Abstract

'Housewives Imagine a New World': The International Cooperative Women’s Guild's Conceptions of Ethical Commerce, 1921-1924

The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), established in 1895 as an international forum for national cooperative unions, has offered historians one example of a global "fair trade" movement. Its affiliated women’s organization, the International Cooperative Women’s Guild (ICWG), formed by Austrian MP Emmy Freundlich and several English ICA colleagues in 1921, claimed that “cooperative housewives” around the world could help build an alternative, more ethical mode of global trade by shopping at consumer cooperatives. This, they claimed, would strengthen international wholesalers that linked cooperative producers to global consumers. In turn, they claimed that international cooperation could help "housewives" by offering a system of retail more responsive to consumer demand and even through promoting global peace through fairer trade. In the years following World War I, ICWG meetings provided a forum for female reformers to engage in discussions about what reconstructed global commerce might look like. By the late 1930s, conferences brought together over five hundred women from Europe, the US, and Asia and developed relationships with the League of Nations and International Labor Organization. My paper explores the "ethical imagination" of ICWG leaders, a term I use to describe their implicit conception of the morality of market interactions. ICWG commentary on cooperative trade helps reveal the contours of this imagination. As an example, I conduct a case study of Irish cooperative dairy trade during the Anglo-Irish war. I examine cooperative business records alongside ICWG archives, including conference records and petitions of Irish cooperative women to the ICWG's primarily English leaders. While identifying as a “cooperative housewife” might link oneself to an international conversation about the future of cooperative commerce, this study illustrates blindspots in ICWG leaders’ universalist conception of “women” and the limits of their ethical imaginations.