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”

1 comment:

Alex Dunedin said...

I am very interested in getting histories of free education written up on in the project I run which is called the Ragged University (www.ragged-online.com). Would you be interested to write an article for the website at all ? Naturally it would have a large link to your blog/facebook/twitter. Kind regards