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Introducing the Women’s Institute

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When someone mentions the Women’s Institute, what springs to mind? 

Chances are the phrase ‘jam and Jerusalem’ will be in there somewhere, and you’ll probably have a recollection of middle-aged women posing nude for a calendar.
 
While these are part of the history of the WI, there is a lot more to this enormous and historic organisation than its reputation suggests.
 

Facts about today’s WI

With more than 212,000 members, the WI is run in two tiers: the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI), based in London, and numerous Federations around the country, each looking after WIs in their own area.
 
The WI covers England, Wales and the Channel Islands, but is also affiliated with the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes, the Women’s Institutes of Northern Ireland and the Associated Country Women of the World.
 
These days men are allowed to attend meetings as guests too.
It is open to all women aged 18 or over and these days men are allowed to attend meetings as guests too (how very politically correct!).
 
Each member can attend the meetings of her WI – usually monthly but sometimes more frequent – and has access to additional courses and events organised through the Federation, as well as receiving WI Life, the organisation’s glossy magazine.
 

The Women’s Institute attracts members from all backgrounds

How the WI got to where it is today

Despite the 100 years that have elapsed since the organisation was founded, its principles remain largely the same.
 
It was formed with the aim of educating women and encouraging them to get involved with food production to help feed the nation during the First World War. This is where the link to jam first began: food preservation was an important part of the WI’s purpose in those early years.
 
The same was true during the Second World War: the WI formed the Produce Guild, encouraging people around the country to make and grow their own food as far as possible.
 
This association with good home-made food has been strong for many years, but there has always been much more to the WI than that. It has been known as a campaigning organisation from the outset, with a resolution – a topical issue which members felt strongly about – chosen annually from 1918. Indeed, the 1954 Resolution on reducing the amount of litter in the UK led to the formation of the Keep Britain Tidy pressure group the following year.
 
With roots in Canada, the WI came to the UK in 1915 and is about to mark its 100th anniversary. A series of celebrations has already begun, including a centenary baton which is being passed between the Federations. Members are being encouraged to use their craft skills to create heirlooms to mark the occasion and there is a competition to find the WI’s signature fruit cake.
 

Significant dates: 

1897 – the first WI groups began springing up in Canada
1915 – the WI was founded in the UK, with the first group in Anglesey, Wales
1918 – the WI’s first resolution was passed
1921 – a WI member Margaret Winteringham became the first woman to be elected to Parliament
1924 – Jerusalem was sung by the WI for the first time at its AGM
1955 – launch of Keep Britain Tidy, following a WI resolution about litter
1965 – The WI’s golden jubilee, celebrated with a garden party at Buckingham Palace
1974 – the highest ever number of WIs was reached: 9,309
2000 – the famous Alternative WI Calendar was produced by Rylstone WI near Skipton, North Yorkshire, to raise money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research
2007 – launch of WI Life, the glossy membership magazine
 

More popular than ever

Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in the WI, proving its ongoing value even a century after its foundation. A rising trend for traditional crafts and cooking has brought a new generation of women to the WI, keen to learn skills which might previously have been passed down through their families and would otherwise be lost.
The WI came to the UK in 1915 and is about to mark its 100th anniversary.
 
The traditional aims of educating and empowering members – under the slogan Inspiring Women – are followed by all WIs, providing a huge range of opportunities to learn new skills, develop passions and build long-lasting friendships. If members want to learn to make jam, they can – and if they prefer not to sing Jerusalem or strip off for a charity calendar, that’s fine too. As all new members are told, the WI is what you make of it.
 
Are you an existing member, we’d love you to share your experiences, funny stories, interesting skills you’ve learnt and give your tips and advice to those in retirement looking to open their social doors and possibilities. Or if you’re interested in joining, post your comments below and I’ll help where I can.
 
This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.
 

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