06 Mar 2024
by Melissa Green

Large group of women holding white placards on the steps of a monument.
The extraordinary women of the NFWI (National Federation of Women's Institutes) have been helping create positive change through their campaigns for over a century. (© NFWI)

I probably don’t have to introduce the Women’s Institute to you - for over 108 years, the WI has been inspiring women, helping to enrich and change their lives for the better. As the largest women’s organisation in the UK, our vision is that all women should have a voice and reach their potential in whatever sphere they choose. We may be known for our infamous jam and cake making, but really, we’re the best kept secret here in the UK for empowering and inspiring women.


Formed in 1915, the Women's Institute was originally brought to life to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. And since then, we’ve been a group of well-informed, strong-minded women who debate the big things of the day. In many ways we were born of the struggle and sacrifice of brilliant women; many of those involved in the Suffragist movement for example, played a role in founding the Women’s Institute as a way of educating and encouraging women to take an active part in public life. Just as we continue to campaign for, and champion, all women today.

Old photo of a large group of women in hats seated/standing in a posed group in front of a low building with an overgrown tiled roof.
The first meeting of a WI group in Britain - at Llanfair in September 1916. Two years later the National Federation formed. (c/o NFWI)

Extraordinary WI women

Grace – A first class founder

Grace Hadow was Vice Chair, beside Lady Denman, in the first established National Federation of Women’s Institutes – from around 1917 until her untimely death in 1940. She attended Somerville College Oxford in 1900 at a time when a first-class education was rare for a girl – obtaining a first class in the Honours school of English Language and Literature but, outrageously, as a woman was not allowed to receive her degree. Grace was (among many other landmark Suffragist roles) founder member of the Oxford Women Students and addressed the Royal Albert Hall at the time, saying, “I am glad that I belong to a generation which has been stoned – not because I like being stoned (it is tiresome, and often messy), but since some women had to go through that to win the thing, it is a bit of luck not to have been out of it entirely.”

Sepia photographic portrait of older woman wearing glasses in a dark cardigan (or dress) with a pendant necklace.
The remarkable Grace Hadow - vice-chair of the first WI and founder member of Oxford Women Students. (c/o NFWI)
Rosa – A homebird hostess

Present member, Rosa Davies is the founder of a unique branch of the WI – a movement which she has long admired for its campaigning, structure, and sisterhood. “Homebirds” - itself a play on the fact that members seldom leave the house – is a virtual WI, based entirely online and comprised of women in their 30s and 40s who share a range of conditions from chronic illness and pain, and immobility, to neurodivergence. Rosa herself has autism as well as conditions which affect her joints, muscles and nervous system. Rosa represents a modern and diverse WI that offers flexibility and empowerment to diverse women.

Younger woman in red dress, holding a cane,  seated on the corner of a wooden planter.
Rosa Davies - founder of the brilliant 'Homebirds' WI branch. (© WI Life / NFWI)
Anonymous - The resolution proposers 

The WI has so many causes to be proud of and worthy of support. We stand for what we believe in and roll our sleeves up to get stuff done. We want to pay tribute to all the women who changed the course of our history and brought about real change in women’s lives. Their names may have gone unrecorded but we remember and salute their extraordinary work.  The women who raised environmental concerns in the 1920s, equal pay demands in the 1950s, educating women on HIV and Aids in the 1980s, fighting against the challenge of modern-day slavery in the 2010s, right up to improving the awareness and support for women with autism and ADHD…Thanks to their suggestions, together we’ve affected social change, public opinion, and helped change legislation for over a century.

Icon graphic - Blue silhouette of woman's head and shoulders.

We know, that as well as the fun and friendship to be found within the WI, our collective voice of speaking truth to power remains a formidable strength – and attracts women from all walks of life to the movement.

Modernising and evolving for all women

The WI is federated, so local groups are devolved and offer their own activities. We are also seeing more virtual, online groups being set up to offer women more flexibility, which is great. We just love and embrace the rich tapestry that is the WI movement!

In 2023, we introduced a new alternative to full membership – a supporter tier which gets women our monthly magazine, campaign updates, and access to our My WI (community online). We have also just launched a brand-new WI Learning Hub, for all women of any age, to learn new skills and forge new friendships. And we’re growing our movement every day – with over 30,000 women joining us in the last year. And through the support of members, new allies, and champions – we will ensure an even greater impact.

Three smiling women in warm coats, holding banners at their sides in a relaxed crowd outside a grand colonnaded building.
Finding fun and friendship while working for positive change. (credit: Anne Marie-Bickerton)

Find out more

  • The WI – Find out how to become a member, supporter, or simply make a donation to the WI – and learn about all the movement has to offer. Seach for Women’s Institute on Instagram, X, and Facebook to find their socials.
  • Blog - Search for more stories of Extraordinary Women
Green text logo of the WI

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