This year I attended the National Federation of Women’s Insitutes’ annual meeting, representing not only Bee Moor WI but eight other Cheshire WIs too. This was my second time at an annual meeting, last time was in Bournemouth in 2019.
The annual meeting is where all the WI representatives come together to hear about the NFWI’s work in the last year and the activism topics that we will focus on for the next year. This year the topic we heard about was “A call to increase awareness of the subtle signs of ovarian cancer”. The meeting includes delegates from WIs who vote on the topics, WI advisors who help individual WIs to get involved in national campaigns, as well as observers who are any WI members who wish to come along.
This year was an unusual meeting being the first virtual annual meeting where all delegates, advisors and observers were at their homes and only watched through a special website and live video feed. NFWI have done an amazing job to recreate all the elements of the in-person meeting, the website included “Tea rooms” where we could meet and video chat with fellow attendees and a “Stand Hall” where we could visit the NFWI shop, Denman at Home stand and more to learn about all the work that NFWI does.
All the speakers for the event were together at The Royal Society of Arts in London including the NFWI board, Sophie the Countess of Wessex and Dame Cressida Dick. All socially distanced of course, and the speaker’s platform was sanitised in between each use.
The conference was opened by Lynne Stubbings, NFWI Chair who spoke about the successes and challenges we’ve faced since COVID 19. Some online polls were launched for those of us who were delegates to vote on the running of the meeting. Unfortunately the address was interrupted when a problem occurred which affected many websites on the day including the New York Times and Pinterest. Thankfully the hitch was only temporary and after a few refreshes we were able to get back on track.
As there was only one resolution to discuss this year, we were blessed to have two guest speakers in the morning. Firstly, Sophie, The Countess of Wessex spoke to us about her memories of her mother who had a tragic childhood and was also widowed at an early age. Sophie’s mother was never a good baker but was so inspiring in her resilience and community work. Sophie spoke of the impact that COVID has had on women who have taken on so much extra housework, caring and childminding work while trying to balance their everyday jobs too.
To finish off the morning, Dame Cressida Dick spoke about her career as a police officer, through times when women officers could not handle firearms through to becoming the first woman to be the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. She spoke about the drive to recruit more women into the police, currently the Met has only 35% women officers. She also spoke about the new Domestic Abuse bill which will see greater focus on protecting victims and ease pressure on refuges by attempting to keep victims in their own homes and keeping the accused away. The effect of domestic abuse on children will be given greater recognition and keeping children in their homes will hopefully reduce the impact that domestic abuse can have.
Over lunch we could visit the virtual tea rooms and stand hall however, after 3 hours on video calls it was important to take a well-earned break.
The activism topic to be discussed this year was “A call to increase awareness of the subtle signs of ovarian cancer”. Cathy Heathcote from Kitchen Dances WI stood up to speak on why she had put the resolution forward. Cathy explained that this type of cancer had affected her daughter-in-law and is so often late to be diagnosed. Due to late diagnosis it is the leading cause of cancer death in women.
We then heard from a specialist on the topic, Mr John Butler, a Gynaecological & Oncology Surgeon in support of the resolution. There was no expert speaker against this topic, so a WI representative gave some key points for the delegates to consider.
Once the two sides of the debate had been presented, anyone from the audience who wanted to give their perspective on the topic was able to speak. This year we could do this by leaving a message in a chat box and then being sent a link to a zoom call. Perhaps due to the technology, perhaps due to the increased number of steps in the process, or perhaps other reasons this year we only heard from one person. I know that in previous years this part would have been given a lot of time to hear from delegates from across the WI however, without seeing or hearing from each other so easily the volunteers to speak didn’t appear.
The final speaker of the day was Rt Hon Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond DBE. Brenda was the President of the Supreme Court until January 2020 and is the only woman “Law-Lord”. She spoke of her childhood in North Yorkshire and the importance that education was on her life. At school she was told by a teacher she “wasn’t clever enough to study history” and so instead she focused on law.
She also spoke of the importance of women judges who have experienced a different life from their peers. A particular case stood out where a male judge had decided a mastectomy bra was just an article of clothing, rather than for medical purposes. Baroness Hale was able to make the case that no woman would choose to wear a mastectomy bra unless they really had to, which won the case.
Baroness Hale’s closing words spoke of the importance of diversity in judiciary. Whether man or woman, gay or straight, white or person of colour, the law affects us all and we all deserve to be represented.
This year is slightly different to others in that votes did not take place during the meeting. Instead WIs must send through their votes to their representative by 9 July 2021.
To close the meeting Lynne Stubbings spoke about her time as Chair of the board of trustees, this is Lynne’s last year as chair and last annual meeting. There were touching speeches from her board thanking her for her leadership and recognising the unique challenges that COVID has presented.
We closed the conference by singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and God Save the Queen. Next year’s meeting will be held in Liverpool – hopefully Cheshire Federation will have strong representation!
Bee Moor WI President 🐝💜