Flying high: The Women’s Institute celebrates its centenary by going skydiving

“Hi can you please tell me where Deb Connor is?”

“She’s in there!” says a woman on my left, pointing to what can only be described as a giant air vent, wherein a grinning woman in a red and blue jumpsuit is being blown around like a rag doll.

Deb Connor, along with fifty seven other women, aged between their mid-twenties to mid-eighties, are taking part in an indoor skydive to mark one hundred years of the Women’s Institute on September 16.

Created in 1915 to encourage rural women during the First World War increase the supply of food, one hundred years late with over 212,000 members and 6,600 branches, the WI is the UK’s largest voluntary women’s organisation.

Members of seventeen different WI groups have gathered at AirKix in Trafford to celebrate their centenary.

From as near as Ancoats and Salford, and as far as Leamington Spa and Overton, 57 women—not including encouraging standers-by—have come together to try their hats at indoor skydiving, showing that in this day and age, the WI is absolutely not limited to baking.

NEW EXPERIENCE: The WI have a reputation for trying things out of the ordinary

As Ms Connor heroically leaves the large plastic tube in the centre of the room, dozens more women assemble for their turn, including 85 year old Brenda Shaw (member of West End Girls, Sankey Valley) and Nicola Butler aged 31 (Let’s Make Jam, Stoke North).

Originally from Plymouth, Ms Butler who works as a postwoman, counters the WI stereotype nicely, saying: “I can’t bake cakes to save my life!”  

Not knowing the local area, she joined the WI in Stoke because she wanted to make friends. But more than this, Ms Butler said: “I really wanted to do something that helped the community.

“It’s such an important organisation that has been around for 100 years. And being here and doing something a bit different like this, I think is really important for the modern WI.”

And it is this sense of community in the age of online that seems to be the driving force behind the WI today. Speaking post-dive to members of the Lowton branch that has been going strong for 51 years, Dorothy ‘Dot’ Sutton, 69, and Marie Lee, 68, reiterate how at the heart of the WI is the support they give to women.

Ms Sutton said: “People are very friendly here and we have a greeter who will look after you—people are welcomed in. I would recommend to anyone on their own, don’t be on you own, come and join us!”

As testament to this closeness, Ms Connor, who organised the event, could not remember how long she had been a member of the Lowton WI. “I think I’ve been a member for about five years now? I lose track because it feels like such a family. It feels like I’ve always been a part of it.”

Whilst sky-diving is one example on the modern WI’s checklist, Ms Connor believes that no one group will ever be the same, saying: “In terms of activities there really is something for absolutely every woman. Every woman brings her own knowledge, experience and skills.

“A lot of younger members in their twenties have never learned things like knitting and crochet, and how to make a really good cake. So there is a lot of skill sharing, and I would say a lot of camaraderie and support.”

Looking back at the WI’s history one hundred years on, members are eager to pay tribute to the women before them and the traditions that they have continued, a principle one being the equality between all members.

#IAMWI: Deb Connor, Marie Lee, and Dorothy ‘Dot’ Sutton

Ms Connor asserts: “If you think back a hundred years, women did not have the vote, they probably didn’t have much of a say in anything. But when they went to the WI, they got the chance to vote for things when politically they couldn’t.

“And for a woman in that time to be able to vote and raise her hand and show that she voted for something was really important.

“We still have tea at the break time, and we take it in turns to serve the tea to other members. So think back 100 years and they did that. One month the lady of the manor may be served her cup of tea by a housemaid, but then another month, the housemaid was being served her cup of tea by the lady of the manor.”

More than anything, the WI today seems to enable women of all ages to try something new, be that axe-throwing (yes, really), or even forming cross-generational friendships. As Ms Sutton says: “It doesn’t matter what you do.

“There are doctors, there are school teachers, factory workers, shop assistants, there are acupuncturists, support workers; there’s everybody! And we all blend in.”

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