Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Co-operative Women’s Guild: an alternative education

In March I am going to be doing a talk at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum about the co-operative women's magazine Woman's Outlook (published by the Manchester-based Co-operative Press between 1919 and 1967). The magazine intrigues me because it blended news about the campaigning and educational activities of the Co-operative Women's Guild with tips for cooking, nutrition, child rearing and homemaking. I am trying to find former readers, or at least women who were members of the Guild at the time, to speak to. Lynette at the Working Class Movement Library got me the name and phone number of one woman, Pat Williams, who was willing to talk about her memories of being part of a Branch in Sale, Cheshire in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when she was in her late twenties and early thirties. She was also a member of a standing conference for women. Pat's mother was a co-operator and in the Guild before her, and Pat herself became a member of the Co-operative at the age of twenty when she got married and her new mother-in-law took her to sign up. Pat looked after her four children, and later ran a nursing home “on the basis of socialism and co-operation”. Now in her seventies, Pat is still politically engaged. She is a long-term member of the Labour party – she received a certificate from then-leader Gordon Brown when she reached fifty years of membership – and was still attending the Labour Party Conference until last year. She continues to be part of a Co-operative members' group in Manchester.

Whilst Pat didn't read Woman's Outlook – in fact, she hadn't heard of it (although she has been reading the Co-operative News, also published by the Co-operative Press, for years) – I chatted to her on the phone for over an hour and it was a brilliant way of getting a sense of what it was like to be part of the Women's Guild, and what it meant to members, even in the 1950s and '60s when the Guild was an ageing organisation and membership was declining. Pat recalls that the Guild was “mostly elderly people” when she joined, and that “some of the elderly women were so active”, but that a new group came in of about six women in their twenties and thirties. Pat attributes the Sale branch's success to an “exceptional leader”, and remembers that branch meetings attracted around 30 members. There was also a branch in nearby Altrincham. Membership was made up of “all sorts” and “all ages” of women, from teachers and proofreaders to MPs' wives, although Pat recalls that many of the women were poor and bought secondhand clothes. 

Co-operative identity 

What really struck me was how strongly Pat identified as a co-operator. She explained that “the Co-op was always part of what you were”, adding that “the divi meant a lot” to members and that the visiting Co-operative insurance man “became quite a friend” . This meant, she said, “we were very loyal to the co-operative movement” – members wouldn't have dreamed of going to a non-co-operative competitor. She also said: “It meant something to be in the Women's Guild. We were very proud of it.”

An alternative education 

Pat emphasised just how important the Guild was as an alternative education for its members, saying: “It was our learning group and our university. This was the great thing about the co-operative movement. It widened women's access to society.” Many of the older members would have left school at 12 and 13, although Pat describes these women as “far-reaching” despite their lack of formal education: “They had very little education but knew what was right and what was wrong.” The Guild, says Pat, was “an opener for so many women”, and a “forerunner in everything”. She said the Guild was a way of “learning what was going on in the world”. Pat remembers that her branch talked about subjects that were taboo at the time such as domestic violence and homosexuality: “It got rid of all those taboos.” Branch educational activities included talks on jobs and other issues and guest speakers were invited to speak at meetings, from university lecturers to a Lord. Pat highlighted that they were also there “to listen to us too”. As Pat said: “Not only was it social, the meetings were interesting. We were active politically as well as socially.”

Campaigning and issues 

Members of the Guild felt empowered by their activities. As Pat says, “we felt we had a say” and “we were recognised as not being frivolous”. This was important because at the time, says Pat, “the co-operative movement was very much a man's thing”. She explained “You can get votes for women but it doesn't mean you are going to be taken seriously or that businesses are going to put you on their boards.” The Guild enabled members to tell directors of co-operatives how they felt about the way co-operatives were being run at that time, and the Guild encouraged its members to become members of boards of co-operatives. She explains: “We were interested in the running of the shops and the way the co-operative movement was going. We went to all the meetings of Co-op food stores and we all asked questions. Our questions had them quaking!”

