WI (women's institute) was formed in 1897 in Canada, as a branch of the farmer's institute. At that time, the group brought women together from isolated communities, and offered various training, such as childcare, economics, and the aspects of farming which were traditionally women's roles, such as poultry keeping and small animal care. The first WI to be started in Britain was in 1915, during the first world war where women were encouraged to get involved in farming; growing and preserving food to help keep up supplies.
The WI appealed to women from all walks of life, and helped break down some of the social barriers which previously existed between women who wouldn't have mixed in social circles before. By the 1930s, WI members took part in other activities other than just farming and educating, such as music festivals, dancing, pageants and plays.
During the Second World War, the WI saw the need to remain strong as a group in order to provide support and a sense of stability to women. As a result, the group's meetings continued as per usual throughout the war, and as well as providing support to the war effort through caring for evacuees, the WI's main contribution was through growing and preserving food. In particular, the WI became famous for their production of jam, saving fruit from becoming wasted and helping feed the nation.
The WI went on to do much fundraising, holding events and raising awareness of the groups. Membership continued to rise and the WI grew in size and prominence across the country. The Queen attended the WI life and leisure exhibition in 1984, which marked a three-year campaign to raise the profile and awareness of the WI, and a few years later, the WI attended the Chelsea flower show for the first time.
Today, the WI is the largest voluntary women's organisation in the UK with around 212,000 members in approximately 6,600 WI groups. The WI aims to help provide women with educational opportunities and an opportunity to discover and build on new skills, taking part in a number of activities and providing a platform to campaign on issues that are important to them and their communities.
In 1999 some women from a Yorkshire group of the WI decided to create a nude calendar... a story you'll probably know from the 2003 film 'Calendar girls'. The film was based on a true story, and showed an insight to what the WI does (and how fun-loving those ladies can be!)
The WI near you
WI groups are still going strong, in the Phonebox magazine's area there are a couple we can tell you about. The Olney WI meets on the first Wednesday of the month at the Olney Centre. The evening usually consists of a talk and competition, along with refreshments and a time to chat and get to know one another. There is also a group in Newport Pagnell, which meets on the second Tuesday of the month, at the Royal British Legion club. They follow a similar schedule to the Olney club, and features talks, DIY sessions, quizzes and more.
It seems that the WI provides a place for women from a variety of different backgrounds to come together and share similar interests and discover new ones. If you're a woman, why not pop into your local WI and see what it is they do?! Click here to find out more about some WI groups in the buckinghamshire area.