Guild’s campaigning past reminds us why this movement will be missed

With a biography set for publication, we look back at Hilda Smith, a leading light of the Guild. The dissolution of the Co-operative Women’s Guild was met with...

With a biography set for publication, we look back at Hilda Smith, a leading light of the Guild.

The dissolution of the Co-operative Women’s Guild was met with great sadness across much of the movement.

As a progressive working class women’s organisation, it fought for rights in areas such as maternity benefits, infant welfare and putting an end to female genital mutilation.

It was a powerful force for good – but this emerged from the coming together of individual women who had true drive and determination to make female lives better through the peace movement, collaboration and the application of co-operative values and principles.

Under Margaret Llewelyn Davies (1861-1944), Guild secretary for 32 years from 1889, it became a highly effective campaigning organisation. She believed that, as co-ops were largely built around the idea of self- help, women should be encouraged to recognise their power to change things that blighted their own lives.

This included the issue of female suffrage. As activists, she and the Guild campaigned peacefully for women to receive the vote, and from 1904 the Guild joined in the non-militant campaign (the suffragists).

The pioneering Guild is known for establishing the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – but one of its lesser-known achievements is its highly influential work with the National Joint Committee (NJC) of Working Women’s Organisations.

The NJC was set up in 1916 “to represent the women of the political, industrial and co-operative movements … with the aim of securing women’s representation on local, national and international bodies” – in particular, those bodies that dealt with matters of special interest to women.

To achieve this, its committee of 50 members met four times a year, initiating research and organising meetings, conferences, publicity and campaigns. It was situated in the Labour Party headquarters, and was required to maintain effective liaison with women members of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Hilda Smith compiled valuable notes on the Guild's activities
Hilda Smith compiled valuable notes on the Guild’s activities

Hilda Smith (1919-2013), a leading working class radical feminist and co-operator, sat on the NJC from 1966-1986 as a Guild member – but representing the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS) Political Purposes Committee.

A former nurse and social worker, she spent her life working in the co-operative movement, fighting for equality for women and in particular for their full representation at all levels of the Labour movement.

At the NJC, she played a crucial part in influencing the Equal Pay Act, passed in 1970 and taking effect in 1975. The introduction of Employment Protection (1975) and Sex Discrimination (1975) acts by the Wilson government completed statutory protection for women.

Her biography, provisionally titled Hilda Smith: From Burnley to Buckingham Palace, to be published by her son David Smith and Labour historian Christine Collette, gives an insight into the NJC from a co-operative perspective.

Hilda had planned to contribute to a history of the organisation; although this didn’t come to pass, her notes written in 1997 show the important role of the NJC in uniting different bodies – including co-operatives – for a common cause.

“As the only women’s organisation from 1883 onwards, the Co-operative Women’s Guild was already committed to taking action about matters affecting the lives of working women when the first meeting of the NJC took place in February 1916,” she wrote. “They took a leading part in its formation with its then general secretary Margaret Llewellyn Davies chairing the first NJC.”

At that time, the Guild had a membership of more than 57,000 working class women, organised in around 500 branches, making it one of the largest women’s organisations in the country.

“From 1883 [members of the Guild had] gradually built up their own organisation and in doing so overcame prejudice, which confronts all pioneers. They overcame their own inexperience by working democratically together to influence public policy. They carried this through into the work of the NJC.”

Hilda remembers how minutes from past meetings showed how a great deal of pioneering work had been undertaken, with research papers presented at the Co-operative Women’s Guild’s Congress “detailing how, without realising it, the
Guild was entering into articulate discussion on some of the major issues of the day”.

“1925 was a particularly good year,” she wrote. “[The Guild] gave evidence through the NJC to the Royal Commission on National Health Insurance.

“They called for an extension of the franchise to women on the same terms as men [and] demanded the abolition of all taxes on food and the substitution of tax on land values or a capital levy.

“Care and treatment of mentally affected women were of concern, as was legitimacy.

“On divorce law reform they refused to be gagged by the national trades body – the Co-operative Union (now Co-operatives UK) with threats of grant withdrawal.

“By collecting coppers weekly, [the Guild] managed to survive with independence intact. This enabled them to use the original [Guild] research from working women (through their extensive local branch structure), which set out clearly why (divorce) law reform was required. This evidence is now used as a text book in women’s studies covering this period.”

The chair of the NJC rotated between Labour Party, co-operative and trade union representatives, with former chief women’s officers including Betty Lockwood (the first chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission) and Joyce Gould (a future chair of the Women’s National Commission), with former members including Brenda Dean (general secretary of a print trade union), Gwyneth Dunwoody MP, Glenys Thornton (Labour and Co-operative member of the House of Lords) and Barbara Castle MP.

“The NJC was important in uniting political, trade union and consumer wings of the Labour movement,” said David Smith. “For Hilda this was a channel for transporting feminist and co-operative ideas into the Labour Party and government about women’s participation in politics and employment and their domestic life.

A banner celebrating 100 years of the Co-operative Women's Guild
A banner celebrating 100 years of the Co-operative Women’s Guild

“These were practical women with a purpose. If there was a problem, they would find a solution, as they had dialogue with their members – political crowdsourcing.”

Hilda Smith passed away in March 2013, but shortly before she died she was still making notes on activism.

“If we could do all this against great difficulty, why not now?” she wrote in response to a Fabian Society article on the influence of women. “We require effective organisation within our structures to develop
and grow.”

But the vote by the Co-operative Women’s Guild in October to dissolve the organisation means this is one structure that has effectively ceased. And it follows the loss of the NJC itself in the mid-1990s, when Clare Short MP, as chair of the Labour NEC Women’s Committee, abandoned the “old-fashioned” NJC in favour of networking.

But, said Mr Smith, in doing that Ms Short “jettisoned an organisation that had credibility and engagement with other women’s organisations, and was able to promote and research agendas and policies from women across the Labour, co-operative and trade union movements, and articulate them to a much wider influential audience.”

He added: “Crucially, for Hilda, the NJC had a powerful role, directly collecting evidence from affiliated organisations, with most of its work undertaken by small working groups, as distinct from Clare Short’s woolly concept of informal networking.

“For decades the NJC had been fully recognised as a national women’s organisation in its own right. This enabled effective action and gave the NJC an excellent platform irrespective of government. For example, it gave Hilda the opportunity to move and speak to a social care motion which she had drafted for the annual conference of the National Council of Women.”

So what next for women’s organisations, and the structures that enable connection between women from so many different backgrounds?

The Government has supported the emergence of several independent women’s networks, including the Environment Agency Women’s Network (2010), Jewish- Muslim Women’s Network (2015) and multiple women’s business networks, among countless others, but how can these networks then talk to each other?

How can they effectively bring research, policies and ideas that affect women from all sectors of society to the political table?

And how can co-operative women get involved?

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