Category: Women’s Liberation

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

Community Activism in Castlemilk - Part 1 Castlemilk Press

Highflats

Source: Dougrie Flats ©Jim Richardson – Castlemilk History facebook page

When people think about Castlemilk I’m sure there are a few stereotypical views that come to mind. I’m not going to repeat them. I’d not spent a lot of time in Castlemilk before I started work on ‘Housing, Everyday Life and Wellbeing over the long term: Glasgow 1950-1975’, a project based at the University of Glasgow exploring post-war housing and specifically the city’s high rise construction drive of the late 1960s. Now, having met a lot of lovely people (John and Carole Cooper, Jean Devlin and Susan Casey among them) and learnt a lot about what it was like to live in Castlemilk in the early years of the scheme; the 1960s and 1970s, and what it’s like in the present day, I think I know the place a lot better. It’s only through getting out and talking to people that we can challenge our own and other people’s assumptions about a place.

I’m particularly interested in the everyday experiences of the high flats in Castlemilk: Bogany, Dougrie and especially Mitchellhill, as Pearl Jephcott, a sociologist working at the University of Glasgow in the late 1960s, had made Mitchellhill one of her case studies in her study of high rise living in Glasgow published in 1971 entitled Homes in High Flats. However I’ve heard plenty of interesting stories about life in Castlemilk, both low and high rise - views and experiences which question and in some cases confirm, but always complicate, many of the stereotypical views represented in the local media.

One way in which the community in Castlemilk could challenge such stereotypes was through the production of their own media, their own newspapers, their own history and their own culture. This was a strategy employed in many communities under attack in the media in the 1970s onwards, and there are numerous examples of local newspapers, Worker’s Education Association sponsored local history groups and creative writing groups where people could make their voices heard and try and change the representation of their communities.

Here I’m going to focus on examples from Castlemilk, all of which have helped me to understand the nature of community activism in this, one of Glasgow’s ‘notorious’ peripheral schemes. In Part 1 I’ll focus on Castlemilk Press and will follow up in Part 2 with Castlemilk Writers’ Workshop and Castlemilk’s local history groups.

CastlemilkPress

Source: Castlemilk Press, February 1972, front page - ‘Castlemilk in the News’ – geocities

In the first issue of the Castlemilk Press published in February 1972, the Rev Leslie Newton outlined his reasons for establishing the paper (which he emphasised was not party political and not profit making):

Castlemilk needs to develop a self-conscious identity. Let us be proud to belong to this place which has been so unjustly labelled by many persons who are not involved in its on going life. We are enthusiastic for Castlemilk. We believe in you.

There are many interesting articles in the Castlemilk Press exploring why the population of the scheme was declining, why people were moving, the housing conditions, the inability of people to pay their heating bills, how to prevent vandalism etc. There were reports of events in the community, fairs, competitions, school photographs and football results and adverts for local shops. Space was devoted to local politics with election addresses from Teddy Taylor and his opponents over the years. Local history also featured.

Scheme

Source: Ardencraig Road at Tormusk Road ©Jim Richardson – Castlemilk History Facebook Page

But what really interested me was the ‘Women’s Page’ in which the author, Irene, departed from her usual tips for thrifty shopping, home-made cleaning products and recipes for tasty cheap dinners and instead, in March 1973, addressed the gendered dynamics of life in Castlemilk directly by discussing ‘Women’s Lib’ (to be fair she addressed all sorts of ‘social problems’ in Castlemilk):

Why does ‘Women’s Lib’ seem to have no impact on the women of Castlemilk. Perhaps it has nothing to offer us or perhaps it is that we don’t realise that it can offer us something beyond its permissive sexual liberty which is signified by the ‘burning of bras’.

In a community like ours it is accepted that the woman’s place is in the home rearing her children. The only concessions made here to Women’s Lib are that the women can now choose how many children she wants; and that is acceptable, and often necessary for her to work, even if the children are quite young. Apart from these, a night out at the bingo and an occasional bus run are the few liberties our menfolk allow us.

It is a fact that the working man still sees the home as the exclusive domain of the wife. Admittedly more men are beginning to realise that it is their responsibility to look after the welfare of their kids instead of passing the buck to the wives all the time. Too often though, the man only begins to acknowledge that children have needs when they turn into young adults and often by then it is too late.

The working man’s attitude to his home is most obviously seen as regards the actual jobs in the home. If you are lucky your husband may lend a hand now and again. This is fair enough if the wife is at home all day and the man is working all week.

Where I find room to complain is when the man leaves everything in the home to the wife regardless of whether she is ill or working during the day.

Of course in a society like our where men are men (and prove it by such feats as wife-bashing and beer-swigging), we women are going to have a very difficult job if we want to persuade them that if the wife is working and contributing financially to the home, the least the man can do is help about the house.

However, we can’t blame the men entirely for their views on women. After all it is women who teach men a great deal of what they learn. From childhood we are taught girls play with dolls and help mother in the home and boys play with tools, cars and don’t help mother. Personally I can’t see what is wrong with getting boys to help out in the home – they can earn their pocket money this way.

Maybe we won’t change our menfolks views on what we as women should or shouldn’t do, but it is our power to see that our children won’t see women as being mere slaves in the home.

‘Women’s Lib’ or ‘second wave feminism’ and it’s seven demands are most often associated with middle-class women, here Irene is challenging the domestic division of labour prevalent in the West of Scotland on her own terms and in her own words.

Unfortunately it would seem that there was not much appetite for Women’s Lib in Castlemilk, in June 1973 Irene wrote:

This is going to be the last article on the theme of Women’s Lib, unless, of course, we are showered with letters demanding to know more about it. […] Why don’t we for once take a tip from Women’s Lib and be ourselves instead of conforming to what our men would like us to be: don’t dye your hair for him or slim for him – do these things if you want to but not if you’re pressurised into it.

These aspects of Women’s Lib that I have chosen relate to you as an individual to how you see yourself. The other side of the coin is the women in action aspect of Women’s Lib. It could work here in Castlemilk but it would involve a great deal of effort on your part. Why don’t we get together a consumer group to keep a tab on prices: a group to fight for our local needs.

Why don’t we indeed? ….. perhaps because there aren’t enough of us interested in anything beyond the bounds of our front doors.

Irene’s concerns are not that different from many women today. We still need ‘Women’s Lib’ or feminism, but we also need a lot more women like Irene who are willing to go beyond the bounds of their front doors!

Resources:

Editions of Castlemilk Press can be viewed in the Glasgow Collection in the Mitchell Library (Level 5 – just ask at the desk).

If you are interested in learning more about the history of feminism in the 1970s in Scotland see Sarah Browne’s book The Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland.

If you want to know more about the contributions women have made to Scotland’s history see Women’s History Scotland, the Centre for Gender History at the University of Glasgow or you could visit the Glasgow Women’s Library.

If you want to know more about Castlemilk’s history see part 2 of this blog and Castlemilk History facebook page.

Valerie Wright, University of Glasgow