Women’s Institutes Are Founded in Great Britain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although known primarily for their focus on home economics, the Women’s Institutes exerted a fundamental influence on British society by empowering rural women and by addressing a variety of social and health issues.

Summary of Event

Histories of the women’s movement in both Great Britain and the United States usually begin with the suffragist movement. However, given the suffragists’ singular focus on acquiring the vote and the general limitation of participation in that movement to middle-class women from towns and cities, such histories present an incomplete picture of the emerging women’s movement, which sought a full and equal role for women in a modern society. Studies of women’s role in society often ignore rural women. The process of modernization largely entails the incorporation of traditional society into new ways of living, usually through migration from rural to urban areas. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, a significant number of women in Great Britain and the United States lived on farms or in small villages. Women’s Institutes[Womens Institutes] Women;organizations [kw]Women’s Institutes Are Founded in Great Britain (Sept. 11, 1915)[Womens Institutes Are Founded in Great Britain (Sept. 11, 1915)] [kw]Institutes Are Founded in Great Britain, Women’s (Sept. 11, 1915) [kw]Great Britain, Women’s Institutes Are Founded in (Sept. 11, 1915) [kw]Britain, Women’s Institutes Are Founded in Great (Sept. 11, 1915) Women’s Institutes[Womens Institutes] Women;organizations [g]Wales;Sept. 11, 1915: Women’s Institutes Are Founded in Great Britain[03840] [c]Women’s issues;Sept. 11, 1915: Women’s Institutes Are Founded in Great Britain[03840] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 11, 1915: Women’s Institutes Are Founded in Great Britain[03840] Watt, Margaret Hoodless, Adelaide Hunter Denman, Gertrude

Conditions in rural Great Britain throughout the nineteenth century deteriorated as industrialization increased. Urbanization;Great Britain The population shift to urban centers created a vacuum in rural areas, and the importation of foods further contributed to the depression of the countryside. Village life ceased to be the heart of British culture as urban centers increased their dominance. With these changes, the lives of rural women became increasingly isolated from larger social and political contexts.

In Great Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, rural women were consumed by work and had little time or opportunity to cultivate social networks beyond the family. The rapid transformation of urban society generally had bypassed the rural communities. Women in the countryside were isolated. The contrast between rural and urban life caused some to seek changes in the agricultural regions. Economic and health conditions were of particular interest.

Some government leaders recognized the flagging rural conditions and responded in 1889 with the creation of the Board of Agriculture. Board of Agriculture (Great Britain) Attention increasingly focused on education for the agricultural regions. In 1901, the Agricultural Organization Society Agricultural Organization Society (AOS) was formed to create a coalition of farmers and other rural interests. As AOS leaders searched for models of reform, their attention was drawn to Canadian efforts to promote agrarian development through rural adult education. Women’s Institutes, begun in Canada in 1897, were among the useful strategies they noted.

The first Women’s Institute was established on February 19, 1897, at Stoney Creek, Ontario, by Adelaide Hunter Hoodless. A lack of knowledge of basic hygiene had contributed to the death of one of Hoodless’s children, and her ensuing desire to learn better family care practices motivated her to form an organization to promote education in child care and other health practices related to the home. Domestic matters, rather than the general well-being of the rural community or agricultural development, were the exclusive concern of this first institute.

The movement spread in Canada, but it never caught on there to the extent that it later did in Great Britain. The Canadian need for such programs was not as great as the British need, in part because of Canada’s relative agricultural prosperity resulting from the export of grain to Europe. The founding of the first British Women’s Institute at Llanfair, Wales, on September 11, 1915, was thus especially significant, given the degree of change the British movement promoted, the growth and prominence of the movement in Great Britain, and the subsequent spread of the organization from Great Britain to many other countries.

Much of the initial drive to establish Women’s Institutes in Great Britain came from Margaret Watt, a Canadian who had moved to Great Britain in 1913 following the death of her husband. She had been active in spreading the Women’s Institutes in Canada, and after she gave a speech on her Canadian experiences with the institutes, the AOS hired her to take part in a small group directed to organize rural women with the specific objective of establishing Women’s Institutes in Great Britain. North Wales was suggested as a starting point, given the region’s need for cross-cultural collaboration (between English- and Welsh-speaking groups as well as among different religious congregations). In addition, some attempts had been made in the area to bring women into participation with men’s groups that aimed to promote economic growth, but the women had been reluctant to speak their minds openly in these mixed groups.

The first meeting of the Women’s Institute at Llanfair offered little to suggest the impact that the organization would soon make in the daily lives of rural women. The small charter group was led by individuals whose position in society suggested connections with the rural elite and by local officials interested in promoting the venture. The idea for establishing this institute was promoted by the head of the AOS and by a local landowner, Colonel R. Stapleton-Cotton, who was engaged in various aspects of rural economic development.

The meeting was held in the cottage of Mrs. W. E. Jones, who became the institute’s vice president and treasurer. Her husband was the agent for the marquis of Anglesey, the principal landowner in that region of Wales. Mrs. R. Stapleton-Cotton became the institute’s first president. Margaret Watt was not directly involved in establishing the group; however, she arrived a few days later to show her support for the new endeavor and to instill some of the organizational characteristics gained from her Canadian experiences. She moved quickly to promote the creation of similar groups elsewhere. Although the initiative for starting the Llanfair Women’s Institute had come in part from several men and had official backing, rural women controlled the agenda and destiny of the group. That control was the essential and lasting significance of the group’s formation.

