Encouraging and supporting all women within their communities has been the vision of the Women's Institute (WI) since it began in New Zealand nearly 100 years ago. And although there are now institutes in the towns as well as the country, the organisation still holds the same values as it did back in 1921, says national president Fay Leonard.
"Women need women. And being social and the sharing of interests is what bonds us together," Fay says.
The New Zealand Women's Institute began locally, when several women of the Rissington community were invited to discuss the formation of the institute by a Miss Jerome Spencer who explained how the Women's Institute had first started in Canada and then spread to England and Scotland.
"In the broadest term," said Miss Spencer, "a women's institute is a gathering of country women who meet together at least once a month to discuss matters of interest to them all. One of the principles of the movement, 'if you know a good thing, pass it on' can result in a bond of friendship which can unite and bring together the women of the world."
Fay says Miss Jerome Spencer set up the first meeting, which provided an essential network for women predominantly in rural areas.
"They met and shared ideas on homemaking, child-rearing, enjoyed activities such as crafts, performing drama groups and went on local visits. Often women would travel long distances to attend these meetings – a time to get away from the hard work on their farms – time to spend with other women in similar situations. And the basis of the organisation is still the same today."
There are now 232 institutes in New Zealand, which are grouped into 38 federations. Institutes and federations hold many special days for members, Fay says.
"We have eisteddfods, birthday meetings, craft days, flower shows, outings, lunches and visits to other WI meetings, as well as our own monthly meetings where we will have invited along an interesting speaker. Many of our institutes and federations do catering for special events within their communities."
The WI AGM/conference is held every two years, with an AGM every other year.
"Our members are very talented and do the most wonderful handcraft which they enter for national cups each year. Every two years we give a donation of $10,000 to medical research, and a few years ago we raised $100,000 for Kidney Kids."
Fay says members have provided more than $95,000 in donations to their local communities and last year contributed more than 68,300 voluntary hours resulting in further benefits for their communities. Recruiting new members, however, is an ongoing problem.
"It is hard to get younger women to join. While membership has dropped considerably since the 1950s, there are still more than 3300 members belonging to the organisation that Miss Jerome Spencer set up. We do attract new members, however, with the passing of our elderly members, our numbers don't grow as fast as we would like."
Fay says 2021 will be a very special year for the Women's Institute.
"We will be celebrating in Napier the weekend of February 11-13. Saturday we will be at Omatua during the day and in the evening we have a dinner at the Napier Conference & Events Centre. On Sunday morning there will be a service at the cathedral, following which will be the unveiling of a statue of Miss Jerome Spencer."