Queen Elizabeth II made her annual visit to her local Women’s Institute (WI) chapter in Sandringham on Thursday, one of many trips she has dutifully made since joining the WI 73 years ago. But, while the WI may be familiar to those in the United Kingdom, they aren’t as well-known to Americans, outside of perhaps what they’ve seen in the 2003 movie Calendar Girls.
First founded in Canada, the Women’s Institute started in the U.K. in a garden shed in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (yes, that Llanfairpwllgwyngyll) in Wales back in 1915. The organization’s main aim was to revitalize rural communities and encourage women to get involved in producing food during World War I. Since then, the organization has blossomed to over 6,300 local WI chapters aimed at providing women with educational opportunities and ways to get involved in various charities.
Keep reading to find out more about the WI – and its surprisingly radical history behind the jams, tea cakes and royal members.
That famous jam
The WI is best known in the U.K. for making jam and home-preserved food, a task they took on during World War II to help find a use for fruits that would potentially go to waste and also help supply much-needed food for a nation under rationing. The WI’s jam-making was encouraged by Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food, and WI groups around Britain were supplied with extra sugar (which was heavily rationed) in order to make their jams which would be sold around the country. For food that couldn’t be made into jam, the WI would use home-canning machines donated from America (a move which was inspired after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited a WI in Kent in 1942).
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The WI’s jam-making sessions were simple but scrupulous: groups of trained female volunteers would meet at their local WI and form assembly lines for making, canning, quality-checking and labeling the jams which would be sent off to be sold to the public. According to Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers: Lucy Worsley’s 100 Years of the WI, by the end of the war the WI was running over 5,000 preservation centers and producing 350 tons of jam a year.
The WI’s wartime efforts went beyond canning as they also produced homemade toys, reared rabbits and assisted with evacuated children and mothers from bombed-out cities.
But it’s about more than just canning
Despite its domestic reputation, the WI actually has a very radical history that continues to this day. Some of the early pioneers included suffragettes and radical activists like Edith Rigby, who founded the Lancashire chapter and famously hurled a black pudding at Winston Churchill and burned down a lord’s house; Baroness Denman, the President of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes from 1917 to 1946 who headed up women’s suffrage movements in England, and Grace Hadow, Demnan’s deputy and an active suffragette who also taught at Bryn Mawr College.
Before World War II, the WI had a rebellious reputation that reportedly even sparked the husbands in an entire village in Yorkshire to ban their wives from attending meetings in the 1920s (no word on how successful they were at that). And the WI still can sometimes flex its rebellious muscles when needed. In 2000, Tony Blair was famously heckled and given a slow-clap when he spoke at the WI’s annual national meeting and delivered what some members felt was an overtly political speech. And let’s not forget that Calendar Girls was based on a real group of Yorkshire WI members who decided to pose nude for a calendar to raise money for Leukemia Research.
The royal connection
The WI also has history of royal and aristocratic members. Queen Mary (aka Mary of Teck) became the president of the WI in Sandringham when she joined in 1919. The late Queen Mother, Elizabeth, also joined the local chapter and served as its president. The current Queen followed in her mother and grandmother’s footsteps, joining the same branch in 1943 when she was a princess and attending annual meetings for the chapter ever since (she’s only “missed for or five” since joining, according to the group’s vice president). Princess Kate may soon be joining the WI’s ranks, having told the Anmer WI last year that she was interested in joining.
Last year, the Queen, Princess Anne and Sophie, Countess of Essex, were on hand to open the WI’s 100th anniversary meeting where they also joined in singing “Jerusalem,” the WI’s official song.