“A Modest Revolutionary”
Like many things that are quintessentially British (such as tea, Saint George, and fish and chips) the WI has its origins on foreign shores.
In 1897, Adelaide Hoodless started the Women’s Institute in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada to empower rural women and their families through education.
Hoodless’ mission was partly driven by personal tragedy: Adelaide’s son John died at just 14 months old due to drinking unpasteurised milk.
Haunted by the preventable nature of her son’s death, Hoodless was determined to ensure that more women had access to information that would help keep themselves and their families safe.
Because of her campanging, public schools in Ontario became the first in Canada to offer domestic science courses.
A year later, she wrote Canada’s first domestic science textbook.
Although the domestic focus of her work may seem rather tame to us today, it was radical for its time.
Adelaide believed that the domestic work that women did was inherently valuable, and that by educating women and girls “you educate a community.”
Within a decade of its founding, more than 500 branches of the WI had spread across Canada.
Then, on the 16th of September 1915, the first British WI meeting landed on the shores of Anglesey, Wales.
It arrived at a pivotal point in women’s history.
For years the women’s suffrage movement had been sparking debate and protest up and down the land.
The suffragettes and suffragists halted their ambitions when World War I broke out in 1914 to support the country, but the war had its own peculiar part to play in women’s liberation: women entered the workforce in huge numbers to do jobs vacated by men, challenging the stereotypes of what a woman could and could not do in new ways.
This acquisition of new skills, personal growth, and supporting “home and country” were all values that the budding WI movement held in esteem.
It is no coincidence that the WI’s centenary and the centenary of women winning the vote are so close to one another.
Many of the women involved in setting up the NFWI had been active in the women’s suffrage movement and they saw in the WIs a way of educating and encouraging women to take an active part in public life. (source)
In fact, the WI “anthem” Jerusalem that is still sung at many WI meetings was originally adopted by Suffragists in 1917.
Millicent Fawcett asked Sir Hubert Parry (the man who put Jerusalem to music) if the song could be used at a Suffrage Demonstration Concert on the 13th of March 1918.
Parry was enthusiastically supportive and wrote back saying, “I wish indeed it might become the Women Voters’ hymn, as you suggest. People seem to enjoy singing it. And having the vote ought to diffuse a good deal of joy too. So they would combine happily.”
Ironically, Adelaide Hoodless herself never supported the women’s suffrage movement.
The rabble-rousing British changed the WI and made it their own.
The WI in WWII
The modern image of the WI is largely based on the role that WIs played during the Second World War.
When war broke out yet again in 1939, the WI was well intertwined in British rural life.
There were institutes in over 5,500 villages.
Realising what a tremendous network the WI was, The Ministry of Agriculture reached out to the then Chairman of the NFWI, Lady Gertrude Denman.
“The most useful thing about that was that the government only needed to ring the general secretary [of the NFWI] in London to have the ears of a third of a million country women spread throughout England and Wales, and that was an incredibly powerful thing,” said Julie Summers author of Jambusters: The Story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War in an interview with History Answers.
Denman was appointed the Director of the Women’s Land Army, but there was a small problem: the WI was anti-war.
With echos of the spirit of Adelaide Hoodless, the WI was “more about empowerment in education” according to Julie Summers.
She continues, “Because it was a pacifist organisation, it couldn’t do work that was directly connected to the military aspect of the war effort, but it could work on food production and any other voluntary work that needed doing to keep the countryside ticking like setting up markets, knitting, sewing and looking after evacuees.”
Members were remarkably responsive: among other things WI members harvested 450 tonnes of fruit for jam (which was the only way to stop the fruit from rotting and going to waste), 500 tons of rosehips, 13 tons of onions, and knitted 150,000 items for soldiers, evacuee children, and hospital patients.
The women of the WI achieved remarkable things during the war, but the “Jam and Jerusalem” image stuck.
“When people think of the WI the typical period they think of is the war years, when the WI indeed was in pinnies making jam from dawn to dusk, with a patriotic gloss on that as well,” said author Jane Robinson in conversation with The Guardian. “But that image is completely out of date now.”
The WI Today
Could it be that the 40s are back in fashion?
There are now around 7,000 WI chapters in England and Wales.
Membership has reached highest levels since the 1970s (the Daily Mail speculates that this could be partly due to “the Mary Berry effect”).
There are traditional groups that have been running with the same members for decades, as well as new “hipster WIs” and even a WI for goths.
“We had a talk from a female undertaker who explained that I can have my ashes turned into jewellery, we also heard from an alternative Celebrant,” said the president of Gothic Valley WI in an article for the Metro. “The WI is made up of such a wide range of people and it’s just a case of finding the right one for you.”
That’s good news if undertaking and bat walks sound a bit dark for you!
With such a wide variety of people, interests, and activities, something that unites all WIs is that we are one of the most active volunteer forces in the country.
As well as “official” WI campaigns (these are nominated and voted on by members), some branches may even engage in social action that are of a particular interest to them.
For example, Burnt Cakes WI in Oxford spearheaded a campaign against period poverty by providing sanitary supplies to secondary schools in their area.
Their president Rebekah Pugh explained to the Oxford Mail, “To me the WI is all about action, kindness and being a force for change. The committee and I are so proud that very quickly the Burnt Cakes WI has been able to set up this wonderful project that will change the lives of local girls and young women.”
Many women join the WI to engage in their communities and try new things.
It’s been a long time since Hoodless helped found the WI, and she would no doubt be pleased that the WI remains an educational charity that still holds on to its domestic foundations (however ironically in some cases).
As Amy Cotterill of the WI Girls told The Times, “The world has changed since the WI was set up. Nowadays, people move around a lot, they change jobs – it is a fragmented, broken society. Joining the WI is a way of grounding yourself.”
The Institute is experiencing a resurgence of interest and it is a great time to join.