The Matriarchs of England's Cooperative Movement

A Study in Gender Politics and Female Leadership, 1883-1921

by Barbara J. Blaszak


Examines the gender politics of the English Cooperative Movement between 1883 and 1921 and how it limited the accomplishments of the women leaders.

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December 1999


Pages 224
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics World History/General
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Current thinking considers the Women's Cooperative Guild within the English Cooperative Movement to have been an independent and democratically run organization whose leaders built sisterhood across class lines and achieved many benefits for married working-class women. This study of the dynamics of gender within the movement between 1883 and 1921 arrives at different conclusions. Blaszak examines what freedoms of speech and activity women were permitted within the movement, as well as what resources they were given to accomplish their tasks. Ultimately, the parameters set by the men would determine the type of female leadership that emerged and whether it was able to realize its feminist and utopian agendas.

Setting the organization's activities within the context of gender relations in the Cooperative Movement, Blaszak finds that the Guild was much more dependent and much less democratically directed than has usually been supposed. Restrictions established by male cooperators and enhanced by the realities of working-class life turned the Guild into a clique dominated by a few. Even the Guild's most revered leader, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, found it impossible to escape the gendered socio-economic circumstances in which she labored at her ministry to improve the lives of working-class women. Consequently, her leadership inadvertently assisted male cooperators in their attempts to limit possibilities for women.

Table of Contents

Women in the English Cooperative Movement
Women's Space/Women's Place
The "Woman's Corner" of the Co-operative News
The Gendered Geography of the Cooperative Movement
Angels in the Store
The Early Leaders of the Women's Cooperative Guild
Margaret Llewelyn Davies: A Woman with a Mission
The Dysfunctional Commonwealth
Rent at the Seams: Sisterhood in the Women's Cooperative Guild
The Battle between the Sexes in the Cooperative Movement
Contradictions and Conflicts



[E]ven readers with a limited interest in the WCG should find this study worth examining.—Choice

Blasak's book is a heavyweight co-operative history. It deserves to be ranked with the is eminently readable and is based on remarkably in depth research.—Journal of Co-operative Studies

Blaszak recounts the story of the Women's Cooperative Guild, she does so more broadly in the context of the gendered politics of the cooperative movement as a whole. She argues convincingly that men established the boundaries in which women operated, that they feared the feminization of cooperation, and that, consequently, much of the previous work on the Guild has tended to overestimate the achievements of female cooperation....Blaszak has made an important contribution to our understanding of the gendered politics of cooperation in modern British society.—Albion

Interestingly and convincingly, she argues that male co-operators were particularly wary of female intervention in the movement.—Labor History


The policies and publications of the Women's Cooperative Guild have been central to women's history since its revival in the early 1970s, but very few scholars have looked in such detail at how both were actually constructed. Barbara Blaszak's new book is a fascinating and sobering study of the limits placed on this women's organization by its male-controlled `parent' body, the Cooperative Union. In its analysis of the politics and leadership of Margaret Lleyellyn Davies, it also offers a cool reappraisal of a dedicated social reformer's efforts on behalf of working-class women. An extremely important contribution.—Ellen Ross^LProfessor of History and Women's Studies^LRamapo College of New Jersey

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