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Margaret Llewelyn Davies (1861-1944) and the
Women’s Co-operative Guild

Margaret Llwelyn Davies circa 1938
Margaret Llewelyn Davies

Davies was born into a family of co-operators and campaigners, her father was an active Christian Socialist.

In January 1883 the Co-operative News published its first women’s page and within a few months the Women's League for the Spread of Co-operation had been established, changing its name to the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1884. The Guild was a national organisation but local branches soon began to appear.

Davies became General Secretary of the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1889 and continued in the role for the next 32 years. Under her guardianship the Guild became a campaigning organisation on all manner of issues affecting women’s lives and living conditions.
Davies was a proliferate writer of articles and pamphlets, these were often circulated at Guild meetings and around co-operative societies and so would have had a wide audience for example, the Guild had 72,000 members by the time of their Jubilee (1933).

Davies urged women to realise that they had power due to their being the primary consumers in society and therefore being able to influence how and where money was spent. She urged women to organise themselves (for example, into pressure groups) in order to exert this influence. Co-operative societies are largely about self-help and Davies theories were also based on this, by urging women to recognise that they had the power to change things that negatively affected their lives. Pressure was to be exerted peacefully and without recourse to any violence, when the Guild did take part in marches they were often silent with the women holding banners to convey their messages. The Guild therefore became a pamphleteering organisation and a pioneer of women’s issues.

Davies extensively wrote and spoke on her theories for the Guild. Davies believed that women were a powerful economic group, or to use the Guilds’ phrase they were the women with the basket, and that by organising they could campaign on socio-political issues (as described above and below), for better quality and fairly priced food and goods. She also believed that as a powerful economic group consumers, men and women, were central to world economics and that the economy should be run as democratically as parliaments, hence her dedication to co-operation and Guild socialism (this is explained in Women as Organised Consumers - pdf 1.2mb). Women as buyers ‘forms the corner-stone of Co-operative Commonwealth’ (Women as Organised Consumers p2) and gives her ‘a place of supreme importance’ (Women as Organised Consumers p3).

Portion of letter from Davies to William Henry Brown, WHB/1/4/10. ‘H’ is Thomas Hughes.
Portion of letter

When referring to women in this manner Davies is talking about married women as at the time most single women would live at home until married and so would not be purchasing household goods and foodstuffs. Married women were legally subject to their husbands but by realising and using their power as a consumer they could have an important role in the public sphere. Women could also influence other women by word of mouth, to a greater extent than could publications and pamphlets, to galvanise support for issues or simply to spread the message of co-operation. In this way women could extend the Co-operative Commonwealth more effectively than men. Davies believed that interest in and taking part in co-operation came about because they were organised into their own self-governing society (ie the Guild), of which they had total control, acted as administrators and became educated. In turn the women involved developed inwardly.

One such campaigning issue was female suffrage. Unlike some pressure groups, such as the suffragettes, the Guild campaigned peaceably for women to receive the vote. From 1904 the Guild joined in the non-militant suffrage campaign (the suffragists), Davies (and the Guild with her) were strongly pacifist and so it would be unthinkable that they would be involved in militancy. For example, during the First World War (1914-1918) she was elected to the General Council of the Union of Democratic Control, which called for a negotiated peace. Davies believed that if women co-operated with each other over the various issues surrounding female suffrage and then in turn co-operated with the political powers to reach a compromise the vote would be forthcoming. The Representation of the People Act, 1918 gave women of property over the age of 30 the right to vote and was a major step to achieving suffrage, this step was partly achieved because Parliament saw that women had organised themselves and had illustrated that vast swaths of them supported reform. Davies believed that her device of co-operating with the government over the terms of suffrage had helped to produce the compromises of the 1918 Act (women achieved full voting equality in 1928).

Davies strongly believed that women should have the same rights as men in all areas of their lives, especially domestically and maternially. Davies believed that one such area where women deserved more rights was divorce for example, desertion by the husband was not grounds for a women to divorce him. In 1909 Davies gave evidence to a Royal Commission on divorce law reform and the Guild began its outright and vocal advocacy for divorce on the same terms as men. In 1912 the Guild Annual Congress passed a resolution that divorce should be available after two years' separation. Objections to this, particularly by Roman Catholic and other male members of the co-operative movement caused the Central Board of the Co-operative Union to decide to withdraw its £400 annual grant to the Guild unless the divorce law campaigns were dropped. Davies however, was a strong and principled character and she absolutely refused to bow to their pressure under any circumstances, being of the opinion that if she did the Guild would loose all independence to campaign on women’s issues. She rallied regional and local Guild branches to raise sufficient funds themselves and so to carry on the Guild's campaign. By asserting her own principles and the Guild Davies ensured that campaigning was not overly affected by other co-operative bodies and that the women of the Guild remained independent and credible.

Women's Co-operative Guild exhibition board c1939 highlighting the Guild's campaign for clinics for children.
Women's Co-operative Guild exhibition board c1939 highlighting the Guild's campaign for clinics for children.
Wommen's Co-operative Guild exhibition board c1939 showing membership figures and commemorating M L Davies as the organisation's driving force.
Wommen's Co-operative Guild exhibition board c1939 showing membership figures and commemorating M L Davies as the organisation's driving force.

The experience caused Davies to push the Guild into more focused, wide-ranging and direct peaceful campaigns, such as for maternity benefit to be paid to the mother not the father and for maternity care to be improved. This resulted in the Guild producing a National Care of Maternity programme. This campaign came to a head in 1915 when Davies published Maternity: Letters from working women. The letters were sent to Davies over a number of years and told graphic stories of women’s experiences during and after pregnancy. They highlighted many issues, such as poor aftercare, women’s health during pregnancy and infant health. The Letters were the first published account of working class women’s views and when published they caused a sensation and meant that true life experiences became common knowledge and meant that the issues could now be openly discussed. They especially informed the debate about midfivery and helped to get the government to agree that training and registration of midwifes were needed. Reproduced here are two of the 160 letters featured.

Letter 79 Frequent Pregnancies
Letter 79. Frequent Pregnancies
Letter 97 Children
Letter 97. Children

The National Co-operative Archive holds:

Women's Co-operative Guild/Co-operative Women's Guild records for:

For a complete list of all branches and districts held please contact the Archive.

Margaret Llewelyn Davies:

Thomas Hughes:

Reproduction permissions

The letters reproduced here from Maternity: Letters from working women are from the 1978 edition published by Virago (please see the Bibliography page) and are reproduced here with their permission.

The letter from Margaret Llewelyn Davies to William Henry Brown is reproduced here with the permission of her Estate.

Author: Karyn Stuckey, Assistant Archivist, National Co-operative Archive