Women in Co-Operation


by Muriel Russell

Despite the argument which goes on between some historians as to whether
Ann Tweedale was or was not among the original Rochdale Pioneers, I am
convinced she was very much part of the activity. She was probably a
relative of the two other Tweedales. Looking at the austere expressions on
the famous photograph of 13 of them, she was probably the one who swept the
floor on the morning after the shop opening on 21 December, 1844. Certainly
we know that women were not banned from becoming members and according to a
later advertisement published by the Society, it invited "all members, sons
and daughters of members who are wishful to improve their intellectual
faculties, should avail themselves of these classes". (1)

Over the next 30-40 years, the women in England seem to have played mainly
"the role of the woman with the basket" rather than offering her services
in the democratic running of societies. This was obviously due to the
attitudes of those times and applied to most countries in Europe where
co-operative movements were developing. The real stirring of interest came
in 1883 when "The Women's League for the Spread of Co-operation" was formed
as a result of a letter in the English Co-operative News."

Within a year the title was tidied up to read Co-operative Women's Guild
and rapidly throughout the country groups called "branches" were

Within 10 years Scotland set up its own Guild and also promoted branches in
Northern Ireland. These eventually formed the basis of the Irish Women's
Guild. By the time Miss Margaret Llewellyn Davies wrote her "History of
Guilds in England" in 1904, two guilds in Holland and one in Paris had been
established and enquiries were being received from Germany, Poland, Italy,
Russia, Belgium, Australia, Canada and even Jamaica.(2)

During the first decade of the Guild's development, much discussion was
also taking place on how to establish international activity between the
many co-operative movements which were progressing mainly in Europe. (3)
The Guild was vitally interested in this development and were actively
involved in the two provisional ICA Committees, one in 1892 and the second
in 1894. Mrs. Lawrenson and Miss Tournier were appointed. When ICA was
finally established in 1895, no women were appointed to the Provisional
Central Committee,  but included in an extra committee to "consult them on
the trading relations among the co-operators of all nations" was the name
of Miss Tournier. (4)

In the early years of this century, exchange visits were arranged.
Catherine Webb reports that as a result of a guild tour to Brussels and
Ghent where Co-operative Medical and Sickness were viewed, English women
brought back "The seed for the future establishment of maternity centres in
England". Peace was another subject which exercised the concern of these
growing national guilds. While the 1914-18 war blocked progress, with the
cessation of hostilities, such campaigns were immediately pursued by
Guildswomen in many countries. Women recognised that competition in trade
encouraged animosity among nations. This resulted in the adoption of a
resolution tabled by the Guild at the 1921 ICA Basel Congress which
advocated international co-operative trading through CWS (Co-operative
Wholesale Societies) type organisations in the participating countries. The
principle was accepted; sadly, it has not always been an easy programme to
carry out.5

By 1921, however, women attending ICA Congresses felt their presence should
have more value if they set aside time to discuss some problems among
themselves, probably bearing in mind the lukewarm response forthcoming from
earlier appeals in Congresses for more positive recognition. As a result,
the International Co-operative Women's Guild was formed with Emmy
Freundlich as President. She was an MP, a Viennese City Counsellor, member
of Austria's Wholesale Board and a "rare specimen" - a female member on the
ICA Central Committee. (Later in the 1930s she went to prison as a result
of her outrage against the Nazis' activities in her country). Honora
Enfield took on the secretaryship, working from the English Guild's
Headquarters. During its entire existence, which stretched out to 1963, its
main conferences were held with hospitality from the ICA, although during
its own Congresses other meetings were arranged by invitations from
national movements.

The membership of the ICWG was drawn mainly from specific national Guilds,
most of which were European; there was a quite energetic group of guilds
still operating in the Provinces of Canada, besides one  in Wisconsin, USA,
in 1965.

As the maintenance of peace was one of the ICWG's great motivations, it can
be seen how difficult it was to keep in step along the same path with some
countries. To its great credit, it achieved its main objective, so much so
that threads were soon brought together again after the 1939 - 45 War. Over
the years, exchanges of women co-operators continued and understanding
deepened. Also, it was important that the Guild's representatives made
their mark in the UN Agencies, as I found later when I joined ICA and
attended meetings of UNESCO, ILO and FAO. Their contributions had attracted
much support.

