How old does a woman have to be to join the WI?
Membership of the WI is open to women who have reached the Age of Majority. There is no upper limit to becoming a WI member.
Why can’t WI members campaign on every issue that interests them?
The NFWI is unable to campaign on everything that members may be interested in because there must already be existing mandate on the topic within the organisation's campaign history. Every issue that WI members work on stems from an existing mandate that has been debated throughout the membership, and then voted on at the Annual Meeting. Every campaign topic since the first resolution in 1918 is decided using this unique democratic framework, which ensures local WI members have the opportunity to set the direction of the national organisation's policy and campaigns.
If a member would like to campaign on a topic, they should follow the resolutions process outlined here to propose it as an area of concern for the entire organisation. An outline of current campaign topics that the NFWI is working on with the weight of entire membership can be found here.
Whilst the NFWI is unable to sign petitions where we have no existing mandate, WI members are free to add their individual support, and the NFWI is always open to hearing from other related campaign groups who believe that their mission may fit within the WI's remit, or that members will be keen to get involved.
Who founded the WI?
Adelaide Hoodless, leader and educationalist, is usually honoured as the founder of the Women's Institute Movement. She certainly inspired it but only played a very limited role in its development.
Adelaide Hunter was born in 1857 in the village of St George in Ontario, Canada. She was the tenth child in the family but her father died before she was born. In 1881 she married John Hoodless who came from a prosperous business family in Hamilton. They had four children, two boys and two girls, but sadly the youngest boy, John Harold, died at the age of fourteen months in August 1889. The cause of death seems to have been an intestinal infection caused by drinking contaminated milk. In Hamilton in those days milk was delivered in open containers, accessible to flies and other disease carriers. Adelaide seems to have blamed herself for the baby's death, and for the rest of her life she was particularly concerned with issues of domestic hygiene.
John Hoodless was a member of the local Board of Education, and became its chairman. He frequently visited schools in the city, and Adelaide often accompanied him, which gave her a considerable insight into the education system. As a result of her visits to schools she came to think that the education of girls ought to be extended to include the practical skills that they would require when they grew up and ran homes and looked after families.
In 1889 Adelaide was one of the group of Hamilton women who founded the Hamilton branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) to provide accommodation for young working women in the city. Many of these women were immigrants, single women seeking work, and the majority of them were unskilled. At the beginning the YWCA just provided somewhere for them to stay, but under the leadership of Adelaide (who was the President) classes in book-keeping, short hand and dressmaking were soon started. Later cookery classes were added which were attended not only by the women who lived in the hostel, but also by others from outside.
Adelaide was instrumental in setting up the Canadian National Council of Women in 1893 and persuaded them to back her campaign for the introduction of Domestic Science into the school curriculum. She spoke on the subject all over Ontario. In December 1896 she was invited to speak to a conference of the Farmers' Institute at the Ontario Agricultural College. Her subject was 'The relation of Domestic Science to the Agricultural Population'
After referring to one expert who claimed that poor food, overwork and monotony were contributing factors in the high rate of insanity among rural people, she outlined her suggestions: '...the causes are easily preventable...by scientific knowledge of the various articles of food and their nutritive value, and...by the introduction of schools of domestic science in the rural districts, with lecture courses and clubs for farmers' wives, where better methods for producing good results in butter making, poultry raising, bee culture, house decoration, cookery etc. may be intelligently discussed, thereby providing the best class of recreation, which is pleasure and profit combined…
Farmers are beginning to realise the importance of scientific knowledge...Is it of greater importance that a farmer should know more about the scientific care of his sheep and cattle, than that a farmer's wife should know how to care for her family, or that his barns should have every labour saving contrivance, while she toils and drudges on the same old treadmill instituted by her grandmother, perhaps even to carrying water from a spring, a quarter of a mile from the house, which I know has been done...'
That call for continuing education for women living in rural areas had immediate results. Erland Lee, secretary of the Farmer's Institute of Wentworth County was in the audience and he invited her to come to speak at the next 'Ladies' night' of his Institute. As a result of that talk the first Women’s Institute was formed.
Why was the organisation called the Women's Institute?
