Women in the early co‑operative movement certainly didn’t sit around waiting for the vote. They engaged in political action, campaigning for the vote and maternity benefits, milk for school-children, divorce law reform, a minimum wage, and initiating the white poppies peace campaign.
Margaret Llewelyn Davies, who took on the role of General Secretary of the Co‑operative Women’s Guild (without pay) in 1889 led many of these campaigns, sometimes in the face of opposition from men in the co‑op movement.
The Co‑operative Women’s Guild knew, before the right to vote was won, that power didn’t just come from the ballot box. They had power as the primary consumers and could influence how and where money was spent. Margaret Davies urged women to organise to exert that influence. Women also had the vote in their co‑operative societies and could participate in the co‑operative democracy even while still excluded from the parliamentary franchise.
Jeannie Mole, a Women’s Guild activist in the 1890s articulated how, even then, they were laying the foundations for the Fairtrade movement, declaring that:
“No matches that bring disease and death to the makers will be used by us. No sugar that has brought consumption and heart disease to the refiners. We shall see that our plumbers use zinc white instead of white lead which causes frightful disease and death to men and women.”
The Co‑operative Party began in 1917, just before women won the vote, and the combined opportunities were noted by Margaret Davies when she wrote:
The Vote at Last! More Power to Co‑operation.
Margaret Bondfield MP co-founded the first women’s trade union and went on to be Labour’s first cabinet minister. In 1945, Caroline Ganley, the first female president of the London Co‑op Society was elected to Parliament alongside two other Labour and Co‑operative women.
Co-operative Women have been hugely influential in Westminster – Joyce Butler MP introduced the first bill outlawing discrimination against women in education, employment, social and public life; this became the basis of the formation of Labour’s landmark Sex Discrimination Act. Regrettably, Joyce was our only woman Labour & Co‑op MP from 1966 to 1979 and there would be no more until 1997.
We now have thirteen women MPs in Parliament, as well as women in the Lords, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, London Assembly and councils across the country.
We’ve come a long way from 1918 but we can and should do more.
This might be the year that you resolve to become a candidate or to support the selection and election of other women. Or you might be inspired to become more involved in the work of your branch, join our campaigns, contribute to our policy development, get involved in the Party’s Women’s Network, or recruit more women to the Party.
Whatever you do, let’s mark these landmark Acts by ensuring that our future co‑operators can look back on 2018 with pride.