ICWG's day-to-day problem was that of so many voluntary organisations, the
lack of money. While many of the staff had freely given their services over
the years, as 1960 came along they needed to engage a fully-paid official.
At the same time, some member organisations were thinking of withdrawing,
again mainly due to financial problems. A difficult period was endured
while the ICWG tried to negotiate a roof over its head at ICA headquarters.
ICA found that acceptable but only on its own terms; that was that ICA take
over the Guild's entire activities, setting up an ICA Women's Advisory
Council, with a woman specialist, part of the ICA's staff, in charge. Much
heartache was suffered, but at the Bournemouth International Guild Congress
in 1963 the offer was accepted, on the understanding that although the
appointment be made, the ICWG itself would only suspend its own activities
until the next Congress in Vienna in 1966. If it approved what it saw it
would then officially dissolve itself.

It should be noted that at that time ICA was conscious of certain pressures
already concerning its 1960 Lausanne Congress; a resolution on "The Duty of
the Movement towards Movement" was still hanging fire. Also the first
Consumer Protection Conference in 1961 on "Health and Consumer" had
stressed the desirability of sending more women delegates. Furthermore an
ICA/UNESCO Seminar for Women in November, 1962, in New Delhi had
highlighted the need for an active programme in South East Asia.

As from 1 January 1965, the first Woman Officer began her work at a desk
with nothing on it but a goodwill letter from the Swedish Co-operative
Women's Guild! In the technical sense I was no specialist, but with a
Co-operative Honours Diploma gained from the Co-operative College in
England, co-operative experience starting at the age of 11 in a Children's
Circle, the Youth Clubs and then the Women's Guild plus already being on my
local Society's Board, I was willing and more than motivated to do my best.
Within three months our first Women Co-operators' Advisory Council meeting
met in London. I was sure it would succeed because I saw a rainbow in the
sky on my way to the office!!

Of the 18 original countries enrolling, 13 were represented at that meeting
by experienced internationalists through their previous, and for the time
being ongoing membership of the resting ICWG. The first Chairperson was
Mrs. Tas-Callo, a Dutch woman; sadly, her tenure of the office was short
due to the financial and constitutional problems in her own Movement. Her
successor was Mrs. Sirrka Raikonnen from Finland; although quiet in her
approach to all matters her leadership skills shone through her 11 years of
service both in the Council, in the Central Committee and wherever she
carried out her duties.

At the 1966 Vienna Congress, the ICWG declared itself satisfied that the
WCAC was acceptable as a follow-on to their work and, therefore, deposited
its final funds, about stlg2,000 with ICA to be used for the benefit of women
in the developing countries.

>From that time on the WCAC began its positive contributions to
international co-operative development even though its members felt
strongly that within existing Co-operative Movements the importance of
involvement was still not receiving the encouragement it deserved. It
seemed the whole international community agreed because a resolution moved
by Hungary at the Hamburg Congress in 1969 called for a full-scale
discussion on the "Role and Situation of Women in the Co-operative
Movement". Under that title, a 37-page document with nine additional
annexes gave impetus to a full debate in Romania in 1971. The result gave
the WCAC full status for its Chairman, i.e. with a vote in the Central
Committee, the first auxiliary to be granted such recognition. In practical
terms this also led to stronger ties with other ICA Committees resulting in
joint conferences, e.g. housing, agriculture and consumers.

In the case of housing, a special research document was produced relating
to women's activities and responsibilities in Housing Co-operatives and,
with the Plunkett Foundation, an excellent  paper was produced for joint
discussions with the Agricultural Committee. The Chairman and Secretary
were also welcomed to sit in other committee meetings where time and place

The whole profile of the Council was lifted. A couple of years later, it
changed its title to "ICA Women's Committee".

In collaboration with FAO, an Agricultural Sub-Committee operated for
several years and one of its highlights being a full-scale conference in
Milan. The venue of the Women's Committee was FAO's Rome Headquarters
during the International Women's Year 1975. Other international links were
built with UNESCO and ILO.

