Co-operatives are building a better world for women

From 1846 right through to the modern day, co-operatives have accepted women as members and driven equality.

On the eve of International Women's Day, I was in San Diego, California where I spoke at the annual meeting of the National Rural Electric Co-operatives Association of the United States. It is a huge and impressive gathering of co-operators from right across the US.

I can still remember when I first heard that electric co-ops cover 75 per cent of the US land mass and provide electricity to 42 million Americans 12 per cent of US electricity consumers. I was amazed as, in the nature of things, I hadn't regarded the United States as a bedrock of the co-operative global movement.

It was a salutory lesson to me and taught me to challenge a great many of my own preconceived notions of how the world works! Looking around me at this huge meeting of nearly 6,000 local co-operators I am struck again by the grass roots strength of this huge movement of ours.

At this meeting, as in so many others that I have attended since becoming President in November 2009, I am also struck by the number of immensely competent and inspirational women who work within the movement either as professional staff or as lay members.

And it got me thinking about the strength and determination of some of the huge, although largely little known, female personalities who drove equal rights for women into the core of co-operative principles almost from the moment that the Rochdale Pioneers codified the first set of principles as we know them today. And those women who, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances, are still showing those exceptional leadership roles today.

From Eliza Brierley, the quite amazing woman mill worker who one day in 1846 lined up with the queue of male mill workers who were waiting to add a few pennies to their co-op savings account to reach the magic £1 at which point they became full members of the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Co-operative Society.


As Eliza reached the office table she laid down one whole pound in pennies in front of the Pioneers. In a day when women were still the property of their father or husband, and had no legal rights and with votes for women still more than 80 years away in the UK, Eliza forced the Pioneers to make a decision — whether or not to accept women members. They did and to this day we have had equality with men within the movement.

I met briefly in Australia just a month ago Joyce Clague, an incredible Aboriginal woman. Starting in the 60s, Joyce transformed the lives of young Aboriginal men and women who found themselves on the tough streets of Sydney. She guided them to an inspirational co‐operative school — Tranby College — where they were sheltered and educated.

Joyce founded and help manage many Aboriginal co‐operatives that have sustained and enriched the lives of their members providing them with autonomy and economic control of their destiny. At Tranby College, I watched young teenage girls delight in dancing a traditional aboriginal welcome, and couldn't but be moved at the flicker of real hope that they exuded about the start of a defined, proud future for their people.

From Dorimène Desjardins who is not famous outside of French Canada but like so many women around the world including Eliza Brierley – she was passionately involved in the establishment of co‐operatives during the last century. Dorimène co‐founded the Desjardins Group with her husband Alphonse Desjardins. She shared her husband's co‐operative ideals and was gifted in management and accounting.

Dorimène acted as de facto General Manager No job title. No salary. Just the will to live in a better world — to Monique F. Leroux the present day CEO of Desjardins and the role she played in implementing governance practices characterized by a broader role for local co-ops and members. At the same time Desjardins Group reported record surplus earnings and member dividends. Desjardins has been recognised as one of Canada’s Top 100 employers in 2012 as well as being ranked 18th in Global Finance’s World’s 50 Safest Banks.

But how about the 40 women of the Cocoki sewing co‐op in Rwanda who sew for some major US brands. Or the women of the Deir Kanoun co‐op in Lebanon who are feeding the nation with their sesame bread. Or the 1.3 million Indian women who are members of SEWA, which represents the women who are rag pickers and street traders at the poorest and most powerless end of Indian society.

There are so many great stories to be told and I hope that on International Women's day in this International Year of Co-operatives we can stop for a moment and remember what we owe to those brave and pioneering women of the past, and the solidarity we can share with those who continue to show such strength and leadership today.

Am I enjoying being President of the ICA — you bet! These stories and so many more make me believe with a passion that together we actually can, and are building a better world. Have a great International Women's Day.

• Read more stories about how co-operatives empower women around the world.

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