What next for co-operative women?

The Co-operative Women’s Guild was founded in 1883 by Alice Acland, who edited the “Women’s Corner” of the Co-operative News, and Mary Lawrenson, a teacher, with the aim...

The Co-operative Women’s Guild was founded in 1883 by Alice Acland, who edited the “Women’s Corner” of the Co-operative News, and Mary Lawrenson, a teacher, with the aim “to educate women in the principles and practices of co-operation and to work for the improvement of the status of women”.

But now, faced with dwindling numbers, the Guild’s national executive committee has called a special general meeting where members will vote on proposals to dissolve the organisation. “It’s better for us to go out with a bang than fade away. I would hate for us to fade away.” said Lyn Longbottom, who was president of the Guild 2011-12 and is current chair of the Hull branch

The announcement has been met with sadness from many parts of the co-operative movement, and has sparked debate about whether the Guild could be saved, if it should be saved, and what kind of future network – if any – co-operative women would like to see.

“I know how hard the current Co-operative Women’s Guild members have tried to secure its future and they will not have taken the decision [to vote on its future] lightly, but I really hope that something can be done over the next few weeks to find a way forward,” says Karin Christiansen, general secretary of the Co-operative Party.

Tricia Davies, who was appointed to the Co-operative Group Senate in July, believes the Guild “should be be saved while there are ladies who wish to be part of it.”

She says: “In my mind, networks of any kind are to be valued and as a committed co-operator I can see particular importance in a co-operative one. In the 21st century it may need to evolve into something slightly different from the traditional group to be really successful, using more social media maybe. To me the Guild should be a campaigning and lobbying group as well as giving women an opportunity to learn from and support each other.”

The Guild’s lack of digital engagement of any kind, and a lack of modern campaigning is a concern for many women co-operators.

In a short survey run on the Co-operative News website, which asked how the Guild could make use of new technology, suggestions included social media, newsletters, and video conferencing to allow maximum participation. “They don’t even have a twitter feed or a functioning facebook page!” said one respondent. “These are a must in any organisation these days.”

Karin Christiansen, agrees that technology is key. “By making a greater use of modern communications techniques including the incredible power of social media and digital approaches I genuinely believe the Women’s Guild could bring a new generation of women to the co-operative movement and provide a much-needed voice and support network for those who are already among us,” she says.

“There is also real potential to build of the proud campaigning record of the Guild – being a strong voice championing the social issues affecting women today. With the scale of everyday sexism being experienced by women of all ages still depressingly high, and women in the workplace still experiencing unequal pay and opportunities, there are no shortage of issues on which co-operative women activists could make their mark.”

Ursula Lidbetter, chief executive of Lincolnshire Co-operative, and former chair of the Co-operative Group, thinks that while many breakthroughs have been achieved, “there is still much more to do, not just here in the UK but around the world”.

“The Co-operative Women’s Guild has a proud history of fighting for women’s rights at a time when there was a vast gulf between the treatment of men and women,” she says. “The question therefore is, how should the cause of women be promoted in the 21st century.  Modern media must be part of the answer. Networks are important but online is likely to grow and assume more importance than face to face meetings”

Elaine Dean, chair of Co-operative Press, believes that while “there is a need for left thinking women to communicate with others who hold similar views”, the Guild is not the vehicle for this.

She says: “I think it is time to wind up the CWG with some dignity left and celebrate the fact that it achieved almost all of what it set out to do: votes for women, white poppies, better maternity pay and leave, paternity provision, better nursery and child care, regular smear tests, ante natal care, equal pay etc – all the issues that 100 years ago prevented women from participating fully in society and in many professions.

“The CWG has done itself out of a role but has failed to find another. Unfortunately it didn’t move with the times or become an attractive option for modern campaigning women with little time on their hands. Younger women did not join and it now finds itself with most members in the ‘older’ age bands instead of a good spread like the Women’s Institute still manages to achieve.”

Ursula Lidbetter agrees. “Listen to the young women of today,” she says. “Their issues are different.”

Ms Dean believes movement-wide co-operative women’s network has to be based around the internet and social media, with “very few fixed meetings but occasional get togethers”.

“I am interested in building a network that can leap into action to support, aid and campaign to help women in the world who are in deep trouble and need urgent action,” she says.

“I also want to see a network where women can recommend books, write reviews on films or plays among like-thinking women. I’m thinking Mumsnet without the nappies.”

Ms Christiansen thinks exactly what the network chooses to address should be a matter for its members, but would like to see a focus on supporting and promoting women to take up senior positions within the movement: “Women are 70% of the co-operative movement at the grassroots level but this isn’t currently reflected at the most senior levels, though many of the large retail societies do have a better representation of women on their boards than comparable plcs.”

She recently worked with other senior women from across the movement to organise a networking day, which was held at Midcounties Co-operative’s headquarters in Warwick. “It was the first time that many of those present – all working to promote the same co-operative vision – had met,” says Ms Christiansen.

“What resulted was an inspiring day and the establishment of new relationships which will allow these great women to support each other and in time a wider group of female co-operators. We need more of this kind of activity, not less.”

Elaine Dean adds: “There are many areas of work, situations, committees etc where women feel at a disadvantage, are ridiculed, ignored or generally disregarded. The co-operative movement is committed to getting more women on boards and in management and so is ideally placed to run training for women on how to deal with situations where they feel overwhelmed with testosterone.

“There is much to do and the co-operative movement with its enviable International Co-operative Alliance is seriously well placed to take the lead.”

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