History of the co-operative movement (2): Gender

Co-operative Women's Guild

The class consisted of twelve people this week, with three new scholars joining us, helping to make it a very rich and interesting class.

The seminar mainly focused on Alistair Thomson’s article: ‘Domestic drudgery will be a thing of the past: cooperative women and the reform of housework


We began by reading Gary’s notes from last week. This helped remind us of what we discussed and it is always interesting to read reflections on the class from one person’s perspective. Both Woodin’s article last week on co-operative education and this week’s article on the Co-operative Women’s Guild focused on a similar period in history around the turn of the 20th century, when clearly the co-operative movement was significantly expanding and thriving. In contrast, several articles in this week’s newspapers said that the UK Co-operative Group was ‘ungovernable‘ and ‘collapsing under the weight of its debts‘.

Discussing the reading

As we turned to Thomson’s article, we each spent a few minutes going back over it to identify one or two key passages that were of interest to each of us. This was a technique we used the previous week and it gave us time to reflect on the article and each contribute to the discussion.

We learned about the Owenites’ earlier efforts to “abolish private housework” and how the Owenite radical vision and practice remained a source of inspiration to co-operators. The biography of Robert Owen was a particular source of inspiration for women in the co-operative movement.

Within the co-operative movement, there remained a distinct tension between seeing household work as “domestic drudgery” but also the source of women’s dignity. Many argued that household work was restricting women from engaging in public life and so women sought ways to introduce efficiencies into their housework, allowing them more time to do other things. Unlike the Owenites, co-operative women, on the whole, did not seek to divide household labour within the home between genders, but rather argued for a division of labour among co-operative households so that services for the household such as washing and cooking, were collectively owned and operated. Just as industrial work was becoming visibly shaped by a division of labour and “modern methods of production”, women appealed for the introduction of new technologies into the home to improve the conditions of work, ‘lighten the load’, and create time for other things. The operation of the household (the ‘women’s workshop’) must have seemed backwards compared to the operation of the factory. However, as Thomson notes: “Co-operators were usually more interested in gaining control of economic relations than in reforming the relations of domestic life.”

What struck me from reading the article and our subsequent discussion was that the earlier Owenites, who tried to address inequalities of gender and overturn the “prison” of domestic life, was a negative critique of emerging capitalist social relations as a whole (i.e. the practice of ‘communism’). In contrast, the co-operative movement a few decades later was in part inspired by the visionary experiments of the Owenites, but primarily concerned with working class control of capitalist economic life. Co-operation was not an alternative to the capitalist mode of production, but regarded as an improvement on it. Economies of scale, machinery, division of labour in the workplace, mass-production, and private proft-making were all welcomed and even efforts to improve conditions for housework were judged on their contribution to the wider economy, rather than the household economy. In a sense, co-operative women had an interest in improving the ‘economy’ in its original etymological meaning of ‘household management’, while co-operative businessmen turned their attention to the industrial economy. The co-operative movement was after all, a working class reaction to the exploitation and alienation of industrial work. “While labour leaders agitate for better wages and a better distribution of wealth; we women ask for a better distribution of work.”

Another aspect of the article which interested me was the emphasis that the co-operative movement and the Womens Guild placed on private enterprise as opposed to reliance on the State. We learn from Thomson’s article that “the main strategy of Guild domestic campaigns was to seek change through co-operative rather than municipal action” and that Guildswomen  favoured co-operative solutions “because working through the state seemed too indirect.” It raised the question for me about the extent of the state’s involvement in people’s lives at that time compared to today and the extent that we have come to take the idea of a ‘welfare state’ for granted in a way that was inconceivable for most people at that time.

In summary, our discussion touched on a number of themes: the continued power structures within the home; the desire for all workers, but especially women, to have more time for leisure, education and public life; the continued drudgery of work; the conditions of labour both inside and outside the home (while women suffered in the home, men also suffered in the factory and mines); the degrees of status within the working class; the lack of security as housing was attached to terms of employment; how the household is not seen as a political space yet conditions people’s identities; the outsourcing of domestic labour (e.g. the production of washing machines) to countries with poor industrial conditions; and the impact of war on women’s roles in society as well as the post-war introduction of the welfare state;

Reflections on SSC

In the final part of our class, we shifted the discussion to ask what issues of gender there are at the Social Science Centre. Mike noted that perhaps for the first time, this class had an equal number of women and men attending. Below is a flavor of the discussion. I have left my (incomplete) notes unedited to offer a raw sense of the directions our discussion took.

Gary: Why don’t we discuss issues of gender and race more often? There isn’t the political charge any more.

Jane: Depends on the settings we put ourselves in. Jane chooses to be in those settings where race, sexuality and gender are discussed.

Tim: Media has compressed history. There is no sense of time among his students. It erodes politics.

Lucy: Are young people even questioning inequality? Is education teaching the working class about these things? Co-op women’s guilds sought space/time for education.

Tim: Middle class students are more aware of the pathways in life.

Sarah: Opportunity for us to discuss these issues at SSC. How to structure our space. Dorothy Smith. The positions we write from. It does matter that we almost never read anything written by women. Most people in the room are white. We don’t discuss sexuality, private lives. We have formed intellectually. We started by writing about ourselves/biographies. We need to work on the issue of childcare. Kids aren’t allowed in this building (Pathways, where we meet is a ‘halfway house’ for homeless adults).

Mike: Harney and Moten: Undercommons. Talking about alternative universities. Not really alternatives. They just replicate the university. The SSC is such. Need to find a way of radicalizing ourselves again. “Who isn’t in this room?” We used to have kids in the SSC.

Kathleen: It’s “being schooled” in the true sense. Older generations are looking after their parents. Younger generation are looking after their children.

Jane: To what extent are we embodying the world that we’d like to live in? We need to put the effort into designing a curriculum, choosing texts, etc. that is more diverse. How do we issue an invitation that is more open? Embody it in the aesthetic?

Andrew: Single parent of disabled child for 12 years. Impact on carer. There’s a whole structure of subordination that crosses gender, class, race.

Mike: How can we stretch ourselves again?

Jane: There’s an extraordinary thing that’s going on here. It’s about trust. Able to be vulnerable. In a loving way. Age, class, disability, gender, sexuality, race. Important moment when Lucy said she didn’t understand something.

Sarah: Discussion about what is valuable to us. Collective decision.

Wendy: Do we know where we want to go? What we want to achieve?

Joss: SSC was always about higher education.

Gary: The last 10 mins been ‘ground breaking’ in terms of SSC.

Lucy: What the SSC means to me is changing, every week.

Laura: Wants to study social science, but has SSC, but not the same as university.

Jane: SSC is about higher education and it’s up to us to define higher education.

Lucy: I’m really enjoying myself. That’s all that matters.

Sarah: Questioning patriarchy is a form of higher education. Radical for some people.

I/Joss think that by the end of the class there was a general sense that the SSC was entering a new stage of its development and those scholars attending the class welcomed the opportunity to radicalise the nature and purpose of our co-operative. This had partly been the intention of studying the theme of ‘co-operation and education’ this term, so that we created space to read, reflect intellectually and then take forward new practices within the SSC. It was intended that the course this term became a critical and reflexive space for our co-operative as a whole and this is clearly taking place.

Next week we will focus on ‘co-operative learning’. Laura said that our ‘homework’ is to recollect a positive learning experience and explain it without writing it. “When have you had your most positive learning experience, what factors enabled this and what kind of learner do you think you are? Make, cook, bring something!”