Editorial: Can the Women’s Guild be saved?

Awareness for gender equality has grown exponentially in recent years. But what has the co-operative movement been doing? This is a movement that is there for the people....

Awareness for gender equality has grown exponentially in recent years. But what has the co-operative movement been doing? This is a movement that is there for the people. A movement that has principles based on the values of equality.

With high-profile campaigns on equal pay, violence against women and everyday sexism; where have co-operatives been?

It’s certainly not fair to rubbish much good work done by co-operatives – whether it be co-ops set up in the fight for equality or the many co-ops that actively think about equality.

Nor is it right to diminish the work started in 2011 with the launch of the Co-operative Women’s Challenge. Its mission was to ensure women were fairly represented at all levels within co-operative businesses by 2020. Set up by Co-operatives UK, and supported by the Co-operative Group, the last time any event took place was in 2012 during the International Year of Co-operatives.

So, there is no clear national strategy for the sector at the moment. We are not on the same page. We are simply doing what other companies do. When, in reality, co-operatives should be different. Radically different.

For example, it took many months for Co-operative Food to demand publishers of ‘lads’ mags’ add modesty covers to their publications; eventually they stopped selling many of them altogether when they refused. It was a great ethical decision, but wouldn’t it have been better if we had agreed instantly with the Lose the Lads Mags campaign?

The fight against all these things should be coming from the one women’s group that was set up to “ensure equal opportunities for all”. That group should have been the Co-operative Women’s Guild. It could still be.

Next month, members of the Guild are voting on whether they should disband. It’s a sorry tale of a dwindling membership and finances. But money isn’t everything. And this isn’t a blame game. The movement can save the Guild, if it so wishes, but does it want to? And does the Guild want to be saved?

The organisation is not up to the standard of today’s modern campaigning groups for women. Its remit is slightly wider than just equality – the Guild, according to its mission statement, is a place for women to take part in recreational activities, to discuss topics of the day and to even work towards the establishment of world peace.

Is that purpose just too wide to attract younger members? Look at the inspiring work of UK Feminsta, Women’s Aid and UN Women for a modern take on equality.

There is a brief window of opportunity for people from across the movement to think about the future. Can the Guild be saved and is this a cry for help to presumably reform the organisation? That decision is largely in the hands of Guild members. Or is it time to let the 132-year-old organisation cease to exist – and to form something new?

Join the discussion online and take part in our survey on the future of the Guild at s.coop/guild

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