“This example of suburbia is an incredibly dull place to live in and I blame the women: they stay here all day; they set the tone ... Home and child-minding can have a blunting effect on a woman's mind. But only she can sharpen it.”
Thus ran Betty Jerman's article on the The Guardian’s Mainly for Women page in February 1960 entitled Squeezed like Sardines in Suburbia. The words struck a chord with Maureen Nicol – a young Cheshire housewife – who wrote to the newspaper in response:
“...women seem to go into voluntary exile in the home once they leave their outside work... Perhaps housebound wives with liberal interests and a desire to remain individuals could form a national register so that whenever one moves one can contact like-minded friends ...?”
The Liberal-minded Housebound Housewives Register
The flood of letters from women asking to join 'her' register convinced Maureen that her idea was worth developing and despite having two very young children, she undertook to keep the Liberal-minded Housebound Housewives Register. The name was soon shortened to the Housebound Wives Register and by 1966 had become the National Housewives Register (NHR).
What Maureen most wanted was to meet like-minded women friends and her original idea of putting such people in touch with each other for friendship and mutual help soon developed into group meetings in their own homes when there were several members in any one area.
“A group can do very much more interesting things than just a couple of friends. My own group… all wanted more than general chat.”
Even in 1960, the idea of housewives being in need of mental stimulation – and with interests beyond coffee mornings or perhaps some voluntary work – was received with more than mild surprise, and attempts to be a working wife and mother with aspirations to a career were very much frowned upon. Existing women's organisations did not cater for the particular needs of such women. So the Register – as it became informally referred to – was a safety valve for mental frustrations and a shortcut to meeting kindred spirits.
By July 1960, the Register had 1,600 members – many of whom were beginning to form groups – that were encouraged to make their own decisions about activities. As the number of enquiries grew dramatically, Maureen enlisted the help of enthusiastic members to answer letters and make introductions on a local or regional basis.
Maureen only intended to keep a central register so that enquirers could be put in touch with one another, but isolated members were keen for some kind of contact and groups wanted to know what other members were doing. Some areas produced local news sheets, and in July 1960 Maureen sent out the first national Newsletter, a duplicated sheet, run off on a borrowed duplicator, giving news of group activities, spread of membership, profiles of members and booklists. At first these appeared every few months, but eventually a regular pattern of spring and autumn Newsletters was established.
The first printed Newsletter appeared in 1965, its format changing as the register developed. Successive editors widened its scope to include informative or controversial articles by members and regular policy articles, confirming the – by now – 'National' Newsletter as the accepted forum for discussion of register matters. Advertising – strictly controlled – was finally accepted in 1986.
Covering the cost
By the end of 1960, Maureen was considerably out of pocket and, knowing that organisers were facing the same problem, she suggested they request an annual subscription of £1. She also asked all enquirers to send a registration fee to their area organiser. The following March groups were asked for 15% of their income to cover her expenses.
When Brenda Prys-Jones, as the next National Organiser, took over ‘a bankrupt, disorganised success’ in the summer of 1962, she was determined to make the organisation financially sound. The register was no longer an experiment, but income was uncertain as Local Organisers deducted their own expenses before sending in subscriptions. In 1970 a standard national subscription of 5 shillings was introduced, but this subsequently failed to keep pace with inflation and rising costs, eventually necessitating an increase to £6.50 by 1991.
Spreading the word
At first the register was mentioned frequently in the 'quality press', with occasional radio and even television interviews. Enquiries poured in and within the first year the register had 2,000 members. By 1965 membership had grown to 6,000. As national interest slowed down, local advertising became more important and standardised publicity material was offered in an attempt to produce a recognised NHR image.
Widespread publicity for the 10th birthday boosted membership from 10,000 to 15,000 and in 1978, the 18th birthday year generated an overwhelming number of enquiries, resulting in an increase in membership and in the number of groups.
Members were beginning to want to get together with other groups. There were occasional local meetings between several groups and one of the first local conferences was the Cheshire Forum. Three hundred members attended the first National Conference in Buxton in 1967 and the first International Conference was held in Buckinghamshire in 1980. Between 1976 and 1980 the number of local conferences increased dramatically, with more emphasis being placed on discussions based on informed opinion.
Autonomy with guidance
The first Local Organisers were volunteers, appointed by the National Organiser, and were responsible for coordinating their group's activities and being the contact for new members. They were encouraged to provide opportunities for thinking women to get together for stimulating and wide-ranging discussions and asked to collect subscriptions to pay for the upkeep of the register.
Accumulated experience of starting and organising groups and coping with difficulties eventually led to the production of a series of leaflets to supplement the encouragement, advice and reassurance which groups sought from the national organisation. In 1993 these were superseded by a Local Organisers' handbook which provides a useful guide to all aspects of the organisation and the services offered to members, and complements the advice and support that is always available from National Group members, Regional Organisers and Area Organisers.
