The Co-operative Women’s Guild, the Working Class and Pacifism

The Co-operative Society was one of the few organisations to offer women positions of standing in public life throughout the late 18th and 19th Centuries.For some members this involved participation in “running the shops and the larger related organizations” (Black 1894). For most guild women participation was centred upon the co-operative store dividend system, which over time amounted to lower prices for co-operative products. In the short term this meant laying out more cash, therefore the guilds appealed to the more prosperous of working class women (ibid). Buying into this model also meant entering into a strong support network of women co-operators across the UK and Europe. Writing at the 1952 jubilee celebrations of the Scottish Co-operative Women’s Guild Isa McNair, the then national president comments that the guilds:

… enable the women of the co-operative movement to meet together and converse and in so doing help break the monotonous existence of even the most comfortable home. [...] Many, many women lonely and despairing have been restored to new life by the help of our guild sisters (McNair 1952: viii)

This support network along with the wider Co-operative Society’s reliance on women – because they controlled the household purse – to purchase co-operative products and promote among other women the advantages of consumer co-operation induced a significant level of confidence among members. Margaret Llewelyn Davies, general secretary of the Women’s Co-operative Guild (1889-1922) wrote: “As the guild grew [members] came to believe that women had public duties of every kind – that the store was a training ground for citizenship for women” (Davies 1904: 32). The increasing political confidence of WCG members was neither anticipated nor fully embraced by wider Co-operative Society members, many of who believing a woman’s voice was for ‘domestic consumption’ only (Blaszak 2000). Nevertheless, one of the strengths of the WCG as a women’s movement was to make explicit the connections between the home and the higher echelons of public life:

There is noticeably a deeper political consciousness [within the Guild], which has led to a deeper understanding of everyday economics as they affect the home. [...] How the household purse is curtailed or extended by legislative measures is now a matter of first-class concern to Guild members as wives and mothers (McNair 1952: vii).

Many of the most active members the WCG joined a range of left leaning political organisations including the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Co-operative Party and the Communist Party (Wright 2015). Of particular relevance to the Banner Tales of Glasgow project is the political activist and WCG member Mary Barbour (1875-1958) who was a key organizer in the 1915 Rent Strikes and later an ILP councilor. Barbour ‘cut her teeth’ in the Kinning park branch of the WCG, campaigned for social improvements including children’s play parks, municipal baths and family planning clinics (Fyfe 2015).

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Scottish Co-operative Women's Guild Banners on display in Barmulloch Community Centre 15/05/2015

When Llewelyn Davies (1904: 32) wrote: “the members of the Guild are a body of reformers, whose influence must be exercised in the solution of the labour question” she was making explicit what her and other Guild members viewed as a symbiotic relationship between the WCG and promoting wider working-class interests. The industrial images below, which are details of Scottish WCG banners, further support this claim. The image on the left is a detail from Hillington Branch WCG banner depicting the Hillington Industrial Estate opened in 1938. The image on the right details the Cowlairs Possilpark Branch No. 2 banner depicting a locomotive steam engine as befitting the area’s Railway Works.

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The factory, the factory gates, the main street, the local store, the school, the community hall and the home: the everydayness of such places is politically significant. These locations were not simply “boxes of unchanging spaces” (Goyens 2009: 451) in which the women of the community convened. Instead woman played a key role in transforming them into social places, livable places. The WCG recognized this important role and in doing so politicized it.

The Peace Movement of 20th Century Europe marks an interesting area of concern dovetailing working class interests with many WCG members, who saw pacifism as being of particular importance for woman as mothers. The WCG were committed and not uncontroversial pacifists. Black writes:

As mothers and potential mothers woman could direct themselves to issues related to child-rearing and socialization, to the demilitarization of the influences on children […] The Guild was particularly active and imaginative in this respect, demanding that war toys be kept out of co-operative stores, opposing war films [and] objecting to Officers Training Corps in schools (Black 1984: 472).

Other WCG activities in this regard involved attempts to substitute Armistice Day with Peace Day celebrations and the wide sale of a white Peace Poppy as a symbol of the renunciation of war. Arguably the WCG’s most controversial action as a pacifist organization happened in 1939 when they refused to volunteer in the evacuation of children from urban centres – “interpreted by them as assistance to the war effort” (Black 1984: 473).

References

Black N 1984 The Mothers International: The Women's Co-operative Guild and Feminist Internationalism, Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 7, No. 6, pp467-476

Blaszak B.J. 2000 The Gendered Geography of the English Co-operative Movement at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Women's History Review, Vol 9, No. 9, pp559-583

Davies M.L 1915 Maternity: Letters from Working Women, G. Bell London

Fyfe, Maria 2015 - Talk given at Banner Tales of Glasgow event Govan 30/05/2015

McNair I. 1952, Introduction in Callen K.M. The History of the Scottish Co-operative Women’s Guild: Diamond Jubilee 1892-1952, pp1-9.

Wright, Valerie 2015 Talk given at Banner Tales of Glasgow event Barmulloch 15/05/2015

By John Crossan

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