What has the WI really done for women?

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1. A birthday worth celebrating

Now in its centenary year, the Women's Institute (WI) has 212,000 members in 6,600 groups across the country. The Queen has been a member since 1943, a royal connection dating back to Queen Mary's membership in 1919.

Despite its reputation as a stalwart of village fetes with its homemade jam and cakes, the WI has more radical roots. It was formed at a time when British women were struggling for equal status and gave them an opportunity to have their voices heard at a national level on issues that mattered to them.

Discover what the WI has done for women over the last 100 years and how it has helped shape the country we live in today.

2. Laying a new path for women

The first WI opened on the Isle of Anglesey in 1915 to help combat food shortages during World War One. But as the organisation grew, its aims broadened and it was soon providing women with a place to socialise, learn new skills and take action on behalf of their communities to improve life in Britain.

The WI was radical from the start – when it was formed in 1915 by Canadian, Madge Watt, it was one of the first democratic women’s organisation in Britain. Here are its first members pictured at a meeting in the Welsh village Llanfair PG.

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Many WI members like Lady Denman had been campaigners for women’s suffrage. She was the first national chairman from 1917 and was dedicated to improving life for rural women, notably getting piped water and sanitation in their homes.

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The WI wanted to stimulate interest in agriculture, by encouraging women to cultivate gardens, preserve foods and avoid waste. This led to WI Markets where members sold their produce, giving many women an independent income for the first time.

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The WI’s focus on encouraging women to have a voice in the community attracted Margaret Winteringham, the second ever female MP, pictured here to the left. 'Our Institute MP', as she was known, gave representation to women of the WI in parliament.

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When WW2 broke out, the WI helped keep Britain on its feet. Members housed evacuees, mended soldiers’ uniforms and kept morale up at home. In July 1940 they launched a WI fund to provide ambulances for the British Army.

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From its inception, the WI gave women, especially rural women, a place to socialise and learn new skills. Here women sew in front of the WI’s Denman Hall, which has provided residential courses for its members since 1948.

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With its roots in agriculture, the WI has always considered environmental conservation fundamental. In 1954, members helped kick-start a national anti-litter campaign that became known as “Keep Britain Tidy”, and which is still active today.

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Women from the Rylestone and District WI in Yorkshire made headlines in 1999 when they posed naked for a calendar. It was a huge success, selling over 200,000 copies worldwide and helping to raise over £3m for Leukaemia research.

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In July 2015, five women aged between 32 and 77 made their debut appearance at Glastonbury, serving thousands of cakes over the course of the weekend to hungry festival goers.

The WI held its centenary AGM in the Royal Albert Hall in June 2015. Among the 5,000 attending was Queen Elizabeth II, who opened proceedings and praised the WI for staying so relevant and forward thinking, 100 years on from its inception.

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3. INTERACTIVE: Cakes and Campaigns

Members of the WI have spoken out on some controversial issues, lobbying governments to make changes that would create a fairer and safer country. Click below to discover how the WI’s campaigns have helped shape modern Britain.

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4. The jam busters

The WI’s reputation for making huge quantities of jam, which then appears on market stalls countrywide, has partly defined the WI in the eyes of the public. But its proficiency for jam-making has more noble origins than you may think.

We need your jam!

When World War Two broke out only a quarter of our sugar was grown domestically and the war waged against British merchant shipping curtailed imports. To tackle hunger and support rations, the government had to find ways of increasing domestic food production.

So just three days after war was declared, the WI was called upon to help keep the people of Britain on their feet. Having gained a reputation for food production during World War One, the rural women of the WI were tasked with picking fruit, which may otherwise have been left to rot, and turning it into jam and preserves.

By the end of World War Two, the WI’s contribution to the war effort saw it running over 50,000 preservation centres, providing each adult with half of their annual jam ration, along with vital vitamins.

5. What are the women of the WI doing now?

The WI continues to play an important role in communities across the UK. Find out what some of the groups are working on today.

Liverpool

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Beekeeping

Women from Liverpool Central WI trained as beekeepers and now home 40,000 bees on the roof of their headquarters, to help prevent the decline of the honey bee.

London

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Food donations

The East Dulwich WI in London supports its local food bank, gathering food to make sure the resource remains stocked up.

Stoke-on-Trent

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Health campaigners

Let’s Make Jam WI are campaigning to get their local community talking about organ donation in the hope of increasing the number of donors across the country.

Lancashire

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Supporting mothers

Horwich WI rallied support from other WIs and is pressing the government to invest in more training and employment for midwifery training and jobs.