A guide to The Women's Institute (The WI)

If you’ve ever thought about joining the Women’s Institute but weren’t sure whether it was for you – or how to go about it, we hope that this guide will provide you with all the information you need.

Written by

Sheila Frampton

What is The Women's Institute?

The Women’s Institute – the WI – is a unique organisation shaped by its members.  Today, The Women’s Institute is the largest women’s organisation in the UK which takes pride in being a trusted place for women of all generations to share experiences and learn from each other.  

It is an organisation that has, from the start, given women a voice and enables them to be a force for good in the community.  The WI campaigns nationally on a wide range of issues and provides life-long learning and self-development opportunities for women in England and Wales.

Two ladies talking whilst sat outside on a bench.
A lady painting a canvas
A lady leading a lecture

When, where and why was The Women's Institute founded?

The history of the WI dates back more than 120 years.

Adelaide Hoodless, a Canadian leader and educationalist, inspired the foundation of the Women’s Institute.  Adelaide’s husband was chairman of the local Board of Education and, accompanied by Adelaide, frequently visited schools in the city.  She began to think the education of girls ought to be extended to practical skills that they would require when running their own homes.  

In December 1896, Adelaide spoke at a conference of the Farmers’ Institute at the Ontario Agricultural College outlining the connection between poor food, overwork and monotony with the high rate of mental health issues among rural people.  The call for continuing education for women living in rural areas had immediate impact.  Erland Lee, secretary of the Farmers’ Institute of Wentworth County was in the audience and invited her to speak at the next Ladies’ Night of his Institute.  

As a result of that talk, the first Women’s Institute was formed in Stoney Creek, Ontario with the help of Janet and Erland Lee.  Branches of the WI spread quickly through Canada with 130 branches in Ontario alone by 1905.

The first WI meeting in Great Britain was held in Anglesey in 1915.  The formation of the British WI was the suggestion of Canadian, Madge Watt.  The organisation followed the pattern of the Canadian movement and adopted the name and, by 1918, 137 branches of the WI had been opened.


Why was the organisation named The Women's "Institute"?

The name "Institute" was selected because, originally, it was the women’s branch of the Farmers’ Institute; institute being the term for a permanent organisation with an educational purpose.

A woman presenting in front of a room of people.

Why is The Women's Institute linked to 'Jam and Jerusalem'?

The ‘Jam’ part originates from the fact that one of the main aims of the Women’s Institute in 1915, during World War I, was to encourage country women to get involved in the growing and preserving of food.

Jerusalem’ came to be chosen as the Women’s Institute anthem as a result of a letter to the former WI membership magazine, ‘Home and County’ in 1924.  Grace Hadow, Vice Chair at the time, suggested its use attending exhibitions or council meetings at which the whole assembly joined in singing Sir Hubert Parry’s setting of Blake’s Jerusalem.  She pointed out that many WI members would like to sing the song at their annual meeting.  This was particularly relevant as the song had been used by the National Union of Suffrage Societies celebrations of women’s enfranchisement in 1918 – and the leaders of the NFWI, including Grace Hadow, had been part of the struggle to win the vote for women. The performance at the AGM of the NFWI was impressive and the organisation ran a competition for an ‘Institute Song’ which Jerusalem won, hands down.  By singing Jerusalem the WI marked its links with the wider women’s movement and a commitment to improving the conditions of rural life.


What is the National Federation of Women's Institutes?

In  1917, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, (NFWI), a democratic, non-party political, voluntary organisation was formed, mainly led by women involved in the suffrage movement.  

By the time members passed the first resolution in 1918, there were already 12,000 members in 700 branches of the WI across the country.

Today the NFWI is responsible for running the charitable organisation as a whole.  There are 70 federations across the UK – which act like regional offices, linking all the branches of the WI in the area with the NWFI in London.  Every single WI belongs to a Federation.  If you join the local WI, you become a member of that particular WI but not the regional federation or the NWFI.

Today, there are 220,000 WI members in approximately 6,300 branches of the WI.  Modern day campaigns have broadened significantly, addressing a host of contemporary social issues that directly affect members’ communities.

