On the 168th anniversary of the opening of the first Rochdale Pioneers’ shop, Co-operative News talked to Gillian Lonergan from Co-operative College about the role women played at the beginnings of the modern Co-operative Movement.
The new Rochdale Pioneers film, released this year, told the story of not only the men who created the seven co-operative principles, but also the women who were present at the time.
However, in reality the first female member did join until 16 months after they first opened their shop. A woman named Elisa Brierley, who joined in February 1846.
The history around the Pioneers remains “sparse”, said Gillian. Despite this the new Rochdale Pioneers film decided to include the story of Betty Cooper. This is not the first time the role of women may have been embellished in the story of the Pioneers.
George Jacob Holyoake, who wrote the first history of the Pioneers in 1857, had one of the original members as a woman, called Anne Tweedale. Gillian said: “as far as we can gather, she never actually existed! I think George Holyoake was putting her involvement in, the same way as in the film, because they would have been involved.
“They are good Northern women, their bound to have been involved in these sorts of things.”
The Pioneers agreed that members could be male or female, but the cost of one pound, nearly a week and a half’s wages, meant only the head of each household in most families would become a member.
Other barriers such as not owning property also factored for women.
Though women’s roles are not know, Gillian explained: “it’s hard to see them, they don’t appear in the minute books and things like that, but it’s very likely they were involved.”
“Society didn’t really encourage women to get up and talk, so in a meeting full of people, it takes quite a bit of nerve to actually stand up and have your say.”
The film was released for the International Year of Co-operatives by the Co-operative Group and the Co-operative British Youth Film Academy.
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