The WI: Championing women’s issues for over a century

Women in 18th-century Britain did not have the vote, and their economic and legal rights were limited. However, they found many ways to exert social, cultural and even political influence.

Emma Hamilton’s life reveals the constraints faced by women in private and public life, but equally shows how talent and determination could build a platform for female self-expression.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close and we near the end of our Emma Hamilton exhibition, we invited Charlotte Fiander, Head of Communications at the Women’s Institute, to write a blog about some of the issues that have concerned WI members over the past century.

Jam and Jerusalem

Most people have probably heard about the WI through Calendar Girls, or through the response given by some members to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2000, but few people are really aware of the true breadth of work carried out by WI members. 

Although the idea that the WI is “all jam and Jerusalem” does the organisation a disservice, the association with jam and Jerusalem is actually an interesting part of the WI’s history. 

Feeding the nation

WI wartime fruit preservation centre, 1940
Wartime fruit preservation centre, 1940

Throughout the First World War, WI members were urged to “take every opportunity of becoming more skilled in land work and therefore in the production of food” and by 1940, the Ministry of Food had given the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) a grant to administer the National Fruit Preservation Scheme, recognising the preservation skills of members and firmly attaching the jam label to the WI.

Five hundred Dixie hand sealers and other jam making equipment were sent over from America for members’ use, and they got to work. Between 1940 and 1945, over 5300 tonnes of fruit was preserved; nearly 12 million pounds of fruit that might otherwise have been wasted, providing food for the nation. 

And so the WI is proud to have been a part of feeding the nation through the two World Wars, and proud that the ‘jam’ label has continued to stick.

Wartime fruit preserving in the 1940s
Wartime fruit preserving, 1940s

Women’s work

In the same vein, whilst many see Jerusalem as a song sung at weddings and rugby games, it was originally associated with the Suffragette movement and by singing it the WI marks its links with the wider women’s movement, and its commitment to improving the conditions of rural life since the very first meeting in 1915.

1954 Women Demand Equal Pay
Women Demand Equal Pay, 1954

Throughout the 1920s, members called for greater representation of women on parish and district councils, called for more women in the police, and offered practical help for the health of rural school children. 

During the Second World War, 1700 WIs took part in the Town Children through Country Eyes survey looking at evacuees, which eventually led to the establishment of the Family Allowance scheme paid to mothers. 

Championing change

Over the past century, since the first meeting in 1916, WI members have campaigned on a host of diverse topics, from campaigning for the humane slaughter of animals for food in the 1920s to asking for better information on the spread of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s; calling for more midwives, more funding for research into bee health, for the introduction of breast cancer screenings, for an increase in the number of women in the police, and legal aid protection for victims of domestic violence, to name just a few. 

In many ways, the WI is both exactly what you think it is and nothing like you expect it to be. The members who worked to preserve thousands of tonnes of fruit then went on to campaign for changes that would ensure a better future for the women who came after them. 

This article was written in the context of Women’s History Month and the Emma Hamilton exhibition which ends on April 17.

Find out more about the Women’s Institute

Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity

Explore the extraordinary life of Emma Hamilton, illustrated by over 200 objects in our major exhibition. Ends 17 April, 2017.

Find out more