Do you have to be a certain age to join The Women's Institute?

No.  The Women’s Institute welcomes all women over the age of 18 and there’s no upper limit to becoming a WI member.  

There has long been a misconception that the WI is for women of ‘a certain age’ but new chapters have been started by young, urban women all over the country – such as The Shoreditch Sisters in East London and the Spa Sweethearts in North Yorkshire.

A lady pouring a glass for another woman.
A man playing guitar

Can men join The Women's Institute?

No.  The Women’s Institute is based upon the idea of bringing women together, providing them with educational opportunities and the chance to make a difference in their communities.

The WI is set up as an educational charity with a constitution that states that membership is only open to women.

However, whilst the organisation does not accept men, it is more than welcoming of transgender females.  Men are welcome to attend courses provided by Denman, the WI’s educational centre for learning and they may take part in many activities, events and campaigns, locally and nationally.

Three ladies with a laptop in a kitchen.

Where and when are WI meetings held?

Traditionally, WI meetings were held in village halls – and many still are but you may find your local branch chooses to meet in a local pub or wine bar.

Meetings are held monthly – in person or online – providing an opportunity to try new activities, listen to speakers and campaign on issues.  Each WI must hold at least 11 meetings a year, each with a different topic or theme.  These are listed in the programme of events.  After discussing official business and updates from the regional and national level, members will take part in an activity or hear from a speaker.


What type of activities does The Women's Institute offer?

Activities can range from arts and crafts, to cookery, fitness tasters, games, quizzes and campaigning efforts.  Speakers include inspirational members, figures from the local community, authors, activities and celebrities.


What do Women's Institute members do?

WI Members are encouraged to be active in their communities – taking part in activities from regular sporting events to craft workshops to creating projects that teach members new skills.  Members also support key campaigns such as Make Time for Mental Health, Time to Talk About Organ Donation and More Midwives which aims to combat the chronic shortage of midwives in the UK.  Current campaigns include reducing the amount of microplastic fibres entering our oceans (End Plastic Soup) and urging supermarkets to tackle food waste and food poverty (Food Matters) as well as championing the importance of Cervical Screening.

Some of the most notable WI campaigns include the 1943 call for equal pay and the 1954 Keep Britain Tidy Campaign which resulted in the 1958 Litter Act.  The WI was one of several organisations who founded the Fairtrade Foundation in 1992 and there are 100 WI Climate Ambassadors registered in Britain.


Are there any celebrity members of The Women's Institute?

The Royal family have been involved with the WI from the start.  Queen Mary invited Madge Watt, the founder of the first WI in Britain, to form a branch at Sandringham. The late Queen Elizabeth II first became a WI member in 1943 when she was still Princess Elizabeth when her mother was President of the Sandringham Branch.  The Countess of Wessex is a member of the Bagshot WI, Camilla, the Queen Consort, is a member of Tetbury WI in Gloucestershire and Princess Anne is an Associate Member.  

Celebrities include TV presenter, Kirstie Allsopp and the historian and television presenter, Lucy Worsley.

How can I get involved with the WI?

With 6,300 branches of the WI across the UK, you will have a branch near you but each is unique so it is worth doing some research to find a branch that reflects your values and offers activities that interest you.


What types of membership are on offer at The Women's Institute?

  • Single WI membership is available for any woman who wants to join her local WI group and regularly attend meetings. These can be a mixture of virtual as well as physical meetings. Each WI is unique and will be happy to discuss their WI’s benefits and calendar of events with prospective members.
  • There’s dual membership on offer for anyone who belongs to a WI and discovers another WI that they’d also like to join.
  • Associate membership is available for anyone unable to attend regular meetings at the local WI.
  • If there isn’t a WI in your area, you could start you own branch.


What is the cost of WI membership in the UK?

At the time of writing (January 2023):  

  • Single Membership:  £44 which is split between the WI, the Federation and the NWFI.
  • Dual Membership:  £44 for the main subscription and £21.60 to the second WI.
  • Associate Membership:   £52
A lady painting in her home
A group of ladies on an excursion.
A group of ladies eating lunch together.

Why should I join The Women's Institute?