The name ‘Institute’ was chosen because it was the women’s branch of the Farmer’s Institute. 'Institute' was the term used for a permanent organisation whose purpose was educational. In Britain ‘Institute’ already had an honourable usage in the Mechanics' Institutes, educational establishments formed to provide adult education particularly in technical subjects, to working men, the first of which had been set up in 1821, and also in the City and Guilds Institute established in 1878 to establish a national system of technical education. There have been suggested name changes over the years, but the organisation has stayed with its roots. The name ‘Institute’ reminds us of one of the key charitable aims, that of the ‘further education of women’.
Has there ever been another Women’s Institute and what were its intentions?
The name 'Women's Institute' had already been used when the WI was introduced to Britain from Canada in 1915. This other Women's Institute was founded in London on July 1st 1898. It was intended to be a centre for women involved in the professions, education, as well as in social and philanthropic work and to make other societies' work better known through its information bureau. It co-operated with the Central Bureau for the Employment of Women. When the NFWI was formed ‘the other WI’ was based at 92 Victoria Street London where there was a library and reading room, a lecture room, a general information bureau and committee room. These premises provided a meeting place and a centre of information. In 1916 it was responsible for the opening of the Women's Club for the wives and mothers of servicemen and during the First World War gave rooms to the British Women's patriotic league, the London School of Needlework, the Women's Local Government Society and the Head Mistresses Association amongst others. While is appears to have still been active in 1925, activities ceased some time around 1928.There was no mention of it however when the NFWI was formed in 1917, and the similarity in names does not seem to have been of significance.
What is the link with the Canadian WI?
The first Women’s Institute in the world started on February 19th 1897 at Stoney Creek, Ontario Canada. The first WI was formed in Britain in 1915, at the suggestion of Canadian woman Madge Watt. The pattern of the Canadian movement was followed and the name adopted.
Do NFWI staff vote on issues decided by the Board of Trustees?
Democratically all policy decisions are made by the Board of Trustees. While staff do not have voting rights, they do have a role to play in providing professional information for trustees on which they base their decisions.
I’ve read about these long-serving WI Presidents and it rather puts me off getting on the committee. Can I serve for one year only?
Yes. Anyone agreeing to serve as either a committee member or as an officer on the Committee (President/Treasurer/Secretary) is only agreeing to do so for 12 months. Of course, it is hoped that once in the post, you may wish or agree to serve for a longer period of time, but if at the end of a year you decide that you do not wish to continue, then no pressure should be brought upon you to do so.
Why is the NFWI headquarters in London?
The NFWI owns the building at 104 New Kings Road. The premises, which are kept in good repair, can only be described as ‘compact’ and are reasonably economical to run. Staff and property costs are high in any city these days and the cost of relocating staff and additional travel costs would soon negate the one-off profit made from selling our premises in London. Accessibility is also an issue and one advantage of London is that Board and Committee members can travel to London, largely by train rather than by car, from anywhere in the country. This makes more efficient use of their time and saves on overnight costs. London is also the base for many of the other organizations and government departments with which we liaise and again is the most cost and time efficient location.
Why is the term ‘Chair’ being used instead of ‘Chairman’ at National level?
The NFWI changed the title following professional advice, coupled with recognition of a shift in practice of other similarly placed external organisations. The vast majority of women's organisations as well as the Government departments which concern themselves with women's issues use either the term Chair or President. These include Soroptimists, ACWW, British Professional Women, Fawcett Society, Mothers' Union, British Federation of Women Graduates, National Council of Women of Great Britain, the Governmental agencies Women's National Commission, and Women and Equality Unit. In addition, the Equal Opportunities Commission recognises the term Chairman as 'sexist', stating that 'language has moved on to reflect current societal norms and thinking.'As a modern voice for women, the NFWI is obliged to reflect modern values and use modern language. As a national body it operates within the national and international charitable and NGO world where terminology is dynamic and adapts to reflect new ways of thinking. It's entirely up to each federation or WI as to what they would like to use and the NFWI is not prescribing in any way. However, it is up to the NFWI Board alone to decide what terminology they would like to use for their own board members.
