You are a very powerful force for good in our country… from domestic violence to women’s pay, from venereal disease in the 1920s to AIDS in the 1980s. That is a great tribute to the depth of your compassion, your fearlessness in tackling hard issues and the energy with which you further the cause of not just women but British society.
These were the words of Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, describing the work of the Women’s Institute which, contrary to its once dowdy image and over-used ‘jam and Jerusalem’ moniker, plays a vital role in British society, promoting women’s rights, fostering health awareness, encouraging sustainable development and building a fairer society. In the same year the Queen becomes the longest-reigning British Monarch (in fact, on 9th September) 2015 sees the formidable force that is the WI celebrate its centenary…
WI shall overcome
Formed in 1915 and inspired by an idea from Canada, the WI was founded in a shed in the Anglesey village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (also famous for having Britain’s longest place name). Its purpose was to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War while their husbands were away at war.
Now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK with 212,000 members in around 6,600 WIs, its aims have broadened, now providing support for women of all backgrounds – from educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills to campaigning on issues that matter to them and their communities.
A new WI in South Tonbrigde welcomed 150 people at its first meeting
Centenary celebrations were held in June at the centenary Annual General Meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in London, attended by 5,100 members while thousands more across the country tuned into a live broadcast. Attended by HM The Queen, herself President of Sandringham WI, HRH The Princess Royal, a long-standing NFWI Associate, and HRH The Countess of Wessex, a member of Bagshot WI, prizes were presented and a centenary fruit cake cut, a piece of which was handed to each member as they left.
2015 also marks a milestone for the Queen as this month she becomes the longest-reigning monarch in British history, a record held for more than a century by her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. Her Majesty spoke of her pride at the achievements of the WI since its inception after the First World War, saying: “…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…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
A new generation
And those talents no longer stop at homemaking activities. While the popularity of TV programmes such as Great British Bake Off and Great British Sewing Bee have made baking and sewing more popular and accessible than ever for young people, the WI is also seeing a surge in subscriptions from women in their 20s and 30s.
Lucy Rider, the President of Leeds-based Buns & Roses, a younger WI, explains: “Young women want to learn to knit and want to learn to crochet.” But as well as these traditional activities, Buns & Roses – whose members are mostly aged 20 to 40 – has offered bricklaying, Bollywood and street dance classes…”It’s making sure the WI meets the needs of the modern woman as well as the older members.”
Maighread Neligan, President of the Dalston Darlings in east London, estimates that close to 90% of her group are between 25 and 40. Keen to ‘re-imagine the core values of the WI for a new generation’, as well as doing charity work, the group has hosted talks from artists, sex therapists and chefs.
Feel the force
With 180 WIs and nearly 7,000 members, West Kent is one of the larger federations as it includes East Kent, East Sussex, Surrey and London in towns and villages stretching from Tenterden to East Dulwich.
In her fourth and final year as President, Sheila Miles is confident that the future of the WI lies in the blend of old and young members: “I’m happy to see it evolve. Our older members can teach the younger ones to bake a perfect Victoria sponge, while the younger ones can provide help with setting up an iPad!”
She continues: “It’s sad to see rural WIs struggling to recruit new members, but there is clearly a demand elsewhere. A new WI in South Tonbridge welcomed 150 people at its first meeting – despite a WI already in existence in North Tonbridge.”
The force of the WI has spread far and wide – even hitting the silver screen in the 2003 Hollywood hit Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. Members of the Rylstone and District WI in North Yorkshire posed in little more than hats, pearls and a smile for an infamous, semi-nude calendar in 1999 to raise money after the death of WI member Angela Baker’s husband from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Little did they realise the impact it would have and since 2000, the Calendar Girls have raised more than £3 million for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. Take That frontman Gary Barlow and Tim Firth are working on a musical of the story, which opens in January 2016.
Campaigns that changed our lives forever
The WI has a long (and often unacknowledged) history of progressive social campaigning on a wide range of issues that matter to women and their communities. Over the past 100 years members have campaigned to empower and support women within society, exerting their individual and collective influence; brought a series of controversial issues into the public domain; and brought about many changes in legislation and government policy.
- The WI first campaigned on jury service in 1921, urging women to ‘accept their full responsibilities as citizens in whatever way they may be called upon to serve their country’ and later urging the government to open up jury service to all.
- Starting with a resolution in 1922, the WI campaigned throughout the 1930s and 1940s to increase the number of women police, lobbying the home office and winning the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
- The organisation was campaigning on venereal disease in 1922, calling for full, free family planning in 1972, and demanding the prohibition of female genital mutilation as early as 1983. In 1920 it was key in the introduction of the bastardy bill, which compelled fathers of illegitimate children to provide them with financial support.
- The WI passed a resolution calling for ‘equal pay for equal work’ in 1943 and was represented for many years on the Equal Pay Campaign Committee.
- In 1954 a resolution to ‘inaugurate a campaign to preserve the countryside against desecration by litter’ led to the formation of the Keep Britain Tidy group and was influential in transforming litter policy following the introduction of the 1958 Litter Act.
- Members were among the first to debate the dangers of smoking when the WI passed a resolution to ban smoking in public places in 1964.
In 1975 the WI started informing members about the importance of breast examination and lobbying the government to set up screening clinics. A national screening programme was eventually introduced in 1988.
- In 1986 the NFWI was one of the first organisations to talk about AIDS and used its unrivalled network of local organisations to educate the public and get people talking about the issue.
- In the early 1990s the NFWI joined with CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Traidcraft and the World Development Movement, to become a founding member of the Fairtrade Foundation.
- The SOS for Honey Bees campaign was launched after a resolution calling for increased funding for research into honey bee health was passed in 2009. Concerned that the outlook for bees remained bleak, despite funding for research and improved awareness of pollinator declines, the NFWI later joined with Friends of the Earth to campaign for more national leadership; the National Pollinator Strategy was launched in November 2014.
Jam and Jerusalem
The WI was formed in the middle of the First World War, when submarine blockades prevented food from being brought into the country. The WI played their part in increasing food production at home, by making jams and preserves and bottling and pickling other fruit and vegetables – a task that came naturally to the many country-dwelling members.
Years later, between 1940 and 1945 more than 5,300 tons of fruit were preserved, which might otherwise have been wasted, providing food for the nation.
Jerusalem, composed by Hubert Parry in 1916, was an anthem ‘to brace the spirit of the nation’ in the depths of the First World War. When suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett heard it, she asked Parry if the women’s suffrage movement might appropriate it. He agreed, and Jerusalem was first sung by massed women at the Royal Albert Hall at a suffrage rally in 1918.
Since both organisations were about empowering women, the anthem was later adopted by the WI and is still sung at many of their meetings.