The Co-operative Women’s Guild has a powerful heritage and has made some notable contributions to society. More than a century ago, it successfully campaigned to get maternity benefits enshrined in law. It also introduced white commemorative poppies to the world as a pacifist alternative – and now, some 132 years after its inception, members are still speaking out and supporting the co-operative movement.
The guild was founded in 1883 in England and Wales and 1892 in Scotland, to educate women in the principles and practices of co-operation and to work to improve the status of women.
Early guildswomen achieved much. A maternity benefit was included in the 1911 National Insurance Act because of guild pressure. At the same time, the guild campaigned successfully for infant welfare facilities.
After World War I, it campaigned for peace, introducing the white peace poppy in 1933.
“Working for world peace has been an important part of guild work,” says Colette Harber, general secretary of the Co-operative Women’s Guild. “Since the mid-thirties, white peace poppies have been widely distributed through the Peace Pledge Union. Guildswomen very often wear both poppies; the red poppy to remember those who have fallen and the white poppy for world peace.
“The guild today is still battling for social justice and is constantly monitoring and lobbying on social policy issues,” she adds. “We’re currently involved in national campaigns such as Save the NHS and the campaign to put an end to female genital mutilation.”
Branches organise their own activities, submit motions to annual congress and elect their own regional representative. Fellowship is important, and guildswomen enjoy outings and social functions organised by branches, as well all as supporting co-operative societies UK-wide by attending member events and half-yearly meetings.
In England and Wales, the guild is broken into regions, which each elect a member to serve on the national executive committee, alongside a representative elected by the national individuals branch. Each region has a flower as its emblem, chosen from the Flowers of the Guild Garden Book written by guildswoman Ellen Woodward.
The branches work together to support a national charity, chosen each year at annual congress. This year, they are backing the Alzheimers Society, raising funds through events like cake stalls, bring-and-buy sales, quizzes and sponsorships.
Branches also raise funds for preferred local charities, and members knit ‘trauma teddies’ to give to children admitted to hospital following a serious accident.
Mrs Harber says democracy and co-operation pervade the guild’s structure, starting at the grass roots.
“It’s open to all women and there’s no pressure to stand for any position,” she says. “Originally, guildswomen had to join a branch, but it’s now also possible to join as an individual member, without attending a branch meeting. Individual members receive the quarterly guild newsletter and the annual report and can submit motions to and attend annual congress.”