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Women's Institute

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Women's Institute

Is this an icon?


Women's Institute

We are well aware that the Women’s Institute isn’t strictly an English invention. The organisation actually began in Canada in the last years of the 19th century. Notwithstanding that, it is one of those institutions that England has somehow made its own, as is currently being celebrated in Jennifer Saunders’ new BBC sitcom, Jam And Jerusalem.

The aims and values of the WI were all about involving women in the lives of their local communities, work they had begun doing even before women had been granted the right to vote. The National Federation was established in 1917, with the redoubtable Lady Denman as its first chairman and Queen Mary as its president. Membership cut across all social classes, and the branches set about their century-long work of mobilising women, giving them a voice and achieving due recognition for their contributions.

Our eternal image of WI members may be one of formidable ladies running jam stalls and cake competitions in village halls, ending their meetings with a rousing chorus of Parry’s iconic “Jerusalem”. Anybody regarding them as a soft touch, however, might do well to recall Tony Blair’s rough passage at a WI conference in 2000. And as for those calendars… One only hopes Lady Denman would have approved.


Your comments

Jam, flower arranging, quilting, Jerusalem - the WI is at the heart of many rural commuinities in England and continues to uphold a fine tradition of no nonsense, self sufficient, endearingly shambolic, quirky English amateurism. Meeting in church halls to co-ordinate the finest production lines of Victoria sponges anywhere in the world, WI's are as militant as they are quaint, tackling pertinent issues with compassion, decency and decorum. I couldn't think of anything more English - no village fete raffle would be complete without them!

Chris Jones

The W.I. was an important part of rural life. When something needed to be done or organized you could count on the W.I. The purpose changed drastically from the early days during the war and evolved with the times. As an American I considered it a honour to be president of our local W.I.
Evelyn McCartt

It embodies not only the best of the British tradition of voluntary association but is also iconic in terms of its activities across the land: from jam and cake-making to charitable and fund-raising activity.
Nicholas Coulson

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My favourite Icon of England has to be the Cornish Pasty.

Ian Baldry