After a proud history of activism and innovation since its inception in 1883, the Co-operative Women’s Guild in England and Wales is proposing to disband, with the Guild in Scotland in poor health.
This sad situation, the result both of the recent crisis within the Co-operative Group, and of a certain amount of long-term atrophy within the Guild itself, has the potential to rob our movement of a specific focus.
Alternatively, it provides an opportunity to reinvent co-operative gender mobilisation, allowing us to re-imagine the ways in which women’s co-operative contribution can be celebrated and extended.
In doing this, we need to remember the important role the Guild played historically around issues such as reproductive and maternity rights, universal suffrage, international fair trade and the anti-war movement.
These issues still have resonance today and, with a consumer co-operative movement that still has an overwhelming majority of women members in a world where democratic structures are dominated by men, we can see the distance yet to travel.
The Co-operative Women’s Challenge 2020, launched in 2011, set out a series of actions that still need to be addressed. Again, due to the many other recent travails faced by the movement, this has slipped down the agenda.
This means the significant imbalance in the Group’s democratic structure was retained and accentuated within its new Council.
Although continuing to be serviced by Co-operatives UK, the Women’s Challenge has been under-resourced, and has failed to translate into a grass roots co-operative movement.
There is, therefore, a continuing need for an autonomous women’s network to support co-operative activities in the UK. This is not about cannibalising the leftovers of the English and Wales Guild, or hastening the demise of the Scottish Guild. It is about finding new ways to encourage participation and networking between women in our movement, recognising our history while looking to the future.
Perhaps this could be achieved by moving beyond the traditional branch structure developed by the Guild in order to tap into new ways of networking, combining local meetings and groups with the wider possibilities opened up by social media. However this happens, it will need resources.
We therefore need to keep gender equality to the forefront through a resourced and supported network of co-operative women.
This requires both the effective allocation of the existing resources and commitment within the Guilds, and a recognition of the movement’s obligation to support the continuance of women-led networks.
Maybe the first action is to establish a dialogue between interested women from across the UK co-operative movement. Are we up to the challenge?