The Story of the Co-operative Women’s Guild

The Co-operative Women’s Guild was established in 1883 by women within the movement to provide representation for working women and their interests, and spread co-operation in working class communities where women had traditionally always worked and had increasing spending power. 

The increased pace of the industrial revolution throughout the nineteenth century meant that more and more women were needed to provide labour in factories and mills throughout Britain. Unfortunately, this did not immediately lead to better representation and rights for those women in society at large. By 1884 60% of male heads of households over the age of 21 could vote, but no women could. 

In the co-operative movement; opportunities for female representation were established from the very beginning. The Rochdale Pioneers enshrined democracy for all members, regardless of gender or other qualifiers, in their principles of 1844 known as ‘Law’. These principles have shaped the development of the modern co-operative movement and ensured that female members could have their voices heard.

There were no female founder members of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society when it opened, despite the vital support that women would have provided the individual founders. It was difficult for women to find the membership fee needed to join the society in their own right, as men often controlled the finances and so a household membership would be in their name. 

The involvement of women in the co-operative movement improved as the nineteenth century went on and more women became individual members and saw a need to set up a sub group to focus on female interests. Alice Acland started “Women’s Corner”; a column in the Co-operative News talking about women’s issues both in the movement and society in general, in 1883. This was the beginning of what became the Co-operative Women’s Guild.

This was followed by the 1883 Co-operative Congress in Edinburgh where a small group met to make positive changes for working class women in the movement by working with them as equals, as opposed to many organisations at this time which were run by middle class women doing things “to” working women. This ethos remained central to the Guild throughout its history; spreading co-operation throughout communities of working class women and using it as a means to improve their lives. The Co-operative Women’s Guild was born, with Alice Acland as it’s first leader. 

In 1889 Margaret Llewellyn-Davies took over as president and had new aims for the organisation. By now it was recognised that women were making the spending decisions in most working households; and they were choosing to spend the bulk of their money at co-operative stores where they could get their “divi” once or twice a year. Llewellyn-Davies wanted to harness this spending power (known as “the power of the basket”) and use it to push for change within the movement and for broader political change.

The Guild was therefore involved in many campaigns, especially in the early twentieth century. They were heavily involved in the campaign for female suffrage - giving women the vote they deserved. They favoured the less violent ‘Suffragist’ approach to the more extreme  tactics used by the WSPU or ‘Suffragettes’. The Co-operative Women’s Guild continued to campaign until universal female suffrage was finally granted in 1928.

The Guild also campaigned for changes in society which would improve the lives of working class women and their families. These centred around maternity rights and financial support in the early twentieth century.. Working class women often had large families due to a lack of access to contraception and sexual health information, and could try and procure backstreet abortions which were seriously dangerous. The Guild supported the work of Marie Stopes around contraception and campaigned for better maternity and infant care. This led to the Shipley Society opening the first ever co-operative maternity care centre in 1920. This would have been a lifeline for working class mothers in the pre-NHS years. 

The Guild was committed to peace as a means to make the world a better place, hence their non-violent approach to campaigning. They advocated for peaceful solutions to the 1914 crisis that led to the First World War and then campaigned to exempt fathers from conscription during the war. These beliefs continued through the interwar years with  campaigns for disarmament to ensure that the world could build a peaceful future. The Guild adopted the white poppy as a symbol of peaceful remembrance in 1933 when tensions were once again rising in Europe. This commitment to peace was also evidenced in the wider co-operative movement during the period. You can see a video of the London Co-op Peace Parade in 1937 on our Vimeo channel here: London Co-op 1937 Peace Parade

The Co-operative Women’s Guild ceased to exist in 2016 after 133 years of campaigning for the rights of working women. By this time there was a lack of new, younger members and as its remaining members were becoming elderly. 

Here at the Co-operative Heritage Trust we look after many objects and archival documents that tell the story of the Guild and the work they did. A selection of branch banners that would have been used on campaign marches are some of the most eye-catching pieces in our collection. We are proud to ensure their history is preserved for future generations of women to be inspired by.

Our Co-operative Women's Guild, Lancashire Region Collection is on Archives Hub.  Details of how to make an appointment to visit the archives at Holyaoke House can be found on this page.

Warrington Co-operative Society Women's Guild banner, c.1923.