Opinion: Equality at the heart of co-operation… It’s in our DNA

Celebrating the pioneering work of co-operative women

On International Women’s Day, particularly in this year of the 100th anniversary of the start of women’s franchise in this country, I think it is appropriate to pay tribute to the pioneering work of our forbears in the Co-operative Women’s Guild.

The Guild, which was open to all women members of the Co-op, was founded in 1883 “to promote instructional and recreational classes for mothers and girls” – but it was soon at the forefront of contemporary political issues.

It was a crusading forum from the outset, campaigning for women’s suffrage, divorce reform, changes to the Poor Law and better healthcare. Indeed, maternity benefits were included in the National Insurance Act 1911 as a direct result of the Guild’s pressure.

Interestingly, the Women’s Guild adopted the Suffragist standpoint on the question of votes for women, believing that if the argument was strong enough and the point was made steadily and calmly it could not be refuted, rather than the Suffragettes’ perspective, who felt that talking, compiling petitions etc. wasn’t getting anywhere and that “actions speak louder than words”, leading to the chaining to railings, bombings and the like.

Co-operatives, of course, were democratic organisations based on one member one vote, regardless of gender, so for many women their first experience of voting was at their co-op.

Related… International Women’s Day: How do co-ops perform as women employers?

After World War I, the Guild became more involved in peace activism, concentrating especially on the social and political conditions that encouraged or gave rise to war, as well as opposition to the arms trade. In 1933 they introduced the White Poppy as a pacifist alternative to the British Legion’s annual red poppy appeal.

We should be proud of our heritage – and the Co-op Group’s members and colleagues expect us to be a contemporary campaigning organisation which continues to push the barriers on all aspects of diversity.

That’s why the host of events that we are holding across the country to mark International Women’s Day 2018 will highlight more than just issues that affect our female colleagues in this country.

One event here at 1 Angel Square Manchester will not only focus on the work of our Aspire Network, which, although primarily aimed at helping women to advance their careers to a more senior level, is open to all. (Indeed, feminist principles advocate equality of access and opportunity for all.) It will also celebrate the women who work in our Fairtrade supply chain, particularly those in Africa who grow all the roses we sell.

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