Is the Charity Commission happy dealing with thousands of individual WIs as charities? Would it prefer dealing with just one national WI charity?
Each WI is a self governing charity within the confines of the constitution, and the trustees - that is the WI committee members - are responsible for its correct running. This gives each WI its own flavour and atmosphere. If the WI organization at all three levels was functioning as one charity, then the National Federation trustees would be responsible in a trustee capacity for all the WIs and federations, and this would not only be unworkable, but also undesirable as it is the variety on offer that gives the WI its wide ranging appeal.
What are the 'Objects' of the NFWI?
The main purposes of the Women’s Institute organisation are:
- to advance the education of women and girls for the public benefit in all areas including (without limitation):
- local, national and international issues of political and social importance;
- music, drama and other cultural subjects; and
- all branches of agriculture, crafts, home economics, science, health and social welfare;
- to promote sustainable development for the public benefit by:
- educating people in the preservation, conservation and protection of the environment and the prudent use of natural resources; and
- promoting sustainable means of achieving economic growth and regeneration;
- to advance health for the public benefit; and to advance citizenship for the public benefit by the promotion of civic responsibility and volunteering.
Why are men not allowed to join the WI?
While WI membership is only open to women, men are welcome to attend courses at our residential adult education centre, Denman College, and take part in many activities, events and campaigns both locally and nationally.The Women's Institute is an educational charity with a constitution that states membership is only open to women. Under UK law charitable organisations whose constitution stipulates single sex membership are entitled to restrict access to the opposite sex.
I can’t believe that in this day and age the WI is allowed to have only female members? Have men ever demanded their right to join?
Not as far as we are aware, and they wouldn’t have got very far anyway! The Constitution and Rules are very specific and rule 9 states: “Membership of the WI is open to women. They may join by paying the required annual subscription…”This can, of course, be changed, but only if the members choose to do so by changing the Constitution.
Why are there men working for the WI?
The answer to that one is quite simple - they are the best persons for the job! There is quite a distinction between the rules governing membership of the WI and employment law. As far as membership is concerned the WI is open to all women. The employment legislation is quite different and when selecting staff it is important to make sure that employers select the right personnel regardless of their sex. Not only would the WI be seen to be a very narrow minded organisation if we only employed women, we would also be breaking the law.
Why can’t women, persuaded to join the WI at exhibitions or shows, pay their joining fee there and then?
It would, of course, be ideal if it were possible to match a woman who wants to join having been enthused at an exhibition with a WI and take a payment there and then. This is possible for federations at county and other regional shows because they know the WIs in their area. They know how their WIs differ and what they offer to their members and can usually match up the enquiry with an appropriate WI. This is much more difficult for the NFWI as neither board members nor staff have the local knowledge. Until such time that there is objective and standard information available online about all WIs, we will have to continue with the current practice of taking potential members’ details and passing them on to the relevant federation as soon as possible for follow up action.
Can members pay pro-rata, depending on the month they join the WI?
Since January 2015 new arrangements have applied for anyone joining the WI for the first time, i.e. who has not previously been a member of any WI. New members will pay a pro-rata subscription depending on the quarter in which they join. More information can be found here.
The WI is still largely white middle class, is anything being done to attract women of different ethnicities?
The WI is a very diverse organisation with members of all ages and backgrounds. The majority of ethnic communities are found in cities and towns rather than rural areas, where WIs have traditionally been based. As a result, we had a lower proportion of members from ethnic backgrounds. However, as new WIs are formed in urban and suburban areas, more women from ethnic backgrounds are joining the organisation; and we are continually seeking ways to increase ethnic membership. We aim to make the WI open and relevant to all women and are updating national publications and marketing materials to reflect the growing diversity of our membership. We believe campaigns such as human trafficking, children’s diets, sport for all and trade justice illustrate the WI’s wide-ranging activities on issues important to all kinds of women from all kinds of backgrounds.
I’m a new WI member and find the administration rather unnecessary—why can’t we have meetings without ‘WI business’?