  • Make new friends
  • Both virtual and physical events at local, federation and national level
  • Room to contribute your own ideas for speakers, activities, and events
  • Life-long learning and self-development opportunities including accredited courses awarded by
  • Laser Learning Awards
  • The opportunity to meet like-minded women from different backgrounds
  • An outlet to make a difference through campaigning and getting involved in your local community
  • Access to large scale campaign groups such as the Climate Coalition
  • An opportunity to become a Climate Ambassador
  • A place for self-expression – each WI is unique and shaped by its members
  • The chance to help influence how the organisation is run by joining your WI committee, federation board or even the National Board of Trustees
  • Regular newsletters and mailing with the latest news, events and opportunities open to you
  • Eight copies of WI Life, the WI magazine delivered directly to your door
  • Exclusive access to My WI, the WI member-only website
  • Exclusive offers and discounts in the Membership Booklet and additional book of offers in the Summer and at Christmas
  • Competitions
  • National Gallery talks
  • Walking Netball Sessions - Walking Netball is a slower, more inclusive, version of the game; it is
  • Netball but at a walking pace. The game has been designed so that anyone can play regardless of age, physical ability or fitness level
  • Partnership with IAM Road Smart - NFWI has teamed up with IAM Road Smart, to create an ongoing driver development partnership aimed at boosting drivers’ skills and confidence
  • Expertise in craft, baking and gardening projects
  • A chance to become involved with the Natural Heritage Tree Project

What is 'Denman' and what does it have to do with The Women's Institute?

Learning and Development has always been at the heart of the WI.   Denman, formerly Denman College, was a residential adult education college centred on what was Marcham Park in Oxfordshire and named after the first chairman of the WI Federation – Lady Denman. 

Founded by the NFWI in 1948, Denman offered day schools and residential courses in cookery, craft and lifestyle as well as a variety of events and conference.  By the 21st century, students attending Denman did not have to be WI members and both male and female students were accepted.  The cost of running the historic building was significant and, in July 2020, the NFWI trustees announced the permanent closure of the college but the spirit of Denman remains and a variety of courses, activities are events are offered under the ‘Denman’ banner.

Denman at homePeople from all over the country can take part in online courses, learning new skills, brushing upon history or developing a hobby.  Since the launch of Denman at Home in May 2020, 90,000 people have joined online courses. 

Denman on demand:  Allows you to tune into pre-recorded demonstrations and talks.

Denman on tourThese are walking tours or ‘in person’ classroom-based courses taking place in various UK locations.   Examples include a photographic walk around Oxford’s Dreaming Spires (April 2023), Photographic Walk of Stowe’s Spring Colours (May 2023) – the cost of each is £20.


What does the WI sell in their online shop?

The Women's Insitute runs on an online shop which sells a variety of goods including sustainable gifts and gift vouchers.  The following are just some of the items which can be found on their website:

  • Brooches
  • Diaries
  • Scarves
  • Socks
  • T-shirts
  • Umbrellas
  • Stationery
  • Homeware including aprons and tea towels


The Women's Institute cookery book

The WI cookbook is a great gift for anyone interested in the WI or food history.  Spanning everything from jam and preserves to main courses, pudding and bakes, there are plenty of recipes for nostalgic favourites and contemporary meals.  Some recipes were created during the war – such as Stuffed Cod Steak and Apple and Fig Roll and ideas to overcome the challenges of food rationing – Elderberry and Apple Jelly and Corned Beef Hash.

There’s also a whole host of recipes online along with cooking tips, short skills videos and advice on how to reduce food waste on their website.


The Women's Institute and Hobbycraft

Hobbycraft offers an extensive range of yarns in a vast array of colours, all tested by WI members and exclusive to Hobbycraft.  A donation from the sale of each item is given to the NFWI. 

Where is my local branch of The Women's Institute?

There are a host of branches across each county and you can find your nearest by putting your postcode into the WI's branch finder or search for WI and the county name – for example "WI Oxfordshire".  The following are just a few of those close to Beechcroft's developments.  The information is correct at the time of writing but please do check and, to join, contact the local federation – details of which are on the branch finder website. 

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