Frances Alexander started Women Welcome Women (as it was known then) in 1984. Her idea to encourage international friendship by enabling women to visit one another in their own homes was publicised in Women of Europe, a magazine of the then EEC. Enquiries soon flooded in and Frances started circulating an up-to-date membership list, which 5W has continued to do as it has grown.
Frances left school to become a nurse and then a midwife. Wanting to break away from health service constraints, she took a teaching course before marrying. When her children were small she started a private nursing agency. This was to be a formative time in her life. She interviewed 600 women in four years, many were qualified nurses who felt apprehensive about returning to work after taking time off to have their children. A bout of meningitis forced the sale of the agency and then there was a nine-year spell of teaching – for the last years as girls’ careers adviser. Part-time teaching then overlapped with setting up Women Welcome Women.
Frances has travelled throughout Europe, across N & S America and to Australia, staying all the time with 5W members. Her work for friendship among women all over the world led to her nomination for the 1996 Woman of Europe Award. In October 2001, Frances travelled across the USA, meeting members experiencing the traumatic aftermath of September 11th. In June/July 2002 she travelled in southern Russia, building on those links of friendship and understanding. Frances has now retired from the 5W office, but continues in her role as 5W Ambassador.
Her philosophy of international friendship permeates 5W, now a Company Limited by Guarantee operating as a non-profit Trust. There is also an ethos of increasing women’s self-confidence. “Planning to spend a weekend with a member in a nearby country and carrying through that plan, making new friendships, noticing differences of interest in the lifestyles in the foreign country are great ways of gaining self-confidence and becoming articulate,” says Frances.
There has been another thread to Frances’s life during the past 25 years: Liberal Democrat politics. She was elected to her local District Council in 1991; following the elections in May 1995 she became chair of their Strategic Policy Board. Her first agenda had items about links with Europe and the Third World. In 1997, she became Chairman of Wycombe District Council and dedicated her year to promote Local Agenda 21 – think globally, act locally! 1998-99 saw her in the 700-year-old role of Mayor of High Wycombe.
Frances has also been Chairman of Governors of a First School in High Wycombe – the first in the UK to institute the Parents as (First) Teachers programme, originating in the USA. PA(F)T recognises that the parent is the child’s first and most influential teacher and helps the parent to be the best teacher he/she can be.
Frances is also passionate about environmental issues and, in 1997, she convened a meeting of local environmental groups to consider an environmental project, which would help to meet local needs. The Environment Centre on Holywell Mead in High Wycombe was opened in 2002 and Frances is now one of the Centre trustees. This has become a focal point for the community to investigate local environmental issues.
Asked why she has been involved in all these things, Frances replies: “I like to see things happen!”