Another important aspect of the Guild's work was to tell MPs how members felt about certain issues. Pat remembers that “it was a very interesting time”, saying: “There was always something going on. I can't remember everything we did but we were always very busy!” Campaigns undertaken by Pat's branch encompassed working hours, equal pay for women, the colour bar, anti-Apartheid, and banning additives in children's food. The branch also boycotted South African food. Pat remembers that one protest, calling for equal pay for women, involved going on an open lorry from a co-operative shop in Sale to one in Manchester, and that the women were shouted at by men in the street to get back to changing nappies! It seems that the members' opinions were sometimes taken into account by those in authority, though; Pat remembers that the Branch was consulted by the town clerk on the building of a new council estate, and asked what facilities were needed.

Each Guild branch was connected to the wider co-operative women's movement, and Guildswomen had a chance to meet up every year at Congress. Pat remembers voting on what was coming up at Congress, and attending one congress in Blackpool. She remembers it fondly as a social as well as a political event: “We all believed in the same thing. It was almost as good as going to the Labour Party conference!”

A social organisation 

The Guild also ran social activities such as autumn, Christmas and Easter dinners and theatre trips. Pat gave the impression of a supportive and close-knit group of women; she still sees members she was friends with in the 1950s. Pat also remembers that many of the branch members were very good at baking – in those days, “you didn't go and buy a scone or a cake, you made one”. Guild members had their own speciality, such as pastry, and “people passed on things”. She says: “There is nothing wrong with learning to be a good cook and a good manager – it's all a part of a woman's life.”

The end of the Sale branch 

The Sale branch, which met in an old co-operative hall, had to find a new home due to redevelopment of the area. There were attempts at starting a branch on a council estate, but Pat said these failed when women stopped going out at night because of concerns over safety. She also admits that, for many women, who were increasingly going out to work, the Guild had outlived its purpose anyway. She said: “It was great, and it did what it needed to do at the time. Things have changed for women and co-operative women have had a lot to do with the change. Today, more women are educated. Women don't have time for things like the Women's Guild now.” However, Pat would like to see more women's groups today: “Women on their own are better. They've got their ideas”

Monday, 8 October 2012

Between Two Rivers review

Where the wide Ohio river meets the vast expanse of the Mississippi stands the city of Cairo (pronounced Karr-o), Illinois. You would expect a settlement near two rivers to thrive and for a time it did, as a steamboat port, its prosperity reflected in its fine colonial-era architecture. Cairo could have become one of America's biggest cities, yet today it is derelict and all but abandoned by its population.
Between Two Rivers, a new documentary by Manchester-based filmmakers Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright, sets out to tell the story of how Cairo has become a city whose only viable option for the future may be as a museum for a forgotten industrial past. In 2011, during the course of filming, Cairo made the headlines as the US army blasted holes in a Missouri levee, controversially drowning fertile farmland in a bid to save the city from destructive floodwaters. The film ponders on what in the city is worth saving, reminding the viewer that Cairo may have been spared this time but that its future is still far from certain.
It is no surprise to learn that both Jordan and Cartwright are painters; Between Two Rivers is a painterly, poetic film, evident from the misty opening shots of silhouetted trees, submerged in a desolate river, to languid images of ruin and urban decay. But the film is far more a visual metaphor for the death of the American dream (as in the aestheticisation of the ruins of Detroit); it uses both interviews and archive film, such as footage of 1960s racial tensions in the city, to question the social, economic and moral order that has prevailed in Cairo and expose the inequalities of the American experience. The film also challenges the reliability of memory, and the tendency to hark back to a golden age which may never have existed – or at least not for certain sections of society.
Cairo is like an island, a gateway between the American north and south that sits comfortably in neither. The city has historically attracted migrants from the margins of society, acting as a holding place for those who are too poor to move on elsewhere. There's a sense that Cairo's precarious situation cannot be attributed just to acts of nature, but that human attitudes and actions have contributed to its decline.
The filmmakers spent four years making Between Two Rivers, and getting to know a range of interviewees, from a former senator and congressman to members of a local soul band and a purveyor of fresh fish (who suggests she provides a lifeline to those subsisting on welfare). The most striking aspect of the film is the pride expressed by those who call Cairo home, and the hope they cling on to for the city's future, despite all odds. There are some people, at least, who are not going to give up on Cairo too soon, and Between Two Rivers goes some way to explaining why.
Between Two Rivers is currently screening at film festivals. To keep an eye on upcoming screenings visit www.betweentworivers.net.