understand campaigning to mean the promotion of a highly political ideology, which in the case of some transgender activists is aggressive and misogynistic. The irony of that is richer than a home-made fruit cake brought to the monthly meeting. If the executive were not so blinded by the bizarre idea that a woman is a social construct, it would see that it has substantially narrowed the WI’s scope for campaigning on behalf of women’s issues. In 1979, WIs strove to persuade the NHS to phase out mixed-sex wards. That would be hard to do now, if men can be women.

The law does not require the NFWI to take the position it has. After all, the Association of Inner Wheel Clubs, a women’s organisation not unlike the W.I., restricts its membership to biological women, citing the legal exceptions in the Equality Act. If the leadership does not come to its senses and follow the example of the Inner Wheel, the WI will become just another community organisation and lose its precious singularity. Members may well vote with their feet — as some round our way already have, disbanding their Institutes and founding female friendship groups instead, at half the cost and without the wearisome bureaucracy imposed by the centre. They will do it quietly, without fuss, and they won’t say why they’ve done it — but the rest of us can make an educated guess.

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