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The WI: A Centenary History

Oxford resident Mavis Curtis brings us the first ever comprehensive history of the Women’s Institute

Brought up in a back-to-back house with an outside lavatory...

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.

Now Oxford resident Mavis Curtis has brought us the first ever comprehensive history of the Women’s Institute.

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 movement 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.

Author Mavis Curtis’s interest in local history took root in Oxford and from having read the minutes of her local WI and written about it, it was a short step to writing about the whole movement. Having been brought up in a back-to-back house with an outside lavatory and a zinc bath in the cellar, she was particularly interested to note the WI’s attempts to improve the living conditions of much of the population. She is a member of her local WI.


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