Women's Institutes (WI) are British, community-based organisations for women. The WI movement was formed in 1915 with two clear aims: to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Since then the organisation's aims have broadened and it is now the largest women's voluntary organisation in the UK. The organisation celebrated its 95th anniversary in 2010 and currently has approximately 208,000 members in 7,000 WIs.
The WI plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.
Women's Institutes in England, Wales, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are affiliated to the National Federation of Women's Institutes. In Scotland and Northern Ireland there are similar organisations tied to the WI through the Associated Country Women of the World: the Scottish Women's Rural Institutes and the Women's Institutes of Northern Ireland.
Structure and membership
The national headquarters of the WI, the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI), is in London. There is also an office in Cardiff, NFWI-Wales, and a residential college in Oxfordshire, Denman College. The NFWI produces a membership magazine WI Life. WI Enterprises is the trading arm of the organisation and exists to raise funds and provide benefits for members. In 2010, there are approximately 205,000 members of 6,500 Women's Institutes in England, Wales and the islands, linked through the Associated Country Women of the World to other WIs worldwide.
Every individual WI meets at least once a month and there is usually a speaker, demonstration or activity at every meeting for members to learn and develop a range of different skills.
Craft has always played an important role in the WI and thousands of members are involved in a range of different crafts across England and Wales.
The Women's Institute is often associated with food, cooking and healthy eating, and food and cooking form an important part of the WI's history.
The WI movement began at Stoney Creek, Ontario in Canada in 1897 when Adelaide Hoodless addressed a meeting for the wives of members of the Farmers' Institute. WIs quickly spread throughout Ontario and Canada, with 130 branches launched by 1905 in Ontario alone, and the groups flourish in their home province today. As of 2013, the Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario (FWIO) had more than 300 branches with more than 4,500 members.
The first WI meeting in England and Wales took place on 11 September 1915 at Llanfairpwll on Anglesey in North Wales. The WI was originally set up in the UK to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War.
The WI celebrated its 95th anniversary in 2010 and today plays a unique role in enabling women to gain new skills, take part in wide-ranging activities and campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities. The WI is a diverse organisation open to all women, and there are now WIs in towns and cities as well as villages.
Women's Institutes were formed in Scotland and Northern Ireland independently to those in England and Wales. The first Women's Rural Institute started in Scotland on 26 June 1917, and Madge Watt travelled up from London to speak to a meeting at Longniddry. After the end of the Great War, Watt returned to Canada where she continued as an activist for the interests of rural women. In 1930 she founded the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW).
After the end of the First World War, the Board of Agriculture withdrew its sponsorship, although the Development Commission financially supported the work of the forming of new WIs and gave core funding to the NFWI until it could become financially independent. By 1926 the Women's Institutes were fully independent and rapidly became an essential part of rural life.
One of their features was an independence from political parties or institutions, or church or chapel, which encouraged activism by non-establishment women, which helps to explain why the WI has been extremely reluctant to support anything that can be construed as war work, despite their wartime formation. During the Second World War, they limited their contribution to such activities as looking after evacuees, and running the Government-sponsored Preservation Centres where volunteers canned or made jam of excess produce. All this produce was sent to depots to be added to the rations.
In 1948 NFWI bought Marcham Park in Berkshire and converted it into a short-stay residential adult education college, called Denman College in honour of Lady Gertrude Denman. Now referred to as Denman, it has grown and developed over the years and is a well-appointed adult education centre attended by approximately 6,000 students each year. It is open to non-members as well as members.
WI Cookery School
Founded on years of experience and culinary expertise, the WI Cookery School combines the teaching of traditional skills with innovative and creative ideas. The WI Cookery School offers a fantastic range of over 100 day schools, residential courses and family courses.
The courses are tutored by specialists with many years of experience and the ability to provide both fun and educational courses in a Cookery School equipped with the latest facilities, all situated within Denman.
New branches of the WI
In 2003, a new-style urban Women's Institute was opened in Fulham, London. This Women's Institute has been successful and the press attention it has generated has led to new WIs with younger female members opening steadily in its wake. There are now 30 branches of the WI in London and new urban branches of the organisation are opening every week across England and Wales.
In April 2010 Zoe Stroud decided to start a new WI in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Zoe, aged 31 at the time, is believed to be one of the youngest presidents of a WI on the Isle of Wight if not the UK. [The founding president of Buns & Roses WI in Leeds, Georgiana Mannion, was 24 when she formed the group.] At the first meeting over 50 ladies attended. Cowes WI acquired 42 members within a few short months of being created. The average age of Cowes WI is around 40 and activities already completed include wine tasting, fashion styling and breast awareness. Holmfirth WI officially opened in 2013 and gained 80 members that spring. The founding president of Holmfirth WI was 25 when she formed the group and members span all ages, the branch is considered an 'inclusive' one.
