The Women’s Co-operative Guild (later the Co-operative Women’s Guild) was founded in 1883. The many members it attracted were largely working class, grassroots and in time, politically active women – a rare combination.
Margaret Llewellyn Davies was General Secretary from 1889 – 1921 and she helped to grow the Guild into a formidable rank-and-file organisation articulating the rights of women.
The Guild was active in shaping an extraordinary range of social legislation at the time. Maternity cover was one, boosted by a moving collection, Maternity: Letters from Working Women, edited by Llewellyn Davies. Others were birth control, child health, divorce reform, the legalization of abortion, the cost of living and consumer rights, employment and equal pay, health and housing policy through to social security and pensions.
The motto, as Eleanor Barton, General Secretary 1925 – 1937, put it was “Doing is the Thing.”
In the 1930s, it was the peace campaign that defined the Guild, responsible for
introducing the white poppy as a symbol of peace. The banners of the Guild branches were always a thing of pride, and flowers, and the poppy, were common images.
The Second World War challenged the stance of the Guild, as people were torn between pacifism and resistance to fascism – and membership numbers fell between 1939 and 1946, from 87,000 to 57,000 in part as a result.
The Guild arguably never regained its prominence. The consumer co-operative sector was consolidating and its retail businesses in decline for some time, while the structures, of hierarchy, and culture of ritual traditions, of the Guild didn’t help the cause of renewal.
The impact on the lives of its members, though, was deep enough to be recalled in a series of moving testimonies at its centenary in 1983. One talked of the trouble membership could get her into with her husband: “half the time the men didn’t want them to go out and half the time there was a scene when they got back sort of thing but they were determined to go. A penny a week it was to belong. Well I learned all I knew in the Guild movement.”
The archive is held by the Co-operative Heritage Trust, including around 130 banners. A wonderful presentation published in recent years sets out the story of women in the co-operative movement in more detail – from Basket to Boardroom.
As Jane Grant writes, in her research on governance in women’s organisations (that I plan to blog on next week), the Guild “built confidence, opened doors into all areas of public life, made its members feel special.”
The granddaughter of one Guild member is Ruth Fitzjohn, President of Midcounties Co-op, and a member of the Gender Equality Committee of the International Co-operative Alliance: “my grandmother, a mill worker who died before I was born, went almost every week of her adult life all through the 1930s, 40s and 50s. It was at the core of her adult life.”
Doing is the thing and the focus that Ruth and other members of the Gender Equality Committee are bringing to their work is on making change. The same focus will hold too, it is hoped, for a new Gender Equality Committee formed by Co-operatives Europe. In the UK, a Facebook group on women in co-operatives, now 200 hundred strong, was formed by Britta Werner, Unicorn Grocery and Vice Chair of Co-operatives UK, in March 2016.
The same impulse is driving campaigns such as the Co-operative Women’s Challenge. An excellent slide deck from recent research by the Co-operative College gives voice to women in the co-operative sector. The College is now coordinating an event next month at Federation in Manchester for women in co-ops.
Until inequality is a rarity and a surprise, there will always be an impetus for co-operation to prompt and promote gender equality.