International Women’s Day is a worldwide opportunity to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
The theme for 2022 is Breaking the Bias – and fewer organisations have done that better than the Co-operative Women’s Guild.
When first established in 1883, the Guild set out to break the bias against women's participation in the Co-operative movement as anything more than shoppers. As part of breaking that bias, the Guild set out to give working class women a voice that they could use to make an impact.
The University of Plymouth’s Culture and Heritage Exchange (CHEx) team has researched into Plymouth’s role in the national movement – and we’ve even broken biases of our own by showing that, despite national assumptions, the South West was hugely significant in this area of women’s activism.
When the Co-operative movement was started by the Rotherham Pioneers in 1844 – bringing together businesses to be owned and run by their members – it inspired groups in other places to imitate the model. The South West was an area that followed suit quickly, becoming a Co-operative bastion by the 1880s, with branches not just in places like Bristol and Exeter but also smaller towns, including Torquay and Totnes for instance.
Plymouth was one of the first South West branches, founded in 1859 and imitating the Rotherham Pioneers in their organisation. It opened for business in 1860 and in 1886 it hosted the national Annual Congress with over 700 delegates.
But there was a powerful bias in the movement as a whole against women having an active role in its management at both the national and the local levels, despite campaigning from women members for this to happen. The pleas for women to be allowed a voice were dismissed again at the Annual Congress held in Edinburgh in 1883.
One of the people attending was Alice Acland, wife of Sir Arthur Dyke Acland, of Killerton House. Her husband, despite his Devon connections, was actually the Liberal MP for Rotherham and both he and Alice were deeply interested in the Co-operative Movement. This time, Alice took action and set up what became the Guild, with just ten members, in 1883. She would go on to promote the establishment and spread of the Guild in the South West, starting with Exeter in 1885 and Plymouth in 1886.
With a tradition of women's activism in Plymouth in support of women's suffrage, the Plymouth branch flourished. Women in the Guild proved their power as shoppers, and demonstrated their determination to make their voices heard in areas of policy development (local and national) that they considered relevant to children and families as well as to working women, on issues such as wages, employment conditions.
This meant that when women received the vote in 1918, Plymouth's Guild members were both determined and well-equipped to make their voices heard. Individual Guild members who broke the bias included not only Nancy Astor, the first woman elected to take her seat as MP in Westminster, but also Clara Daymond, the first woman to be elected as a local councillor to the Town Council in 1919. Later, demonstrating the continuing impact of the Guild, Jacquetta Marshall, the first woman to be elected Lord Mayor, fully acknowledged her debt to the Guild.
The focus on women’s activism has usually been on women's suffrage activities, especially via the WSPU (Suffragettes) and the NUWSS (the Suffragists). But the Guild, while promoting the women's suffrage cause, had wider interests and also, remained visible and important after 1928 when the WSPU and NUWSS faded away with the equalisation of the franchise.
Many of the women identified as Plymouth Powerful Women were Guild members and attributed their success in local and national politics, for example, to the work of the Guild. They were trained by the Guild in public speaking and in accounting and finance.
This research, highlighted in a new podcast, was led by the University of Plymouth’s Culture and Heritage Exchange (CHEx) team, building on its role in the lottery-funded Plymouth Powerful Women project with the Hoe Neighbourhood Forum.
It reveals the significance of the Guild in enabling many of Plymouth's Powerful Women to break the bias, and provides important lessons on tenacity and the need to raise your voice for today's women too.