Since I have worked at the Co-operative College I have become really interested in women’s role in the co-operative movement historically, particularly in the activities of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, a campaigning organisation founded in 1883. I have been invited to do a talk about co-operative women’s journal Woman’s Outlook, which ran between 1919 and 1967, at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum in March, and have been trying to speak to women who were members of the co-operative movement around this period to find out what being part of the movement meant to them, and which issues most interested and affected them.
I was, therefore, delighted to see that the Co-operative Women’s Guild had a stall at the Co-operatives United expo which took place at Manchester Central convention complex last week. Members of the Guild had travelled from all over the country to be at the expo, and I used the opportunity to have a chat with the Guild’s current President, Margaret Tillotson.
Margaret is a member of the Whitehouse branch of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, based in Ipswich. The branch was started in 1962 on the estate where the members lived, which was built after the Second World War to accommodate people from London who had been bombed. When Margaret moved there, the estate had a row of shops with a Co-operative butchers, Co-operative chemist and a Co-operative grocery store. Today, only the Co-operative food store remains. The Whitehouse branch was one of the last Guilds to be formed in Ipswich, and Margaret explains that Guilds existed mostly where there was a Co-operative shop. Being able to shop at the Co-operative was important to women, explains Margaret, as “the dividend to ordinary women was extra income that made an awful lot of difference”.
Margaret is a third generation member of the Guild – her mother and grandmother were members before her, although Margaret says they were more interested in the social side whereas Margaret liked that they were a campaigning group and was interested in the co-operative movement in general. Her son Joseph also attended meetings. Today there are only five members left, but the branch continues to meet every two weeks and is involved with co-operative youth organisation the Woodcraft Folk, pensioners and education committees.
Margaret described why she decided to join the Guild in the 1970s: “I liked learning things and doing things, and the Guild enabled me to move up. When you don’t have a lot of spare money, groups like the Guild are good to join because you only pay one fee per year. The Guild enabled women to meet people and do things they wouldn’t normally do.”
Margret worked in a playgroup and later got a job at a local Co-operative shop – the first superstore in East Anglia – where she worked for 13 years and was a health and safety union rep. The store has now been taken over by Morrisons. She represented the Co-operative on arts committees and council committees and still attends council meetings at town and county level. In 1986, Margaret’s name was put forward for the Ipswich Member Relations Committee, and she remained on it until recently. However, she says she never wanted to go on the Board because she “liked doing things, not sitting around a Board table”.
It was important, however, that women were encouraged to take positions such as these: “You’ve got to educate women to the fact that they are important and make them aware that they have an important role in the life of society. Anything you can do to enable a woman to move forward, whatever it is, you have done your job.”
There are still 1,300 Guildswomen up and down the country, most attached to branches, although there are now around 100 independent members where there are no longer branches, some of them younger women. Members’ occupations range from JPs to carers. There is no denying that the Guild is an ageing organisation – as Margaret acknowledges, there are 100 year old women still active in roles such as treasurer, chairman and secretary!
Margaret puts this down to the dramatic transformation in women’s lives over the past fifty years: “When the Guild started, ordinary women had no life as such, life outside childbearing. When I left school in 1962 women weren’t expected to have a career.
“The lives of women have changed so much. In the sixties, women didn’t have a life outside the home, and it’s not that long since women couldn’t get a mortgage on their own. Now women do all sorts – they can go to the swimming pool, the cinema, everything.
“For the first time you have got a generation of women who have retired and have got a life of their own.”
Today, the Guild fundraises for a different charity each year (members pick a charity to fundraise for as a whole, and each branch also has its own charity), this year a heart charity. The Guild remains concerned about issues which involve women today, such as changes to child benefit, and to the National Health Service. Members send letters and postcards outlining their concerns to MPs and the Prime Minister. Margaret said: “Sometimes all you can do is just raise awareness of what the problem is.”
At a local level, the Margaret’s branch has protested against a new Tesco in the town centre and the changing of a local bus route. She does feel that the council takes notice – “some of the time because you are a nuisance!”
At the expo, the Guild was doing a roaring trade in white poppies. The white poppy was first sold around Armistice Day in 1933 by the Guild as a peace symbol to remind people of the importance of making sure war on the scale of the first world war (in which many Guild members had lost sweethearts, sons and brothers) never happened again. Margaret said they had sold around 100 white poppies per day at the expo, and there were certainly a lot of people at the expo wearing one. She said: “The white peace poppy is having a bit of a revival.”
Find out more about the Guild at www.cooperativewomensguild.coop.
To find out about material relating to the Co-operative Women’s Guild held in the National Co-operative Archive, based at the Co-operative College in Manchester, visit www.co-op.ac.uk/our-heritage/national-co-operative-archive/collections/co-operative-womens-guild.