The Women's Institutes (WI) are membership organisations for women in Canada, England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Separate organisations, the Scottish Women's Rural Institute and the Federation of Northern Ireland Women's Institutes exist in Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively.
The Federated Women's Institutes of Canada have 1,257 branches distributed throughout 10 provinces.
Individual Women's Institutes are self-governing and serve particular villages, towns or districts. They are grouped into 70 county and island federations. Both the individual Women's Institutes and the regional federations are members of the National Federation of Women's Institutes. In 2008 approximately 205,000 women were members of 6,700 Women's Institutes in England Wales and the islands, linked through the Associated Countrywomen of the World to other WIs worldwide.
Each local Women's Institute provides a programme of monthly meetings of talks and demonstrations. In addition members can take part in other activities that may include sport, drama, craft, cooking and community projects; in addition to campaigning on matters of local, national and international importance. Current campaigns and projects include: end violence against women, Fairtrade, supporting post offices, climate change, foodwaste, WI carbon challenge.
John Nugent Harris, secretary of the Agricultural Organisations Society (AOS) had been hoping to involve more countrywomen in the work of AOS with little success. It was not until he met Margaret (Madge) Rose Watt (Mrs Alfred Watt) that he heard about the Women's Institute movement that had started in 1897 at Stoney Creek, Ontario (see Erland Lee Museum) , Canada and grown into the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada, that he found what he wanted. Nugent Harris persuaded AOS to appoint Madge Watt to try to start WIs in Britain. The first Women's Institute (WI) in Britain was founded in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales on 11 September 1915. The first WIs to be formed in England were at Singleton in Sussex and Wallisdown in Dorset.
The organisation grew rapidly and AOS employed other organisers to help Madge Watt. The AOS set up a Women's Institute Committee to oversee the work and appointed the young Lady Denman, to chair the group. In 1917 the administration of the growing WI movement was transferred to the Board of Agriculture. It became part of the Women's branch of the Food Production Department, which also organised the newly formed Women's Land Army.
On 16 October 1917, representatives of 60 of the 137 existing WIs met at Central Hall, Westminster, to accept these changes and to set up the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI). All WIs were to be "self-governing and self supporting bodies" affiliated to NFWI. They elected a central committee of management (later to be called the National Executive committee) and Lady Denman was elected as Chairwoman, a post she held for the next 29 years. From 1917 until 1919 WIs played an important role in educating members in domestic science and increasing the production and preserving of food.
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, Madge 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 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, particularly Quakers, 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, and in World War II 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 first Women's Institute Market took place in Lewes, Sussex to sell surplus produce in 1919. Women's Institute County Federations supported the spread of Women's Institute markets. In 1932 the Markets were registered as co-operatives under the Industrial Provident & Friendly Societies Act. Their combined annual turnover reached £1m in 1972 and £10m in 1992. The Markets separated from The National Federation of Women's Institutes in 1995 and became self-financing. In 2004 the company was renamed Country Markets Ltd.
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 Denman. The college has grown and developed over the years and is now a well-appointed adult education centre attended by approximately 6,000 students each year. It is now open to non-members as well as members.
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, all over the UK.
A decision to issue the WI magazine to all members from 2007 and to include the cost in the membership subscription led to many branches and members complaining about lack of consultation and to some( e.g Corfe Castle in Dorset and Middleham in North Yorkshire) leaving the organisation. An extensive article appeared in the Daily Telegraph and there were features in local newspapers,local TV and radio and on BBC breakfast television.
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
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.