Women's Co-operative Guild 1983
Last week 3,000 women from all over Britain gathered together in the shimmering
heat in the gardens of a country mansion to celebrate the centenary of the Co-op
The women treated the grounds and the mansion of Stanford Hall in Loughborough
as 'their own, examining the commemorative plates, the old books and pamphlets on display.
the finely furnished rooms with an air of proud possession for they, as members of the Co-
operative movement, do indeed own them.
Stanford Hall, Loughborough in Leicestershire is the Co-op College which holds courses
long and short for people in the Co-op in Britain and people from the Third World countries on
subjects like retail management or how to set up co-operatively-run enterprises.
It was familiar territory for many of the women there celebrating in the grand centenary
picnic, as they had attended courses about the workings of the vast and complicated co- operative movement with its myriad of services and functions.
And this is the very reason the Co-op Guild was set Up in 1883 — to educate women about the Co-op with the prime purpose to get them to shop there and give the movement full support
The guild's symbol of the woman with the basket reminds us of this early purpose. But the guild grew to be much more than a shoppers' club and burgeoned, especially between the wars, into a mass women's movement with a membership of 90,000. campaigning on social issues.
A photographic exhibition at Stanford Hall remembered the campaigning days when guilds- women marched the streets of London on the peace issue or put pressure on members of Parliament over divorce law reforms,
When the Royal Commission on Divorce in 1911 invited the Co-op Women's Guild to contribute their opinions to the enquiry, over 60 per cent of the guild officers contributing, supported the radical notion of divorce by mutual consent.
In those day "adultery" was the sole grounds for divorce but the woman had also to show that
her husband's offence was aggravated by other wrong-doings such as desertion or cruelty.
After a long discussion about the need for cheaper and easier divorce for working class
women, the central committee of the Guild circularised branches about their opinions on divorce.
Replies were received from 429 branches, 414 supported and equal law for both men and women, while 364 were in favour of cheaper divorces so the low paid could also take advantage of the facility.
It is interesting, now that the Church of England's discussions on divorce are raising once more many old Christian objections, that in 1911 only 40 branches of the Guild were opposed to divorce.
For the first time there was a public expression of female working class opinion on the
-operation of the marriage laws through the Co-op guild. Working class women's experiences of bad marriages were catalogued and made public for the first time.
In the early days the Guild claimed that "it lifted the curtain which in marriage falls on a woman's life."
Women reported all forms of cruelty, including the transmission of sexual diseases, violent
behaviour and even attempts to induce miscarriage'.
A new book about the Guild "Caring and Sharing" written by Jean Gaffin and David Thomas quotes some of die original evidence: "She had 11 children and told me that during the periods of pregnancy he would do all sorts of things to frighten her and bring on a miscarriage.
"He even has crept down the cellar grate and then rushed up the steps and burst into the
kitchen with a great yell. She was obliged to stay with him, because she had no means of supporting herself and children.'
Divorce reform came slowly; in 1923 men and women were granted equality of treatment and in 1937 there was an extension of the grounds for divorce to include desertion, incurable in sanity and cruelty.
Financial assistance for poor families in seeking divorce was introduced in 1949 and mutual consent as the basis for divorce was not introduced until 1969.
Not only did the Guild campaign for divorce reform, armed with the experiences of ordinary women, but they also campaigned for better midwifery services and ante- -and post-natal clinics prompted by the descriptions of the terrible deprivation of expectant mothers and children gathered from guildswomen.
But the most immediate effect the Co-op Guild made on women's lives was getting them to take an interest in social and political issues outside the home.
An old leaflet dating from before World War I found at the exhibition, is a sad reminder that the social position of women has not changed very much in all those years.
It argues that women should take as much interest in outside matters as men, "If education and the fullest development of his powers in this outside work is good for the man then it is equally good for the woman."
It also argues that things had changed. "In the old-fashioned days it was the custom to sever the man's work from the woman's by the hard and fast rule that while the man's work and interests lay in outside matters, the woman's were entirely with those inside the house
children, house-cleaning, washing, sewing etc."
So things were beginning to change in 1903, but it is significant that the present feminist movement began in the Sate sixties by making exactly the same kind of observations on women's lot.
Memories of past radicalism this week have prompted" many guildswomen to compare the present day Co-op Women's Guild, with the old and the conclusion is that no longer is it the lively exciting movement that it once was. There are various reasons for the drop in membership, now down to 15,000. Since the Second World War the number of local co-op shops has been cut and women have lost the local base for branches.
The new general secretary, Claire Turner, a young woman who is taking over from Kathleen Kempton, sees the problem as one of recruiting among, young people. "We have to make' the Guild a political and campaigning force again," she said.Re-launch
"Our image will have to change somehow. If we focus the movement around say six key issues the Guild will be seen as an active movement with a positive identity.
"Really, after the centenary celebration we need a relaunch of the movement to get the new members in.
"Next year will see a lot more campaigning around peace," says Claire. The white poppy
launched by the Guild in the '30s as a symbol of peace, to be worn on Armistice Day, will be sold again.
Claire finds that the older members of the Guild are often much more radical in their willingness to campaign than the younger women. "This is because throughout their life they had to fight for what they have."
One veteran member, Florence Cowings, agrees with that sentiment. Fifty years in" the Guild, she said, "It has been my whole life. Working for the principles of co-operation has led me naturally to Socialism.
"I had five children" and it was for them I was working to get a better life, but now I'm very worried about the young people of today. Unemployment is de-grading and it makes them apathetic.
"I saw worse conditions and unemployment in my time - I joined the Jarrow marchers -
for five miles only — but then there was a more fighting spirit I don't find today."
It remains to be seen what role the Co-op Women's Guild takes now that it is into its second century. The question left hanging in the Loughborough air last week was summed up in the centenary exhibition.
"Can the guild link up with the contemporary feminist movement in attempting to show that the oppression is still as great as ever because of the un paid labour in the home, rein forced by the sexual division of labour under patriarchal capitalism?"
There were few if any guilds-women, young or old, who could disagree with the final statement in the exhibition. "The guild can only survive if it carries out a new identity for itself in its second century."
By Helen Bennett, Morning Star Tuesday 19th July 1983