"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.

The New Statesman, as part of its centenary celebrations is holding a debate at Conway Hall on 4 April 2013.  It will discuss developments in feminist discourse since gaining the vote and equal pay.

A window at Holloway Prison, shattered by suffragettes. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder