Women united: branching out and building (some unlikely) alliances?

5 Apr
The average idea of a WI?

A common misconception?

by Hannah Blythyn

When we think of the Women’s Institute what is the image that springs to mind? Jam, Jerusalem, knitting and stitching? More ‘mature’ women conservative – with a small c – in their outlook and lifestyle?

Last night I was invited along to a local WI meeting as the guest speaker on the topic of ‘A woman’s place is in her union’. There wasn’t any jam in sight but the meeting did kick off with a word-perfect rendition of Jerusalem and whilst I was definitely the youngest in the room, the welcome was warm and the interest empathetic and genuine.

We talked about how far women have come in the workplace and society and just how recently some of those changes have come about. We also discussed the challenges faced by women today, the importance of union campaigns reaching out to the local community and – this is where it could get interesting – the potential of building broad campaigning coalitions on issues of shared importance and interest.

The Women’s Institute is currently part of the Speak up for Libraries alliance, which also features Unison. They have campaigned to end violence against women and human trafficking – issues also close to the heart of many trade unions.

Lest we forget, whilst we may have a pre-conceived idea of the stereotypical Women’s Institute, as trade unionists we also have to confront on a daily basis many people’s – fuelled by parts of the media – perception of what a traditional, typical trade unionist is. This is in part what my talk was aimed at dismantling and there is a great and pressing case for rolling such presentations out to Women’s Institutes and other women’s organisations across the UK.

But we could and should go further and look to identify and build shared campaigns, creating a coalition to better the lives of women – a coalition that has the potential to make politicians sit up and listen. We know as trade union women that together we are stronger and that as women we can achieve great things when unite and fight for change.

Perhaps the current political and economic climate and our changing world means it is time to think outside the box and encourage once unlikely alliances?

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