There is no mention in the Constitution to WI business. However, members do have the right to be kept informed, which is where the traditional ‘business’ comes onto the agenda. It is really news and information for members and there is nothing to stop you calling it just that. One WI divides their business into past, present and future. Past are the events that have taken place and members are told about those at the beginning of the meeting. Future plans, including all the signing up and making arrangements for transport are dealt with just before the break for refreshments. Current events are then dealt with after the break together with the record of the meeting.
It’s also a question of how the business is delivered to the members that makes such a huge difference. WI Advisers run training sessions to help with this so try contacting your federation office for details.
Is there such a thing as an honorary member?
WIs cannot appoint honorary members because the constitution only allows women to become members as a result of paying the full required annual membership subscription.
Why can’t members join the NFWI as opposed the WI?
WIs and federations are separate legal entities with their own trustees, operating within the WI constitution which binds all the three levels of the organization together. When a woman joins a WI she become a member of that WI. WIs are members of their federations and are entitled to appoint delegates to federation council meetings. It follows then that federations are members of the NFWI (in case of incorporated federations, it is the federation itself who is a member of the NFWI; in case of unincorporated federations the Chairman and Treasurer are appointed as federation representatives who act on behalf of the federation.) For WI members to become NFWI members it would require a profound change in the structure of the organization, with WIs and federations losing their independent legal status. The NFWI board would then become the only governing trustee body, responsible for the organization throughout.
Why can’t I join the WI Online?
Each WI is a separate charity and are all operated very differently. This means that you need to find the right WI to suit you. Some may be more into campaigning and public affairs while others may be more into crafts, cookery or just have an annual programme of events that strikes a chord with you. With nearly 7,000 WIs it would be quite difficult for the NFWI’s finance department to find which one you had joined so they can pass on your subscription payment, so instead we recommend you shop around. You can go to any WI meeting as a visitor, so try some out and when you have found the right one for you, just pay your subscription direct to the Treasurer. N.B. There may not be a suitable WI near you in which case why not talk to your Federation about starting one!
What is the Jam Connection?
The WI in Britain was formed in the middle of the First World War, when submarine blockades prevented food from being brought into the country and it was imperative that as much food as possible should be grown at home. The Board of Agriculture gave the challenge: 'We have to prevent hunger - every ounce of food which can be grown in this country must be grown, and every woman who can give a hand in this vastly important work must give a hand.' (From verbatim report of the October 1917 meeting - NFWI).Thus from 1915 to 1917 the WIs, under the auspices of the Agricultural Organisations Society (AOS), played their part in increasing food production by making jams and preserves and bottling and pickling other fruit and vegetables. These tasks were second nature to most countrywomen - and very necessary if the excess produce from gardens and smallholdings were to be preserved. This was the war work for which WI members became renowned (and the 'jam' image has stuck ever since).
Many WIs set up fruit bottling centres. In 1916 the AOS imported from the US six fruit sterilising outfits for the Institutes to borrow. They were soon in great demand and more had to be obtained. Canning and bottling did not require sugar but if the excess fruit produced in gardens and small holdings was to be preserved as jam, sugar, though in short supply was necessary. However, in 1917, 1918 and 1919 the Board of Agriculture allocated sugar to WIs for fruit preserving and all these preserves were then taken for communal use.
Yet again, in the Second World War, WI members helped with food production. In 1939 the NFWI set up The Produce Guild, with a government grant of £500, to teach members about intensive cultivation and provide fertilisers and cheaper plants. When war broke out, the NFWI was invited by the Ministry of Agriculture to organise a Co-operative Fruit Preservation Scheme. Five hundred Dixie Hand sealers - or home canners - came from America, together with a complete Food Preservation Unit and oil stoves, preserving pans, tea towels, thermometers, jam jars, bottling jars, jam-pot covers and special discs for pickles and chutneys. Between 1940 and 1945 more than 5,300 tons of fruit were preserved; that is, nearly 12 million pounds of fruit, which might otherwise have been wasted, provided food for the nation.
When and where was Blake’s Jerusalem first sung by the WI?
