Newsmaker: Jam-packed agenda - Fay Mansell, Chairman, National Federation of Women's Institutes

Indira Das-Gupta

- On a mission to communicate better and attract younger members.

On arrival at Denham College, the National Federation of Women's Institutes' adult education college near Oxford, you might expect to be welcomed by an old dear in tweed, offering you a scone and some of the homemade jam with which the organisation has become inextricably linked.

While the building, with its Country Life atmosphere, fits in with this cliched view of what the Women's Institute stands for, there is not even a cup of tea on offer - and although Fay Mansell, its new chairman, is wearing a tweed skirt, it's a stylish red and accompanied by matching stiletto heels, not pearls.

Vanquishing the stereotype that precedes WI members wherever they go is Mansell's toughest challenge, and she knows it. "When The Times came here, it spent an hour taking pictures of me, only to use a 1950s photograph of women feeding chickens," she says with understandable exasperation. "I do get frustrated with this persistent harking back, but all we can do is try to project a truer picture."

Mansell was appointed as the new chairman last week, after the death of her predecessor, Barbara Gill. Whether she likes it or not, there are two topics of conversation that she will be hard pushed to avoid - the Calendar Girls film and, of course, jam.

Mansell will not be requesting the former for Christmas, but she recognises that no publicity is bad publicity. "Calendar Girls portrayed us inaccurately, as overtly obstructive," she says. "But at least it showed that we are capable of doing exciting things."

Try as one might to avoid the subject of jam-making, it inevitably rears its head. But rather than expressing annoyance, Mansell is quick to defend it. "It came about for practical reasons during World War II, when our members preserved fruit and vegetables to feed the nation," she says.

"It's something we should be proud of."

But surely this is a view that will do little to attract the younger women that Mansell reportedly wants to? "We have always tried to attract younger women - we haven't suddenly changed direction," she protests.

"The average age of our members is 60 because our biggest period of growth was during the war. The women who joined then have stayed with us."

Mansell is unclear about how the WI will go about rejuvenating itself, except to say that it will be done at grass-roots level. "Our special advisers in each county will decide what is the best course of action," she explains.

Although the WI still embraces many traditional values, it is in many ways ahead of its time. "We campaigned for breast screening before it was generally felt that it was needed," says Mansell proudly. "We also ran a campaign about litter that led to the national Tidy Britain campaign."

The organisation is currently supporting Amnesty International's campaigns against domestic violence and human trafficking. It is also a member of the Make Poverty History and Stop Climate Chaos coalitions, working with WWF on its hazardous chemicals campaign, promoting healthy eating in schools and running a campaign on adult education.

Herein lies the problem, as Mansell herself recognises. "Maybe we'd get more recognition for our campaigning if we concentrated on fewer campaigns," she says. "But we should reflect the broad range of issues that matter to our members."

As with any stereotype, there are elements that ring true, but the WI is about much more than that. Maybe an awareness campaign fronted by the likes of self-styled domestic goddess Nigella Lawson could be in order? Mansell shakes her head, but says: "If, at the end of my time in office, the media and public are more aware of what we do, I would be happy."

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