The WI was first formed in 1897 in Stoney Creek, Ontario in Canada.
The Women's Institute Movement in Britain started in 1915 with the first WI formed in Llanfair PG, Wales. During the First World War the WI was formed to encourage countrywomen to get involved in growing and preserving food to help to increase the supply of food to the war-torn nation.
The first WI in Oxfordshire was Kelmscott WI formed in 1916 (since closed in 1992). The oldest WIs currently still flourishing in Oxfordshire, and formed in 1918, are Steeple Aston WI, Clanfield WI, Wolvercote WI, Milton-under-Wychwood WI, Cassington WI and Burford & Fulbrook WI. The Federation was formed in 1919.
There have been some well known names heading up the Oxfordshire Federation over the years. From 1923-1925 Mrs John Buchan, wife of the author John Buchan, was the President of the Federation while Miss Ashhurst (pictured) was the Chairman. Gladys Ashhurst was the daughter of the Squire of Waterstock, near Waterperry, and when he died in 1929, she followed him as the owner of the estate and continued living in Waterstock House. In 1924 she founded Waterstock & Waterperry WI which eventually became the Waterstock & Tiddington WI of today. In 1948 Gladys Ashhurst made the decision to leave Waterstock House and to hand over the running of the estate to her nephew and she moved to one of the cottages in the village. A year later, after she died the cottages were sold off.
In Oxford High Street stands the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in which there is a plaque to Grace Hadow. Miss Hadow was Chairman of OFWI from 1931-32 and President from 1938-39. She had attended Oxford University in the days before women were allowed to graduate and became Principal of the Society of Oxford Home Students, out of which grew St Anne's College, and eventually was elected Vice Chairman of NFWI to Lady Denman, when she became the first Chairman from 1917 to 1946.
Denman College, the national WI College, and named after the first Chairman, was purchased in 1947 and officially opened in 1948. Lady Brunner was instrumental in establishing and turning Denman into the National WI College. She was a member of Greys WI near Henley and rose quickly, via OWI Chairmanship, to become the third Chairman of the NFWI.
During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Denman was unable to run its range of residential courses and instead began Denman At Home, a series of online courses enabling many more WI members to join in further educational learning. The courses currently on offer can be accessed at https://www.denman.org.uk/whats-on/
Following the consultation and representations period communicated at the end of 2020, NFWI had to take the sad decision to permanently close Denman and subsequently sell the estate. The sale is currently in the hands of the Charity Commissioners.