The Women's Organisation in the Co-operative Movement

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         June 1995

               The Women's Organisation in the
               Co-operative Movement

                    by Emmy Freundlich*

The changes in the Dutch Co-operative Women's Movement,
through which it has lost its administration and thereby its
character as a National Organisation, will induce many
National Women's Organisations and Co-operative Unions to
consider whether the Women's Organisation has the desired form
for the development of the Co-operative Movement as a whole.
At a time when special conditions make it necessary for many
Co-operative Movements to restate their fundamental
principles, it is desirable that the principles of the Women's
Guilds and their relation to the whole Movement should be
clearly understood.

Two kinds of Women's Organisations can be distinguished in the
Co-operative Movement: the wholly independent Guilds and the
various forms of Women's Groups which form a more or less
integral part of the organisation of the Movement. From the
historic point of view it can be easily understood that the
English Women's Guild, the mother of all the Guilds, was
established as an independent Women's Organisation, because at
that time (1883) the right of women to any kind of public
activity was strongly contested. Their intellectual
inferiority was daily emphasized and their activity as women
could only be assured if, as a preliminary step, they could
work among themselves and understand each other. Apart from
this, there existed at that time special laws and regulations
in many countries forbidding women to speak in public or
participate in any public institutions, and permitting them
only to meet together as women. The valuable part of this
independent Women's Organisation was that it served as a
rallying-point: it appealed to women to unite, and showed them
the way they must take if they wanted to secure equality with
men and participate with them on an equal footing in all
public activities. Just because this right was denied to them
they had to show, where they alone could show it, what they
were able to achieve if allowed to do so. Encouraged by the
example of the English Guild, Guilds were established on the
English model in other countries, especially in the
English-speaking and Scandinavian countries, and also in

A quite distinct form of Women's Organisation developed in
Central Europe, where Women's Organisations were established
nearly forty years afterwards - in Austria in 1912, and
elsewhere still later - when the women had already passed
through the first stage in their struggle for emancipation and
had no longer to give proof of their ability to organise and
agitate, but were asked to devote the knowledge and capacity
they had already acquired to the Co-operative Movement. But,
despite this fact, women's right of self-administration in
these countries was not abandoned. The form of organisation
was, it is true, somewhat different from that of the
independent Guilds. No new institution was established but it
was, nevertheless, provided that women could elect their own
representatives and adopt resolutions without any hindrance.
In some countries special Women's Committees are established
in Consumers' Societies to carry on the work of propaganda and
education among the women. In others, as, for example, in
Austria, women are appointed to the Members' Committees which
exist in every branch and act as the representatives of the
Women's Organisation. They elect their Central Committee at
the Annual Conference, and assume the leadership of the women
and the representation of their interests.

Both forms of Women's Organisations are provided for in the
rules of the International Co-operative Women's Guild, and
every National Organisation with a Central Committee elected
exclusively by the women may become a member of the Guild,
regardless of the form of organisation. The condition for
international collaboration is surely the independent
administration of the Women's Movement within the National
Organisations. It would be impossible, even superfluous, for
women to be organised internationally if they were only
representatives of the Movement as a whole and not, first and
foremost, representatives of the women, because the
representative of the whole Co-operative Movement is the
International Co-operative Alliance, and double representation
is superfluous and might even prove dangerous. Independent
administration of national affairs is impossible without
central representation which guides and coordinates the local
groups. Women can otherwise never learn to express their will,
which is an essential condition for democracy. In fact, the
very essence of democracy lies in free expression of the will,
in that understanding among the masses which enables them to
formulate their will and, above all, to deliberate on what
they must do in the interests of the community.

The International Co-operative Women's Conference has adopted
a two-year plan which the women in all countries are
endeavouring to carry out, in most cases in full agreement
with the National Central Organisations, the Union and
Co-operative Wholesale Society. But one condition for the
success of the plan is surely that women should have an
opportunity to discuss the plan, adopt resolutions, consider
what is of greatest interest to them and the methods which
should be employed in order to rouse the masses of indifferent
women. In countries where the women can act more independently
there is a more lively interest in the Co-operative Movement
on the part of the women who very often become the principal
supporters of the recruiting and educational activities. Why
should women lose the right to administer their own affairs?
Dangers are often apprehended which do not exist. We admit
that Women's Organisations may initiate and carry through
undertakings which may not be successful and even prove
downright failures, but this may happen in any organisation,
and occurs sometimes in the Co-operative Movement. We all have
to learn, and must pay for experience. One who knows and
continually follows what is going on in other countries cannot
understand why this right of women to administer their own
affairs - such as household economy, the education of
children, social questions of interest to women, etc. - should
be denied to them by a Movement whose motto is self-help and
democratic self-government. 
The Co-operative Movement does not adopt the democratic
principle chiefly because of its abstract justice, but because
experience has shown - and the whole history of Co-operation
is proof of it - that as its activities develop, giving them
strength to discharge it. This is as true in the case of women
as of men, and is the successful way of educating women,
through their Guilds, on behalf of the Movement.

In this connection we must not underestimate the greater
interest taken by women in the Co-operative Society, which
they love and which has become to them a second family, just
because they enjoy the right of self-administration. We have
seen in Austria how loyally women have supported their
Co-operative Societies, how frequently they have shown
themselves more determined than the men when difficulties had
to be overcome.

Another point that must not be overlooked, especially now, is
that new movements of a more or less militarist character are
making their appearance, all representing dictatorial rgimes
which endeavour to reduce women to an inferior position, and
exclude them from participation in public life. Women are not
to be permanently excluded any more than the workers, but they
must attach all the more importance to supporting only those
movements which assure them the freedom which they must have
if their influence on the whole of public life is not to be
lost again. This would be a serious threat and a danger to the
Co-operative Movement, which needs thinking women. Every
social movement must strive to procure for women opportunities
of preventing the will of a leader, rather than the trained
and developed will of the masses, from being decisive. The
greater the rights which are given to women in the Movement as
a whole, the lesser will be the difficulties arising from the
self-administration of women. There are a few National
Movements which attach great importance to the fact that the
leaders of Women's Organisations should be elected by the
Movement and not only by the women. Sometimes there are
political reasons, because the Movement has to resist outside

We admit at once that great problems are involved which cannot
be solved easily, because they have a far-reaching influence
on the future development of the Movement. Even if the
question whether the collaboration of women is of value can be
regarded as settled within the Co-operative Movement, because
no one who knows the conditions will contest it, nevertheless,
the women's question, like that of democracy in general
throughout the world, has been raised again. In the interests
of the Movement, and because we see its democratic character
in danger and must defend it, women's right to
self-administration in their own particular sphere is not to
be questioned. The external form of organisation may be a
national question which each National Movement must settle
according to its requirements, but the right of women to elect
their own leaders and representatives must never be violated.
Women can only speak on behalf of women, if elected by them,
just as every Member of Parliament can only speak in the name
of his constituents if he is actually elected by them. This
applies, above all, to the Central Organisation which assumes
the responsible direction, and which maintains relations
between the National Organisations.

We hope we have shown that these are not trivial questions of
women's rights, but questions of importance to the whole
Co-operative Movement. At the present time, especially, the
Co-operative Movement can only assures its own freedom and
existence if it assures to all its members the necessary
degree of freedom to which they are entitled within the
Movement. But thereby it acquires greater importance in the
eyes of ever larger circles of women because, if they lose
many of their rights in other spheres, women will in
preference seek movements which give them their freedom. The
decisive consideration is not the form but the principle in
which we all believe, and which we trust will soon be
recognised again everywhere, including Holland.

* Ms. Freundlich was President, International Co-operative
Women's Council.