Rising from the ashes of the First World War and initially conceived as a way of improving the food supply for the nation, the Women's Institute became one of the really important movements for women in the twentieth century. It provided education, opportunities to practise public speaking and opened the eyes of countrywomen to the wider world around them. The first organisers were ex-suffragists who felt that now they had the vote women needed an education to give them the confidence to make their presence felt in this new world opening up to them.
Responding to the national crisis at the outbreak of the Second World War, the Women's Institute again proved its worth by tackling food shortages and organising schemes such as finding billets for evacuee children.
A further challenge in the 1960s and 1970s was the rise of the feminist movement. Membership of the WI started to decline and the executive searched for ways to improve its image and keep it relevant to younger women. Then, out of the blue, came the Calendar Girls. Any idea that the WI consisted only of jam and `Jerusalem' was swept away by the energy, imagination and sheer courage of the women of Rylstone WI and led not only to a renewed interest in and respect for the countrywomen of Great Britain but to a flourishing of new branches in both town and country.
As the centenary of its birth approaches, the WI remains a powerful force in women's lives, a source of fun, friendship and creativity.
Mavis Curtis spent her career in primary teaching and social work and is now retired. She has a PhD from the University of Sheffield and has contributed to numerous books, journals and magazines, including The Lore of the Playground (Random House), a social history of children's games. During research on the WI in 2012 for the Oxford Times, she was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people she met. She is now a new and very enthusiastic recruit. She lives in Oxfordshire.