What is the WI?

About the WI

The Women’s Institute (WI) was formed in 1915 to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Since then the organisation’s aims have broadened and the WI is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK. The WI celebrated its centenary in 2015 and currently has almost 220,000 members in approximately 6,300 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.

Joining the WI

As a WI member, you will enjoy a varied programme that is chosen by each WI; every member can contribute ideas to the annual programme of speakers, activities and events – the options are only limited by your imagination!  Each WI holds eleven meetings every year and you can also get involved in the various regional and national level events and activities.

Your membership entitles you to eight copies a year of the WI membership magazine, WI Life, as well as regular newsletters and mailings to keep you up-to-date with all the news and events from this federation and the NFWI. One unforgettable event not to be missed is the NFWI Annual Meeting, which brings together representatives from WIs all over the country to review the work of the organisation and vote on the resolutions that form the backbone of the NFWI’s campaigns. 

NFWI Headquarters

The NFWI headquarters is located in Fulham, London.

Phone: 0207 371 9300
Open Hours: 09:00-17:00 Mon-Fri
Address: 104 New Kings Road, London SW6 4LY
Email: hq@nfwi.org.uk

History

The WI archives contain a brief history of the WI movement from its origins in Canada in 1897 and the first WIs in Britain in 1915, up to the present day.

The Origins

The Women’s Institute Movement in Britain started in 1915. During the First World War it was formed to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation.

1920s

Once the war was over the newly formed WIs began to concentrate on planning programmes of activities to suit their members. This new organisation attracted members from the Lady of the Manor, to her housemaid and cook; from the local shop keeper to the wife of the farm labourer: working together in the WI helped to break down the social barriers between countrywomen who had rarely met in the past. Women had now received the vote (at least those over 30) and NFWI was anxious to encourage women to become active citizens.

1930s

By now the WI had become firmly established in the countryside, and was so well known that it was the subject of cartoons in Punch.

There was a light-hearted feel to WI activities with WI members taking part in music festivals, country dancing and some very ambitious pageants and plays were performed. 

Historical pageant in Westmorland. The organisation continued to support the League of Nations and in 1934 sent a delegate to the International Congress in Brussels. When war seemed inevitable, the NFWI had to decide what role it would play.

1940s

During the Second World War the WIs felt that it was important to maintain their meetings as normally as possible, “thus providing for the members a centre of tranquillity and cheerfulness in a sadly troubled world.”

During the war, the WIs contributed an enormous amount to the Home Front. From the outbreak of war in 1939 they co-operated with caring for evacuees, but, as in the First World War, the main contribution was in growing and preserving food. Between 1940 and 1945 over 5,300 tons of fruit was preserved; that is nearly 12 million pounds of fruit which might otherwise have been wasted, provided food for the nation. This was the war work for which WI members became renowned (and the ‘jam’ image has stuck ever since).

One positive event in the 1940s was the formation of the WI’s Denman College which opened in 1948.

1950s

Once the war was over the WI concentrated on getting back to normal as quickly as possible. The Headquarters at 39 Eccleston Street was repaired of its war time damage. Denman College was lovingly furnished and the bedrooms with their hand made bedspreads became a special feature. The NFWI celebrated the beginning of the 1950s with a national music festival. In 1952 a national craft exhibition was staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the centrepiece of which was a huge wall hanging depicting The Work of Women in War. Finally the decade closed with a national drama festival. The NFWI continued its campaigning work and the highlight of this decade was the setting up of the Keep Britain Tidy Group.

1960s

During the 1960s the WIs continued to grow in number. The Golden Jubilee was celebrated in great style in 1965 with, amongst other celebrations, a memorable garden party when the Queen invited her fellow members to Buckingham Palace. Between 1962 and 1966 the WIs raised £182,000 and WI Markets a further £3,000 for the Freedom from Hunger Campaign. There were two notable cultural events during the decade;  the first National Art Exhibition and the specially commissioned operatic sequence The Brilliant and the Dark. The rule that restricted WIs to being formed in communities with a population of 4,000 or less was rescinded in 1965 and in 1968 there was a major conference on the Countryside.

1970s

The seventies opened and closed with new buildings being opened at Denman College. Although much of the public affairs work continued to be about supporting rural life there were also resolutions of a more overtly political nature. In 1974, the number of WIs reached its highest ever. The Diamond Jubilee in 1975 was celebrated with a large exhibition, This Green and Pleasant Land?, the question mark reflecting the concern that WI members felt about the future of the countryside.

1980s

There was a three-year campaign to raise the profile of the WI and a ‘promotion bus’ toured the country, parked in two or three locations in each county. There were also promotional stands in British Home Stores staffed by federations. The culmination of the three years was the WI Life and Leisure Exhibition held in 1984 at Olympia, attended on its opening day by the Queen. The decade ended with the WI’s first appearance at the Chelsea Flower Show, bringing great success. The subjects of the resolutions debated at the annual meetings reflect women’s concerns for current issues and show an awareness of modern technology.

1990s

This decade opened with the celebration of the WI’s 75th anniversary, with the Queen attending the AGM. The National Federation held its first Triennial General Meeting at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham. During the decade, the NFWI worked in partnership with a number of organisations to develop special programmes. In 1998 over 450 members met at the Royal Institution for a special presentation, Great Scientists of the Royal Institution. Sport was promoted by the Regional Sports Coordinators and national competitions such as the golf tournament and the 1997 Swimfit campaign encouraged an active and healthy membership.

2000s

The Triennial General Meeting at the Wembley Arena in 2000 was addressed by the Prime Minister. Some of the 6,000 WI members present showed their disapproval with a slow hand-clap as they felt he was using the occasion to make a party political statement. The amount of coverage this received in the media changed the general public’s  image of the WI

The millennium was celebrated with a Craft Spectacular exhibition at Tatton Park, indicating a continued commitment to crafts, preserving and passing on old skills and developing new ones. The setting up of alliances with other organisations also helped the NFWI to conduct high profile campaigns.

2010s

The WI celebrated its centenary in 2015.