"A microcosm of women’s democracy": the co-operative movement and women's rights
Dispatches from 1913.
From the year of the New Statesman’s establishment in 1913, women’s rights were a subject on which it hosted important debates. Assault, rape, low-paying jobs, unfair divorce laws, discriminatory education and degrading notions of femininity were all criticised in its pages.
In an issue of the New Statesman released on June 21 1913, there is mention of the introduction of a 17-shilling minimum wage for working women resolved at an annual congress meeting organised by the Women’s Co-operative Guild.
A minimum wage, to use the words of theorist Frederick Herzberg, is now something we regard as a basic ‘hygiene factor’ granted to both men and women in the world of work. Yet at the time, it was a site of great struggle between the Guild and male-dominated co-operative societies. The congress is described by the writer as “a microcosm of women’s democracy, and a mirror of the politics of the millions of disenfranchised working women”.
A supplement published in 1914 by Beatrice Webb talks in more detail about the tensions faced by women between their domestic duties and professional presence and how the Women’s Co-operative Guild was a “live organ, whether politically, economically and educationally, of the co-operative world”. Her witty opinion on the stereotypical notions of ‘woman’s place’ is particularly noteworthy:
“The slow grinding of an all-pervading capitalism… has called the woman out of the domestic circle and has attracted or compelled her to enter the profit-making machine. Those who still believe that ‘woman’s place is the home,’ and that every woman ought to be maintained and directed by her father or her husband have a terrible indictment against the capitalist system!”
A Brief History of the Women’s Co-operative Guild
The Women’s Co-operative Guild was born from the co-operative movement dating back to 1844. This created societies, who then opened stores and workshops based on the principle of people working together in a system of production, distribution, sales and purchasing of goods. These societies largely excluded women from their functions until 1883, when Alice Acland negotiated for a section of the co-operative newsletter exclusively tailored for women, known as ‘Woman’s Corner.’
This space was used to print recipes, inform women of economical cooking classes and papers on health. In April of that year, Acland formed The Woman’s League for the Spread of Co-operation and had accumulated more than 50 members. By 1885, the league was re-named The Women’s Co-operative Guild and began publishing articles on women’s university education in Woman’s Corner alongside the aforementioned recipes.
The year 1889 saw the transformation of the Guild into an instrument of combined socialism and feminism. Woman’s Corner was now addressing issues pertaining to the legal position of women and their progress through education. The Guild now had 1,700 members across 51 branches which held regular meetings. The Guild was heavily involved in promoting the principles of the co-operative movement in publications and in campaigning for the amelioration of the social and legal positions of women, especially of the working classes.
Coverage by the New Statesman- June 21, 1913
In 1913, the Guild was composed of 28,858 women in 558 branches across the country, “most of whom have passed from the underpaid drudgery of mill and factory to the wageless drudgery of the home”. In regular meetings, these women engaged in discussions concerning the economic, political, and social issues pertaining to “the class to which they belong”. The NS article of June 21, 1913 highlights the implementation of fair wages within companies of the co-operative movement before lobbying for the widespread adoption of the wage scale later on.
“As co-operators, the members of the Guild are themselves very large employers of labour, for there are over 120,000 working in retail and wholesale co-operative societies. It has been the settled policy of the Guild not to ask of others what you will not give yourself; and so they have been agitating for some years for the adoption of a minimum scale of wages for all their own employees throughout the Co-operative movement.”
The article states the Guild campaigned in 1911 (when the motion was defeated) and 1912 for the introduction of a minimum wage at the Annual Quarterly Meeting of the English Wholesale Society. Women and girls comprised 50% of their 2.75 million co-operators.
“Women… have great power within the movement, and, largely owing to the further efforts of the Guild, a resolution was carried, against the recommendation of the directors at the Quarterly Meeting last December by which the scale will come into force at the beginning of 1914.”
The 1912 campaign resulted in the introduction of the new wage at the start of 1914. In further campaigns with retail societies, a projected figure of 10,000 working women stood to receive this wage for their labour at the end of the year 1913.
“Having shown that they are themselves willing and able to pay this wage to all classes of female labour, women co-operators feel that they are now justified in using the power and influence of their movement to secure through Trade Boards what would eventually be a National Minimum of 17s a week.”
The writer remarked at the power of fervent belief in the solidarity of women’s labour forces as a part of the Guild in making this headway. A large majority of people who attended the quarterly meeting favoured the resolution that employers in co-operative societies should enforce, as a condition of employment, the participation of female and male labour in trade unions.
“The women co-operators showed themselves far more ‘advanced’ on this subject than the men who met in the recent congress at Aberdeen. Efforts have recently been made to effect some sort of working agreement between the Co-operative Movement, Trade Unionists, and the Labour Party…the Aberdeen Congress shied at the Labour Party…but the women refused to be scared, and bravely voted for the ‘complete harmony of labour forces.’”
The tenacity of these women in establishing the foundations for the, still ongoing, fight for equal rights for women in industry is best highlighted in Beatrice Webb’s concluding paragraph of the 1914 Women’s Supplement.
“In every part of that great voluntary industrial democracy which is being slowly but surely evolved by the manual workers as…a complement, to the political democracy established by the upper and middle class, we find knots of active women proving, by business capacity and self-subordinating zeal…the right of human beings of their sex to take their full share in the government of the country. It is in these facts that we find the justification of the demand of the Labour and Socialist Parties of all countries and all races for the complete political and economic enfranchisement of the working woman.”
Webb stated “In the England of to-day four and a half million- i.e. one third of the whole female population over 15 years of age- are earning their own livelihoods independently of father or husband. They enjoy the same degree of freedom to live and work where they please… the value of their work depends, exactly as it does in the case of men, on their physical and mental strength and on their technical training.”
This statement was true, in line with the first successful equal pay resolution secured in 1888 by Clementina Black at the Trades Union Congress. Interestingly enough, it was only in 1985 that The Equal Pay (Amendment) Act allowed women to be paid the same as men for work of equal value.
The Entanglement of Equal Pay and Divorce
In addition to campaigning for a minimum wage scale for women, the Women’s Co-operative Guild was instrumental in improving a woman’s position in society, especially with respect to unhappy marriages and divorce settlements. Prior to 1913, divorce laws heavily favoured the male spouse.
The Divorce Act of 1857 enabled women to divorce their spouse on grounds of abuse and adultery. However, these women faced social exclusion and experienced difficulty supporting themselves financially, as they were restricted from working after marriage. If they did work, they were paid a fraction of a man’s wage, making this transition extremely difficult and highlighting the importance of equal pay among the sexes. 1870 saw the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act, where women were allowed to own their own property as opposed to prior divorce sanctions.
“The present divorce laws are second only to low wages and lack of industrial organisation in the importance of their effect upon the position of the working-class woman. When Miss Llewelyn Davies, Secretary of the Guild, gave evidence before the Commission that there was a demand among these women for the power to release themselves from the barbarous bonds of unhappy marriages, the writers of the Minority Report dismissed her evidence as biased. Now the delegates of these 28,000 working women have voted by an overwhelming majority for the recommendation of the Majority Report of the Commission, and have carried… a resolution that ‘mutual consent after two years’ separation should be included as a ground for divorce. ”
It was only in 1923 that The Matrimonial Causes Act made grounds for divorce the same for women and men; the influential action of women’s organisations paved the way for women to gain parity with men and advance further in the process of gaining more civil rights for women.
The efforts of these remarkable women in campaigning for the freedom we enjoy thus far, as reported in these two articles, serve to open our eyes to the importance and relevance of the struggle for women’s rights today.