Founded in Canada
(1897) for improving women's education in domestic science, the first UK institute was formed on Anglesey (north Wales
) in 1915 and the first county federation (Sussex) in 1917. Written off as a wartime experiment that would not last, their determination to better the lives of rural communities led to rapid expansion, a magazine (Home and Country
), and self-government; non-party, non-sectarian, and well organized, they broadened interests, broke down social isolation, and began to demand a voice in public affairs (health care, adult education). Concern to protect its non-political principle led the NFWI to declare in 1938 that it could not, as an institution, take part in a war effort. It was criticized for this stance, even though individual members were quite free to join the Women's Voluntary Service, Women's Land Army, or Civil Defence. Many in fact did so, while others contributed substantially to the evacuation programme, fruit-preserving, and sock-knitting. Their love of festivals has created a popular image confined to making jam and singing Blake's ‘Jerusalem
’, but they have demonstrated that they can be a powerful pressure group.
A. S. Hargreaves