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History of Women In Cooperatives (A Women in Business Event)

Charlotte Colantti has spent the past year studying, collecting, and analyzing data about the history and evolution of women within cooperatives (Co-ops). She started her research with the period of the 1920’s and analyzed how women interacted with co-ops. The first clarification required to understand her research is her definition of a cooperative, which is, “A woman run cooperative with at least 75% women members that are working for the benefit of women”.

With this definition in mind the story takes off. Originally co-ops would allow women to participate in activities if it involved no leadership decisions. What this means is the co-op loved women’s participation if it was free and did not infringe on the agenda of the men within the co-op. Often, women would lead educational, volunteer, or organizational activities; however, they were not allowed to decide anything that would have a major impact within the structure of the co-op, or if they requested monetary compensation. Using a grocery co-op as an example, they would have a say in what would be sold within the store and they would have political control within the store or with other women, but they could not make any major decisions at the board level.

The next part of her presentation evaluated the status of black women within co-ops. Blacks, women in this case, would start their own parallel communities to find a way to survive within a culture that was painfully demeaning towards them. They often interacted the same way as any other co-op, but were focused on helping their community. The interesting part is that even within this niche community, women run co-ops still occupied the auxiliary position to their dominant male run co-op counterparts. An example of this is that the first black co-op within the United States, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (male union), had a female auxiliary with co-op principles to aid the women within that sector.

Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s women run co-ops became more progressive. They started (more) openly supporting lesbians and women’s rights movements. Historically, the main players within the women’s rights movement were often associated with a co-op even though they did not openly express their affiliation in their writing and public protests. Interestingly, even in this period they were still often expected to participate in unpaid labor and allowed themselves to be marginalized.

Co-ops today are striving to equalize the playing field. It will be interesting to see what the next decade brings, but the most important thing should still be finding a way to help communities prosper and on a large-scale, finding a way to feed a growing population.

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences,
Department of Applied Economics
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