In December 2012 Sami Score founded The Iron Maidens WI in Liscard in Merseyside. The branch is considered an 'alternative' one, with many members sporting tattoos, piercings and wildly coloured hair. The branch was opened with the intention of being an option for women interested in rock music, burlesque, goth culture, steampunk, retro and more. The current president of the branch is 25 year old, Sarah Martindale.
95th Anniversary Celebration
In 2010 it was announced that five members of the WI signed a record deal with Universal Music and would record an album to celebrate the 95th anniversary since the first ever WI meeting. This band was named The Harmonies and their debut album Voices of the W.I. was released in October 2010.
Published eight times a year, WI Life is delivered directly to more than 205,000 WI members. WI Life features articles and news stories showcasing the diversity and wide-ranging interests of members.
In keeping with the organisation's eco-friendly philosophy, the magazine is printed on 100 per cent recycled paper, using vegetable, rather than chemical-based, inks. The magazine wrapping is completely biodegradable.
In 2007, Neal Maidment became the first-ever male Editor in the history of WI magazines (which date back to 1919). He resigned from the role in May 2011. The former editor of Pregnancy & Birth Magazine and Health Which? magazine - Kaye McIntosh - is the current editor.
During the 1920s, many WIs started choirs and NFWI set up a music committee and appointed a Mr Leslie as an advisor.
Mr Leslie held a one-day school for village conductors in London in early 1924. He asked his friend Sir Walford Davies to write an arrangement of Hubert Parry's setting of Jerusalem, for WI choirs. This hymn with its association with the fight for women's suffrage was appropriate for the newly emerging WI movement which was encouraging women to take their part in public life, and to fight to improve the conditions of rural life.
Mr Leslie suggested that Walford Davies' special arrangement for choir and string orchestra should be performed at the Annual General Meeting of NFWI held in the Queen's Hall, London in 1924. He himself conducted the singing, bringing a choir from local WIs with him to lead.
This was so successful that it has been sung at the opening of NFWI AGMs to this day. Many WIs also open meetings by singing Jerusalem. Although it has never actually been adopted as the WI's official anthem, in practice it holds that position.
On the 18th June 2010 a new `modern` version of Jerusalem was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London. It features the entrants that applied for the `WI Search for a Star` competition. It is due for release on CD later in 2010.
The importance of home prepared foods is of continuing importance and the institute runs its own markets, WI markets, where home made produce is sold. Modern hygiene regulations have made this activity more complicated, but so entwined are the ideals of the hymn and ongoing self-sufficiency that the ideology of the organisation is often summarised as "Jam and Jerusalem" WI fetes, cookery, and judging have frequently been satirised by Little Britain's "Maggie and Judy" sketches. Maggie Blackamoor is often perceived in the UK as the archetypal member of the WI.
- Calendar Girls — 2003 film based on the nude calendar produced by the Rylstone WI.
- Scottish Women's Rural Institutes, Scotland
- Country Women's Association (Australia)
- Irish Countrywomen's Association, Ireland
- Merched y Wawr — Welsh language women's movement similar to the Women's Institute.
- Mothers' Union
- Jam & Jerusalem — a British television sitcom centred around a local WI - though referenced as a Women's Guild. It is known as Clatterford in the US, the fictional West Country town where it takes place.
- National Memorial Arboretum - home to a drystone wall, incorporating two seating areas, dedicated to the Women's Institute.
- The Harmonies - the band formed to celebrate the 95th anniversary of the WI, set to release their debut album Voices of the W.I. on 25 October 2010.
As of 28 February 2011, this article is derived in whole or in part from thewi.org.uk. The copyright holder has licensed the content utilized under CC-By-SA and GFDL. All relevant terms must be followed. The original text was at "History".
-  www.thewi.org.uk, retrieved 20 September 2011
- Fulham WI
- Andrews, Maggie - The Acceptable Face of Feminism, the Women's Institute as a social movement - Lawrence and Wishart 1997
- Connell, Linda and Stamper, Anne - Textile Treasures of the WI - NNA 2007
- Davies Constance - A Grain of Mustard Seed - Gee and Son Denbigh, 2nd Ed.1989
- Dudgeon, Piers - Village Voices, a portrait of change in England's Green and Pleasant Land Sidgwick and Jackson 1989
- Garner, Gwen - Extra Ordinary Women - WI Books 1995
- Goodenough, Simon - Jam and Jerusalem - Collins 1977 (ISBN 0 00 411807 3)
- Huxley, Gervas - Lady Denman G.B.E. - Chatto and Windus 1961
- Jenkins, Inez - The History of the Women's Institute Movement of England and Wales - OUP 1953
- McCall, Cicely - Women's Institutes - the Britain in Pictures series - Collins 1943
- Robertson Scott, J. W. - The Story of the Women's Institute Movement in England and Wales and Scotland - The Village Press - 1925
- Robinson, Jane - A Force to be Reckoned With: A History of the Women's Institute - Virago 2011 (ISBN 9781844086597)
- Stamper, Anne - Rooms off the Corridor, Education in the WI and 50 years of Denman College - WI Books 1998
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