In the beginning, the movement was tied to a program first promoted by the AOS and the Board of Agriculture. World War I, which had begun just a year earlier, heightened the perceived need for rural groups of any complexion to promote improved production and quality of foodstuffs. Indeed, the promotion of the Women’s Institutes was connected directly to concern over potential food shortages caused by the reduction in the workforce because of the war. As a result, domestic production of foodstuffs such as jam was associated with the Women’s Institutes from the start.

The institutes appealed to a culture with a strong tradition of self-help organizations such as the “friendly societies.” Great Britain was the place of origin for the cooperative movement as well. In fact, Margaret Watt first came to the notice of agrarian reformers on the basis of a speech she made to a cooperative society gathering in London. The mutual-benefit nature of the Women’s Institutes on ostensibly safe topics of home and hearth and the growing popularity of scientific management in the form of home economics also contributed to the popularity of the British Women’s Institutes.

Growth was rapid, with more than one hundred Women’s Institutes formed by 1917. The AOS found itself overwhelmed by the response and yielded direction and support for organizing the spread of the institutes to the Board of Agriculture. This government agency supported the movement in the early years through monetary grants and provision of staff.

Of considerable importance was the role played by the social elite as leaders of the body, especially at the regional and national levels. Social privilege was important in working with the government for legislative actions, a strategy that became part of the Women’s Institutes’ agenda. This linkage with government also served to advance the direct role of women in political action, albeit by those of the upper class.

Leaders of the movement, especially Lady Gertrude Denman, the Women’s Institutes’ first national chairperson, sought to cut formal ties with the Board of Agriculture to assure the movement a greater degree of autonomy. The rules of the Women’s Institutes called for nonsectarian and nonpolitical activity. The latter restriction, however, suggested the maintenance of the status quo and thereby the fundamentally conservative nature of the movement. These surface qualities were essential to the institutes’ acceptance by the general populace in the rural communities.


The growth of the movement in Great Britain and the eventual use of the Women’s Institutes as a model for rural women’s development projects in many other countries testifies to the responsive chord struck by the first institute. The most significant influence of the Women’s Institutes was in their general empowerment of women to take control of aspects of their daily lives and to experience the consequences of working together for local, regional, and even national goals. The Women’s Institutes brought women to a level of broad political action unprecedented to that point. Networks for women were created across social class lines, although much of the institutes’ real power was in the hands of upper-class leaders.

The actions that the national and some local groups undertook were of varying importance. Primary among the goals was the promotion of education for rural women, with a focus on home economics. Special emphasis was given to hygiene and nutrition. Through these means, the institutes improved the quality of life of many rural families.

Only gradually did an awareness of larger social issues emerge, yet from the start, the Women’s Institutes had a profound effect on the role of rural women. Some local groups included women who were also interested in such other issues as suffrage and the attainment of a more active role for women in society. The nature of the organization, as a basically conservative group, meant that its support for various issues of concern was relatively difficult for politicians to reject. In the group’s earliest years, the direct connection with the Board of Agriculture was a two-way street; potential government control of the movement was matched by opportunities for direct input from the Women’s Institutes to government officials. For an organization made up only of women, this access created a unique situation.

Even after the formal ties with the Board of Agriculture were severed, the conservative nature of the organization, the relatively safe reform agendas it adopted, and its broad social class membership provided opportunities for effective lobbying for change. Some of the issues that the Women’s Institutes lobbied directly for in their first fifteen years included removing the exemption of women from jury duty, maintaining women on the rural constabulary, providing adult education for women, promoting health issues (including public education on venereal disease), and establishing access to emerging communications technology, with the goal of at least one telephone in every village.

For many women, the Women’s Institutes provided their first experiences with any form of public action. Some members eventually would pursue active political lives, especially on the local level. The Women’s Institutes were a vital mechanism for bringing rural women into direct participation in public affairs and into elected office. Women’s Institutes[Womens Institutes] Women;organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dudgeon, Piers. Village Voices. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1989. Includes discussion of the broader accomplishments of the Women’s Institutes in social reform. Sets the movement in both personal and historical contexts with an abundance of personal recollections and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodenough, Simon. Jam and Jerusalem. Glasgow: Collins, 1977. Stresses the accomplishments of the movement. Lists of numerous resolutions adopted by the national conferences focus on the Women’s Institutes’ principal areas of interest and accomplishments, including social reform. The first book on the topic to emphasize the broader consequences of the Women’s Institutes. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howkins, Alun. The Death of Rural England: A Social History of the Countryside Since 1900. London: Routledge, 2003. Describes the social changes that have taken place in rural England and Wales since the beginning of the twentieth century, including the conditions that led to the need for organizations such as the Women’s Institutes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huxley, Gervas. Lady Denman, G.B.E. London: Chatto & Windus, 1961. An admiring biography of the first president of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes that includes chapters on her role in the early years. Places her very public role in the context of her personal life as a woman of privilege in an unhappy marriage. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenkins, Inez. The History of the Women’s Institutes Movement of England and Wales. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1953. The first substantive history of the movement, written in an admiring tone by an insider. Provides extensive detail on the movement’s origins. Includes a brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCall, Cicely. Women’s Institutes. London: William Collins, 1943. A chatty account of the movement with particular emphasis on the organization’s role in paiding children evacuated from the cities during World War II. Illustrated with drawings and paintings.

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Categories: History