Throughout history there have been groups of women who bond to help each other. We’ve had Girl Scouts of America, Daughters of the Revolution, the International Council of Women and many others. It proves that people need people. We need each other for guidance, nurturing and help to accomplish big tasks that one person can’t do alone.
But it doesn’t have to be huge world-changing undertakings. I’m inspired to see as many as 10 women at my local Oceanic Library in Rumson, NJ knitting together at a round table. It’s hard not to laugh and smile when you’re knitting with friends. At least that’s what I gather when I see them. And it makes sense! Why knit at home on your couch in front of the TV when you can sit with friends and talk and laugh? Social interaction is a gift unto itself.
The Women’s Institutes (WI) have been putting that theory into action for a heck of a long time now. In 2012, they broke the Guinness World record for the most people (3,083 members) knitting in a single location at the annual General Meeting in the Royal Albert Hall.
But knitting isn’t everything, although some may disagree. Their bond was born of something even more essential than knitting. That is, the need to eat.
The very first Women’s Institute was founded in Ontario, Canada in 1897 as a branch of the Farmer’s Institute. They were supported by the Canadian government in their mission to bring women from isolated communities together for creating better home life and improving farming, which was traditionally thought of us women’s work.
During World War 1, the Agricultural Organization Society (AOS) formed a movement in Britain to get more women involved in farming to bump up the food supply. A sub-committee was formed to oversee the work and Lady Gertrude Denman, wife of Lord Thomas Denman, become the chairman.
In just two years, the WI formed 137 branches, which speaks to the obvious need for women to pool their resources.
Post war, the National Federation of Women’s Institute formed and received government grants for their work. Education and skill-sharing were the first orders of business, and members masterminded many ways to accomplish both. By the end of 1919, 1,405 WIs existed across the UK.
Here’s a timeline of each decade highlighting portions of their mission, which was quite grand in scope.
- 1920s - Women’s suffrage was the focus, but so was creativity and brand new The Guild of Learners of Handicrafts. Their first National Drama Festival was held in 1928.
Pleasurable and creative outlets, likely for the sake of mental health and dealing with depression and anxiety created by the aftermath of wartime distress, were as important as business, which also focused on supplying and protecting precious resources, like water, and the preservation of ancient buildings.
- 1930s - WI members taught rug-making and other crafts to people without jobs. They made sure pregnant women in rural areas were cared for properly. Their 21st anniversary in 1937 was celebrated with the Institute Book, which contained one page created by each federation. The NFWI held WI War Week in 1938. Lady Denman was asked by the Minister of Agriculture to become the Director of the Women’s Land Army. In 1939, the Produce Guild was formed with government funding, creating the model for farmers’ markets, which seem to becoming more and more popular as time marches on.
- 1940s - They made jam and canned produce that might have otherwise gone to waste. They raised funds for ambulances, made potato baskets for the Ministry of Agriculture, and collected herbs for medicinal purposes. In 1947, Operation Produce was launched as motivation for WI members to grow more produce in their gardens since rationing had not yet come to an end. Denman College, named for Lady Denman, was established in 1948, after every WI raised funds over the course of three years to donate to the project.
- 1950s - The WI’s commitment to environmental issues has not changed much since then, although now the issues have shifted to climate change and the plight of honeybees. In 1954, a resolution was passed for a national anti-litter campaign and the NFWI called a conference of 26 interested organizations, which led to the formation of the Keep Britain Tidy Group.
- 1960s – They celebrated their Golden Jubilee, the 40th Anniversary with a dinner in 1962. They had the first ever National Art Exhibit, Painting for Pleasure, and the first WIs were opened in psychiatric hospitals. By then, there were more than 8,000 WI branches.
- 1970s – They declared their belief in equality of opportunity and legal status for men and women and pledged to achieve it. “Meals on Wheels” was organized.
- 1980s – They celebrated their Diamond Jubilee in 1982, and passed a resolution urging vigilance against child abuse. A bursary for Denman College was funded in part by fund-raisers.
- 1990s – Although they nearly went down, the WI sustained and in 1992 celebrated their 70th anniversary with the publication of the bilingual book, Wildlife In our Welsh Parish written by William Condry with funds from the Denman Bursary.
- 2000s – The final issue of their magazine, Home and Country, which began in 1919, was printed and replaced by the new membership magazine, WI Life in 2007. In 2009, the new WI Cookery School opened at Denman College.
This is the year of the Centennial Fair, the first ever of its kind. The event will give members a chance to give nonmembers a glimpse into their happy, rather productive world with more than 150 seminars and workshops. There will also be food and a unique shopping experience with more than 200 exhibitors at the Harrogate International Centre, Sept 3 to 6 in North Yorkshire, UK.
According to Diana Birch, Chair of WI Enterprises and NFWI Vice Chair, “The fair will be a showcase for all that is best about the WI, with exhibitions and displays as well as WI space with a pictorial timeline which visitors walk through. Add this to the array of exciting stands and exhibitors and a great day out is guaranteed.”