It was sung for the first time at the 8th Annual General Meeting (AGM) held in the Queen’s Hall London on Tuesday 20 and Wednesday 21 May 1924. The Queen’s Hall was almost entirely filled by the 2,300 delegates and visitors from all over the country. Mr Noel Buxton, Minister of Agriculture was present on the first day, and addressed the meeting assuring them of the interest which the Ministry takes in the movement. On the second day, Sir Henry Hadow gave an address on ‘Music for County People’ and, in his usual and happy way, contrived to make his talk both helpful and amusing. Another distinguished and welcome visitor was Sir Horace Plunkett.
From the April Home and Country: "The year’s Annual Meeting will have one special feature. The delegates will burst into song. It must be a great inspiring shout of song or the outside world will be in no way impressed. Jerusalem was a happy choice, for as the delegates sing hopefully of the New Jerusalem which every institute member is helping to build, the singers can remember with thankfulness that ‘satanic mills’ no longer disgrace our land. Blake’s protest on behalf of the helpless child victims of those thought less days was not made in vain."
Report of the meeting written by an (unnamed) member:"Let me first give the pats on the back. Our headquarters can do a meeting well. The arrangements were excellent. The doors of the Queen’s Hall might with advantage have been opened wider and earlier to welcome the delegates but there, I am instilling a bit of a knock to the first pat! Delegates were soon in their places. The stewarding was perfect. The stewards might have been chosen for their good looks and their dignified carriage as they certainly were for their good temper. Their becoming shoulder sashes in Institute colours lent a touch of brightness to the scene. I gazed round the large Hall, well filled with an expectant and happy audience of country women. I looked with pride at the capable chairman, revered throughout the movement for sincerity and kindness, ready to begin the meeting on the stroke of the appointed time. I regarded with curiosity the orchestra waiting to lead the singing of God Save the King and Jerusalem, the most fitting institute hymn which had to be written by a poet, and I said to myself “Oh you lucky Institute member to be here”. The band struck up, we sang the national anthem heartily but I do wish our conductor had allowed us to sing Jerusalem right through from the start as best we could. Here again a knock with the pat! It was truly kind of Mr Leslie and his choir to give us their valuable help."
Why was Jerusalem chosen as the WI’s anthem?
The decision to choose Jerusalem came as a result of a letter to Home and Country, the December prior to the 8th AGM, from Vice Chairman Grace Hadow suggesting its use. Members wrote in favour of this suggestion.
The letter headed 'An Institute song', by Grace Hadow:
"I have recently been at Exhibitions or Council meetings at which the whole assembly has joined in singing Sir Hubert parry's setting of Blake's Jerusalem.Many WI members have said how much they would like to sing it at our Annual Meeting in London, and I write to urge that WIs or County Federations which approve of this suggestion might write to Headquarters and ask if this could be arranged. It should be clearly understood that when a WI makes this request it pledges itself to learn words and tune by heart. The attempt cannot be a success unless every delegate is ready to sing whether she thinks she can sing or whether she thinks she can't. Both words and music are simple and dignified and easy to learn. Incidentally the learning would give pleasure to any WI and would afford an excellent opportunity for a short talk either on Blake's poetry, or on poems about England. We have long looked in vain for a national 'Institute Song'. Here is one made to our hand and one which some counties have already adopted. Yours truly, Grace E. Hadow"
A Mr Leslie of Llansantffraid, an amateur musician, persuaded Sir Walford Davies, a personal friend and composer, to make a special arrangement for string orchestra for the 8th AGM, which he himself conducted the singing, bringing a choir from local WIs with him to lead. In the 1920s, many WIs were forming choirs and seeking help and advice. The Shropshire Federation was the first to form a music sub-committee and they invited Mr W H Leslie to advise them. So successful was this that Mr Leslie was invited by the NFWI to conduct singing schools in the county federations round the country and also to write articles about choirs and music for WI Home and Country. As mentioned earlier, Mr Leslie, of Llansantffraid on the Shropshire-Montgomery border, was a personal friend of the composer Sir Walford Davies, and was himself deeply involved in amateur music.The first WI Choral Competition was held in Sussex in 1923, and very soon other federations followed. The first one-day school for village conductors was held in London in early 1924 with Mr Leslie in charge. All went back to their federations pledged to help to train other conductors and there was a great need for suitable music for these choirs to sing. With Mr Leslie's help, the NFWI brought out the first Women's Institute Song Book - a collection of songs particularly suitable for singing at monthly meetings.
