Women’s Institute at 100
October 15th, 2015
This year marks the centenary of the Women’s Institute. The movement initially started in Canada 1897. It began as an initiative to bring woman from isolated communities together to teach them new skills such as animal husbandry, home economics and child care. Despite being famed just for their handicrafts, WI were vital in the Home Front war effort during the First World War. After they played a key role in women’s suffrage, education rights, and employment, childcare and benefits. Many members of the first group also went on to become local political figures.
The onset of the First World War encouraged the establishment of the WI in the United Kingdom. The formation of the first branch was on 16th of June in Anglesey and the first meeting on 16th September. It’s main aim was to help engage women in the production and preservation of food. With so many men leaving for war farms were struggling to keep on top of their work and this was a serious threat to the food supply, both for the armed forces and the Home Front. By the end of 1918 the WI had helped to increase Britain’s food self-sufficiency from 35% to 60%.
The movement grew so fast that by the end of 1917 137 branches had been established. The government decided that the Women’s Institute was such a valuable asset to the nation’s food supply that the founding of new branches should be the responsibility of the Women’s Section of the Food Department of the Board of Agriculture. However, whilst the government did help with this, it was mostly the National Federation of Women’s Institutes that formed in October 1915 who helped to form most of the groups during the war. By the end of 1918 there were 199 branches and the demand for new groups was so high that a training school had to be set up to help people set up their own WI groups. At the end of the war the government handed over all responsibility for the establishment for new branches to NFWI and gave them a generous grant for their work.