International Women’s Day 2014

It’s March 8th, which means that it’s International Women’s Day…

…so what do you make of this letter to the cooperative press from someone who calls himself “A Bread-winner”? (The italics are all his own).

“Let women regard it as a duty to keep as much as possible out of the competition of the labour market. They can often find plenty of useful work to do in the home, and merely seek employment outside for its greater excitement, and not because it really enables them to earn more.”

So there you are, girls, toddle off back to the kitchen and leave us men to worry about the world of cooperative business (exciting or otherwise).

Perhaps I should let on that I found the letter from “A Bread-winner” in an issue of the magazine Labour Co-Partnership dating back to June 1896 (although let’s not be complacent:  let’s remember that one of the MEPs who claims to represent my region of the UK recently achieved notoriety for arguing that women needed to focus on whether the backs of their fridges were properly clean).

Actually, it’s good to report that “A Bread-Winner’s” letter elicited a strong rebuttal the following month. Catherine Webb, a key figure in the early days of the Women’s Co-operative Guild told her fellow cooperators that the issue was one of justice and equity:  the only obvious response, she said is “to set the question of sex entirely on one side and remunerate labour at its worth, whether performed by man or woman.”  And I’m pleased to say that a very similar response came from a male cooperator, a weaver in a Yorkshire producer coop.

The early cooperative movement was in some respects more enlightened than the rest of nineteenth century British society, in that it did allow women to become members of coop societies – even if  the coops themselves were almost invariably controlled by men, and in some instances only the ‘head’ of the household could become a member.  But what about today?  We all know that we’ve still got a long way to go before there is gender equality, both at work and in society more generally, but it would be good to think that cooperative organisations were at the forefront of moves in that direction.

Are they?  Well, I guess it depends.  We have strong female leadership at the centre of the international cooperative movement, and we also have some powerful grassroots examples from around the world of women using cooperative business forms to organise together and make a difference to their communities.  Even the beleaguered Co-operative Group has been trying in recent years to ensure that more women are encouraged to come through its democratic structures and take on leadership roles in the Group’s governance (I hope this initiative doesn’t quietly get axed as part of the Group’s current cut-backs).

But it would be encouraging to see the cooperative movement internationally formally put gender equality at the heart of its ethical values and principles.  Perhaps someone could fund a Catherine Webb award for the best initiatives here.

A little PS:  ICMIF, the International Co-operative and Mutual Insurance Federation, has put out a press release to coincide with International Women’s Day drawing attention to its recent publication Women in Leadership Positions.  This elicited the views of (the significant number of) female CEOs of ICMIF member organisations on issues relating to gender equality and senior management, and since I contributed to the editorial work of producing this report I’m only too happy to use this excuse to give it a plug.


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