By Abha Thakor
The WI was formed during the First World War and grew as it encouraged countrywomen to grow and preserve food for the nation. The first British WI met on Anglesey, North Wales, on September 16th 1915. This was followed by the establishment of the first WI in England in the small Sussex village of Singleton, near Chichester. By the end of the war, the movement had rapidly expanded to 773 WI groups in England and Wales with some 12,000 women in membership.
One hundred years on and the movement is still going strong, currently numbering 212,000 members in around 6,600 WIs.
The anniversary was formally marked back in June 2015 at the Annual Meeting held in the Royal Albert Hall, when Her Majesty The Queen, President of the Sandringham WI, gave the opening address: “In the century since the first WI groups were formed in North Wales and in Sussex, so much has changed for women in our society. There has been significant economic and social change since 1915. Women have been granted the vote, British women have climbed Everest for the first time and the country has elected its first female Prime Minister. The Women’s Institute has been a constant throughout, gathering women together, encouraging them to acquire new skills and nurturing unique talents. In the modern world, the opportunities for women to give something of value to society are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they now play a much greater part in all areas of public life.”
Social history does not tend to attribute a direct campaigning role to the WI in respect of Women’s Suffrage. However, once its aims began to develop more widely at the end of the war, the developing themes of education and citizenship certainly chimed with the times and with newly enfranchised women.
“the WI provided training and encouragement to women to participate in public roles, including political ones.”
In 1917, Lady Gertrude Denman was elected national Chairman (a term used to this day) and saw an opportunity for women to play a greater, more active part in public life. Many members of her national executive committee had been active in the suffrage movement and saw the WI as a way of providing training and encouragement to women to participate in public roles, including political ones.
By 1923, the Manchester Guardian was noting: “The Women’s Institutes, which were founded so widely and successfully in our villages and tiny country towns during and after the war, fulfilled a double purpose. They gave to the political citizenship of the cottage housewife a wider social context than the vote itself could bestow and they have helped to break down the excessive individualism in village life, providing in not too austere a way a meeting place and medium for discussion of the world as well as the parish.”
Through the introduction and adoption of consistent procedures across the country’s WI groups, women were becoming accustomed to the concepts and terminology of running effective meetings. Agendas, minutes, resolutions, committee work – all these and more, hitherto the province of a male dominated world, opened up and became comprehensible and accessible to women.
This enlightenment stood many in good stead for entry into active public life, as this exhortation in the WI magazine ‘Home and Country’ of February 1925 showed: “Countrywomen must use their votes to help to secure the return of the best candidates. The right women are wanted on County Committees. The Institute ought to be training its members in the knowledge of business procedure and of local government methods which are requisite for service on committees.”
Despite a popular but misconceived image of WI groups being preoccupied with jam-making and singing ‘Jerusalem’, the WI has a proud history of serious campaigning over the years. From health related matters to the decrease of honey bees, from championing women police officers to promoting Fairtrade, from women and jury service to disabled housewives’ pensions, the WI has wielded great influence on decision makers.
It enters its second century in good shape to continue inspiring women as it has done since those early days in 1915.
More information about the WI