Although Jerusalem was sung at the AGM, at this point it had not been adopted as the official song. Lady Denman recalled that the NFWI ran a competition for an 'Institute song', hoping that it might produce a good but unknown poet. Many poems were sent in but nothing suitable was found; it was after receiving a verse that began, 'We are a band of earnest women' that Grace Hadow, the Vice-chairman, suggested that Jerusalem should become the WI song. Jerusalem had been used by the National Union of Suffrage Societies in the 1918 celebrations of women's enfranchisement, and many of the leaders of the NFWI, including Grace Hadow, had been part of that struggle to win the vote for women. Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the suffragists, wrote to Hubert Parry, 'Your Jerusalem ought to be made the women voters' hymn', which of course in a way it was, being adopted by the WI.
Why does the WI sing Jerusalem?
By singing Jerusalem the WI is marking its links with the wider women's movement, and its commitment to improving the conditions of rural life.
Why are there so many advertising inserts in my copy of WI Life?
Some advertisers choose inserts as their way of promoting their products and since many of these advertisers use the magazine repeatedly, it proves they get good response from WI members. Revenue obtained from inserts makes up quite a high proportion of the hundreds of thousands of pounds needed from advertising to make WI Life viable. We hope that, as the cost of recycled paper becomes less prohibitive, insert advertisers will use it. Meanwhile, we would kindly ask those WI members who do not wish to respond to inserts to place them in the recycling bin.
Why have we lost the name Home & Country from the membership magazine?
For 85 years, Home & Country (later WI Home & Country) was subscribed to by WI members – as many as 100,000 in the 1950s. With the introduction of a membership magazine it was agreed that a change of title would be a new beginning and WI Life was felt to be appropriate because the magazine would cover all aspects of the organisation, from campaigning and community projects to cookery and the lives of interesting individual members.The name Home & Country is registered to the NFWI, so is not lost entirely and indeed could be used again in the future if it were deemed appropriate. We are aware that many thousands of members enjoyed reading WI H&C for many years and we felt it was important that the new magazine wasn’t simply a revamped version, because it’s an entirely new concept.
Have there been any royal members of the WI?
Queen Mary invited Madge Watt to form a WI at Sandringham, and the Queen became President. This tradition was followed by future members of the royal family. The Queen became a WI member in 1943 when she was still Princess Elizabeth; her Mother was President of Sandringham WI. The NFWI sent a loyal address from the AGM held after her accession to the throne.
In 1952 members passed a resolution at the AGM - 'that this meeting, remembering that our young Queen has duties as a wife and mother urges the nation as a whole not to overwork her Majesty ....' so WI did not invite her to do very much for a while!
HM The Queen is still President of Sandringham WI. HRH The Countess of Wessex is a member of Bagshot WI, Surrey. HRH The Duchess of Cornwall is a member of Tetbury WI, Gloucestershire. HRH Princess Anne is an Associate Member.
What WI events has the Queen been involved in?
The Queen has always shown an interest in the WI and still attends Sandringham meetings in January each year.
In 1965 to celebrate the WI Golden Jubilee there was a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace by gracious invitation of HM Queen for a member from every WI in the country, 8,700 WIs sent a member – the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duchess of Gloucester, Princess Marina and Princess Alexandra were all present
In March 1975 the Queen visited the NFWI’s Tomorrow's Heirlooms exhibition staged at the Commonwealth Institute
In 1979 the Queen opened the Home Economics Centre at Denman College
In 1984 the Queen visited the Life and Leisure Exhibition at Olympia
In 1990 the Queen addressed the AGM in Albert Hall
In 2015, HM The Queen once again attended the NFWI Annual Meeting to celebrate the centenary of the WI, accompanied by HRH The Princess Royal and HRH The Countess of Wessex. After their time on stage, the royal party were accompanied to a members’ reception in the Hall where HM The Queen cut a specially prepared centenary fruit cake – made to the winning centenary recipe – before being presented with a copy of the WI Cookbook: the first 100 years, and a smaller fruit cake to enjoy at home.
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