All this collaboration assisted the Committee's determination to reach out
to women in the developing countries. In the early 1970s, the first
stirrings of organisation were seen in East Africa where a conference of
women, financially helped by Sweden, promoted activity between women from
Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

At the same time the ICWG money sent two women to Guyana for three months'
collaboration with women. Besides that, I went to Ghana and Nigeria and set
up two seminars, one in Accra and the other in Ibadan. Subsequently, Diana
Opondo was appointed a full time Women's Officer in the East African
Regional Office and the collaboration with West African countries was

International Women's Year 1975 saw the strengthening of activity in South
East Asia after 14 countries met in Kuala Lumpur. Some activity had already
been started by  Margaret d'Cruz, the only female staff member at that time
in the Regional Office in New Delhi. As the work progressed, we were able
to welcome representatives from Africa and Asia to our meetings, often as a
result of financial help from European sources. Our last expansionist
effort in this decade was a Seminar for 36 women from 14 countries in South
America. UNESCO gave us generous help which resulted in collaboration for
some years. International action beyond our control severed much
communication later.

The last contribution promoted in my time was the "Bucket of Water"
campaign which produced stlg233,000 for water projects. While it was ICA's
contribution to the UN Year of the Child and grants provided help in 17
different projects, the original idea arose out of the ICA Women's

The expansion of development work among women went on through the eighties,
particularly in the earlier days with my colleague Irene Romp, who gave
great assistance to an important Women's Seminar in Sri Lanka. Through the
influence of its new Chairman Ulla Jonsdotter (Sweden) much of the
technical aid was forthcoming from Swedish co-operative sources. Mrs.
Romp's successor, Rita Rhodes, maintained this work and during her time the
Committee provided a well-known document "Women as Equal Partners in Third
World Co-operative Development".

Sadly, however, it appears the pressures of finances on ICA affected the
Women's Committee more acutely than perhaps other aspects of its work. The
promise made in 1963 to support a full-time "woman specialist" faded away.
The post of women officers in both South East Asia and the East African
Regional Offices were eliminated. The members of the Committee felt they
faced a dim future when a male member of the staff was directed to report
on the committee meetings as and when he could dislodge himself from other
duties allocated to him.

Without going into too much detail, in 1986 this writer returned to
undertake the secretarial work, on an expenses paid arrangement which
included necessities such as telephones, postage, etc. For me, I was happy
to help and the Director and his staff were always ready to give back-up
where it was possible.

The late Norah Willis, as chairperson, and her successor still in office,
Katarina Apelqvist, know the pressures and the drawbacks which must be put
on the work of the Committee. It is not just financial, it is the lack of a
person inside the headquarters who can act as a liaison between the overall
membership of the ICA and those persons who visit the headquarters and can
be approached directly on the possibilities for involving women in their
Movement's work and that of the ICA.

As an official member of the staff I had direct access to the relevant
staff in the International Agencies dealing with women and there was
constant liaison. When the subject warranted it, I was called on to assist
in their work. For example, a study of six African countries to assist in
the involvement of women in co-operatives was needed by FAO. They asked ICA
to release me for this task which later led to a joint Seminar in Nairobi.
ILO called for such a release for help in its Handicraft Seminar in Kitwe,
Zambia, in 1987 and we strengthened that work by holding an ICA event in
Mombasa, Kenya, the next year.

Despite these straightened circumstances, in 1982 the Women's Committee
opened training facilities in Tel Aviv in collaboration with Israel's
International Institute and Na'amat, the Women's organisation.

There is still much work to be done not only in the developing but in the
industrialised world where the welfare of communities, in particular women
and youth, will be much poorer without the stimulation of organised
co-operation towards a goal of Peace. Over this last century, the
initiatives of women have been constantly responsible for keeping this
aspect of our purpose as co-operators to the forefront of our work and it
should not be obliterated by confusing discussions on new words such as

1       History of Co-operation. 1812 - 1844, G. J. Holyoake. See
  advertisements at end of book

2       The Co-operative Women's Guild Management. M.L. Davies,
   Chapter VIII

3       See pages 26, 28, 36 and 40 of The International Co-operative
  Alliance 1895-1970, by W. P. Watkins

4       The Women with the Basket by Catherine Webb, p. 168

5       W.P. Watkins, page 123.