The Women’s Institute (WI) is a British, community-based organisation for women. It 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.
The WI movement began at Stoney Creek in Canada in 1897 when Adelaide Hoodless addressed a meeting for the wives of members of the Farmers' Institute. The first British WI meeting 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.
Honorary Archivist, Anne Stamper, has provided this information using published materials, copies of the WI magazine Home and Country and other documents deposited in our archives.
The WI's archives are kept at the Women's Library at London Metropolitan University ref 5FWI and are open to the public. Further information can also be found at the Genesis project's website which develops access to women's history sources. WI and federation records are usually kept at local county record offices, search the National Register of Archives for more details.
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.
The NFWI archives, containing papers relevant to the work of the WI nationally from 1915 to 1991, are deposited at the Women's Library, London Metropolitan University, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT.