Equality for women - our history

In this section

To this day we are guided by the values established by our co-operative founders in the 1800s.

The first local co-ops were established by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 with a new way of doing business focused on equity, equality, solidarity, self-help, democracy and self-responsibility. During the 1800s, as the first co-operatives were being formed, women had very few rights but, with equality entrenched in their DNA, co-operative societies paved the way by giving women equal rights and opportunities.

By the end of the 1870s the three co-operative societies that would later merge to form our East of England Co-op were firmly established. Our story began with the formation of the Colchester and East Essex Co-operative and Industrial Society in 1861, followed by the Ipswich Industrial Co-operative in 1867. In 1875 the Norwich Co-operative Society was formed and for many of its years guided by permanent secretary Mr J.T. Gee. It was his wife who went on to be a founding member of the local Co-operative Women’s Guild; a ground-breaking organisation well known for their campaigning for women's rights.

The Co-operative Women’s Guild was formed in 1883, in the early days of the women’s suffrage movement and twenty years before Emmeline Pankhurst founded the British Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) that famously fought for women's right to vote in public elections.

By the time the first Co-operative Women’s Guild was formed many women were members of the co-operative societies with the same rights in the society as their male counterparts. Women had an equal vote in their co-operative an incredible 80 years before they would be given the parliamentary vote and were able to receive their own dividend.

The Co-operative Women’s Guilds were well known for their campaigning for women’s rights, in everything from the parliamentary vote, maternity benefits and equal pay, to health and housing, consumer rights and pensions. They even held public speaking competitions to help women develop their confidence and skills.

In 2021...

153 years since our first co-operative societies were formed, we remain driven by the early co-operative societies’ mission to do business in a way that is better for everyone.

We are one of more than 30 local organisations that have signed the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce’s pledge to address gender balance in the workforce.

East of England Co-op President of the Board, Frank Moxon, said:

“As a co-operative society, our values guide how we operate as a business. We are committed to equality, eliminating discrimination and encouraging diversity amongst our workforce.

“I’m proud that over half of our Board directors and store managers are women. Our colleagues lie at the heart of our co-operative and we work hard to create and sustain a working environment that is open, honest and fair and which encourages people to reach their full potential.

“We believe in a fair and ethical approach under which men and women receive equal pay for performing equivalent jobs within our organisation.

“As a business, we are realistic that there is more progress to be made. We still have a high proportion of male employees in our most senior and highest paid roles and it is important that we aim to increase the number of women in our most senior leadership positions.

“This International Women’s Day I’d like to celebrate the incredible achievements made by women across our co-operative and reaffirm our continued commitment as a business to equal opportunities for our colleagues and within the communities we support.”