A very modern phenomenon: the Manchester WI

Femke Colborne

Forget the frumpy image, the rainy city’s branch of the Women’s Institute is an altogether more happening affair.

It’s 7pm on a Tuesday night in central Manchester and a group of girls are catching up over a drink. A woman in her mid-20s with Amy Winehouse eyes glides past with a glass of wine and stops when she spots her friend, who is wearing hoop earrings, skinny jeans and brogues. In the corner, another group are discussing their various media jobs. This is exactly the kind of crowd you’d expect to find in a trendy bar in the Northern Quarter. Except this isn’t the northern quarter – it’s a meeting of the Manchester Women’s Institute (WI).

Mention the WI and most people think of dreary meetings in leaky town halls, cake-baking and slightly overweight, middle-aged women. But the Manchester WI blows all those preconceptions into oblivion. Set up  in 2011 by friends Lucy Adams and Lex Taylor, the group has been a huge hit with professional women in their 20s and 30s, though its members range in age from 18 to 65. In fact, it’s been so popular that there is now a waiting list to join.

“We don’t have a village hall to meet in and most of us have high-pressure jobs”

The Manchester WI meets on the first Tuesday of every month at Chetham’s School of Music, near to Chetham’s Library. It does run traditional activities such as baking, crafts and gardening, but also holds non-traditional events relevant to modern women living in Manchester. Previous events have included a talk from Susie Orbach’s group, Any Body UK, as well as  lindy hop, hula hooping, self defence classes and a talk on how to set up your own business. There is also a reading group and a craft group that meets in Trof.

Co-founder Lex Taylor is a perfect illustration of what makes the Manchester WI different. Aged 25, she works as a merchandiser for Regatta, the upmarket waterproofs brand, and lives in the city centre. She’s wearing a cute floral dress and an orange cardie, with mahogany red hair, postbox red lips and a discreet nose ring. Her reasons for setting up the group are simple: “After leaving university there are not many ways to meet people, and when you live in the city centre people don’t talk to their neighbours. I wanted to meet like-minded women, find friends and network.”

Taylor and co-founder Lucy Adams booked a small room at Chets, asked a friend to design them a flyer and hoped for the best. The response was overwhelming – 75 people turned up to the first meeting and they couldn’t all fit in the room. “People were really looking for it,” says Taylor. “It started in the recession so I think people were looking for ways to get together without spending a lot of money.” It also coincided with a rise in interest in feminism, offering an opportunity to talk about issues affecting women.

The Manchester WI will be holding an urban fête – “a traditional fête with a twist” – at this year’s Dig the City. The group will man a stall at the festival hub in St Ann’s Square, showcasing entries to a baking competition and a hanging basket competition. There will also be prizes for knitting and other crafts, home-grown fruit and veg, cupcakes, best use of veg in a cake, as well as boozy jam and cocktails.

From its humble origins, the Manchester WI now has 120 members and is one of the biggest WI groups in the country. “We are quite different from the average WI,” says Taylor. “The ethos has always been about having fun and educating women, but that has developed over time and we are part of that change. We don’t have a village hall to meet in and most of us have high-pressure jobs. The WI has a phone book of speakers and we have never used any of them because they’re not relevant to us. More people live in cities now and we are interested in different things. We are the next generation.”

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