Spreading the load
By 1970 the increasing size of NHR made it imperative that the work be shared and Anita Brocklesby and Lesley Moreland became joint organisers. Hitherto, National Organisers had been volunteers working a 40-60 hour week, receiving only reimbursement of expenses, but the responsibility of the job was now such that they proposed future organisers should receive a small honorarium. This was implemented during the final year of their term of office.
The sheer volume of the National Organiser's work had brought its problems:
- At times of sickness or holiday, the post accumulated unanswered
- No proper means existed for the National Organiser to make policy decisions
- There was no way an unconstituted club could limit the financial liability of its 'officers'
It therefore became essential for the organisation to have some form of legal status to safeguard its future position.
Constitution for informality
At the instigation of Pat Williams and Josephine Jaffray, as joint National Organisers, several volunteer members spent two years researching how other organisations dealt with these problems and seeking professional advice on legal matters. In July 1975, a special business meeting at Crewe discussed the results of their investigations, which culminated in the basis of the present organisation.
To limit the financial liability of the National Organiser and put the organisation on a more professional basis, NHR needed a constitution, and the law required certain minimum basics to be included, such as the appointment of trustees, an elected team of officers and an annual general meeting.
The first team of officers, or National Group, was elected at the Bristol Conference in April 1976. The National Organiser, Treasurer, Newsletter Editor and Public Relations Officer being appointed from within this group. The remaining officers supported and advised existing and potential groups, but as NHR expanded and the workload increased, other jobs were created. From 1978, election to the National Group has been by postal ballot of every paid-up member.
To preserve the original aims and characteristics of the organisation and provide a legal status to minimise its financial liabilities, Charitable Status was sought. This was granted in April 1980 and three trustees appointed: Maureen Nicol, Mary Stott and Betty Jerman.
In 1986, in order to transfer financial liability from the trustees to the membership, NHR became a Charitable Company Limited by Guarantee. In the unlikely event of NHR being wound up in debt, each member would be liable up to a guaranteed limit of £1.
In 1981, to celebrate the 21st birthday year, Betty Jerman's book, The Lively-Minded Women was published by Heinemann. It traces the history and development of the first 20 years of NHR from Maureen's original idea to the international organisation it has become. An anonymous birthday present of a computer meant that the register could finally be computerised.
National Organisers had always worked in their own homes, accommodating somehow all the material and equipment, but in 1982 office premises were acquired to cope with the ever-increasing workload, and in 1984 a full-time office administrator was appointed. The office, with its administrator and her part-time assistant, was the administrative hub of the organisation which allowed members of the National Group to spend more time on their specific jobs and personal help and advice.
A change of name
At the AGM in 1987, following a postal ballot of members, a resolution was passed to change the name to National Women's Register. 'Housewives' no longer accurately described those who belonged and it was hoped the change of name would encourage a more varied membership.
Strategic Plan for the 90s
Falling membership prompted a close look at the way forward for NWR, and the National Group worked with management consultants and members to produce a Strategic Plan with the aim of updating the image, improving efficiency and investigating a regional structure.
The new image was launched at the 1991 National Conference, and the first Annual Report was produced later that year.
The first phase of regionalisation began in July 1991 with the introduction of Area Organisers to improve communication between the National Group and members. Members wanting more involvement in the organisation but unable to commit themselves to joining the National Group provide advice and support for up to twenty groups in their areas, hold area meetings, organise inter-group activities and encourage the formation of new groups.
In phase two, the National Group was restructured to include four Regional Organisers, responsible for all the groups within eight newly-created regions. Regional Organisers work with Area Organisers to increase members' awareness of the national organisation, encourage new groups, and help existing ones to form closer links with other groups in the area and take full advantage of their membership.
The original idea of the register was to fulfil a need not met by other women's organisations – the need to meet others also wanting to stretch their minds. Today the National Women's Register not only continues to put women in touch with each other for friendship and informal discussion, but also, through its network of local groups, promotes a feeling of personal involvement, opening up opportunities for contact with like-minded women for mutual self-help, self-development and education.
In 1999 when the number of volunteers coming forward to fulfil the role of the National Group had fallen, the trustees arranged a ballot. After this vote of the members the decision was reached to advertise for two paid Coordinators. The National Group was dissolved at the Exeter conference in April. Positions were advertised, interviews were held and the trustees appointed two Coordinators from 1 July 1999. The Membership Coordinator was Eilis Thorn (Sheffield Fulwood group) and the Marketing Coordinator was Mary Dodkins, (Hemel Hempstead South Group).
When Eilis Thorn resigned in 2008 she was replaced by Kathryn Buckman (Alrewas Group, Staffordshire).
Mary retired in 2013 and was awarded an Honorary Life Membership to reflect her services to the organisation and has since sadly passed away in 2019. Kathryn remained Manager until 2015 when she also retired.
Natalie Punter joined NWR in 2015 as National Organiser and is supported by Helen Page, Communications Coordinator, as well as administrators Sam Bushell and Sharon Gibson, and Finance Manager, Chris Allison.
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