Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

The white poppy: pacifism and the Co-operative Women’s Guild

Posted by wcmlibrary on October 25, 2012

We’re delighted to welcome as a guest blogger Natalie Bradbury, whose blog The Shrieking Violet was the winner of Best Arts and Culture Blog at the 2011 Manchester Blog Awards.

Most of us have worn a red poppy at some stage, and have no difficulty explaining why it is worn and what it stands for. But did you know that there is an alternative version of the famous remembrance symbol, a white poppy bearing the message ‘peace’ in its centre which can be worn alongside the red one, and that it was first sold by a group of campaigning women? Originally proposed by the No More War Movement in 1926 and promoted by the Co-operative Women’s Guild during the inter-war years, the white poppy is a reminder of the importance of making sure that war on the scale of the conflicts which rocked the first half of the twentieth century never happens again.

The Guild was formed in 1883 to champion women’s status both within the co-operative movement and in society. As well as focusing on educating its members and encouraging them to serve on the boards and committees of co-operative societies, in the first decades of the twentieth century the Guild lobbied MPs on issues affecting women such as maternity benefits, infant education, working conditions and equal pay. The Guild was also a pacifist organisation; at its 1914 Congress, members resolved that “civilized nations should never again resort to the terrible and ineffectual method of war for the settlement of international disputes”[i]. Instead, the Guild advocated international understanding, aiming to connect co-operators across the world in a ‘co-operative commonwealth’ and, in 1922, an International Women’s Guild was established. The Guild’s internationalist vision was expounded by the then General Secretary Margaret Llewelyn Davies in language which seems optimistic, if not Utopian, today, informed by opposition to the rampant inequalities of competitive capitalism: “The brotherhood of nations is the religion of co-operators, and under an International Co-operative system of trade and industry the material interests of nations are no longer in opposition, but the resources of the globe are pooled and divided in the interests of all.”[ii]

Peace Pledge Union poster showing white poppiesThe Guild also stated its attitude towards war and peace in strong terms. Writing in 1927, Llewelyn Davies said: “To co-operators, looking forward to the creation of a family of nations, War is a denial of their faith, a condition of the past which must be abolished like slavery.”[iii] Speaking at Woolwich Town Hall on the occasion of the Guild’s centenary in 1983, Kathleen Kempton reiterated the meaning of peace to the organisation: “It is important to have in mind that we didn’t only campaign for peace – we tried to establish international understanding – international friendships. It’s one thing trying to have peace between armed camps, when everybody’s afraid of everyone else – but that’s not the kind of peace we want in the world and the peace that the Guild campaigned for was a peace based on understanding and friendship.”[iv]

The Guild’s pacifist activities did not stop at advocating the selling of the white poppy on remembrance day, and the organisation aimed to affect change in wider society and culture. Members attended peace rallies and lobbied for disarmament at a time when the British government was increasing its spending on weapons, and protested against conscription.         The Guild was opposed to taking part in training such as gas mask drills and called for local education authorities to drop military activities such as training corps in schools (it was recommended that they should be replaced by non-competitive activities like games, pageants and choir singing). The Guild demanded the inclusion of peace studies and information about the League of Nations on school curricula, and asked schools to set aside a Peace Day. Furthermore, the Guild asked the CWS to cease from the manufacture of war-like toys and picketed cinemas which showed war films[v]. In 1933, the Guild introduced a Peace Pledge Card, bearing the message:

“I solemnly declare my firm conviction that world problems can best be settled by reason rather than force, and I therefore declare that under no circumstances whatever will I take part in, or help towards, the propagation of war.”

The first white poppies were not ready in time for the Armistice Day of 1933, so women instead improvised by wearing white paper flowers and ribbons. It is said that the Guild asked the British Legion to make white poppies to be sold alongside the red poppy in order to raise funds for the Legion, but this was refused even though the white poppy was never designed to detract from the message of the red poppy[vi]. It was simply a non-militaristic symbol. As one Guild member explained: “There was no question of opposition to the red poppy – it was simply a demonstration of peace and lots of people used to wear the two poppies together, the red and the white, to show that they were pacifists but that they didn’t want to deny the fact that a lot of people had given their lives for what they thought was the peace of the world in 1914/18.”[vii] In 1938, a record 85,000 were sold.

Unfortunately, the meaning of the white poppy has been interpreted in different ways, often as an insult to the memory of those who died in conflict – despite the fact that members of the Guild had experienced the horrors of war first-hand when their sons, brothers and sweethearts were sent to the trenches during the first world war as, to borrow a much-use expression, ‘cogs in the machine of war’, many of them never to return. Within the Guild itself, there were conflicted attitudes towards pacifism, and the Guild’s official stance, which forbade members to take part in activities contributing to the war effort in the Guild’s name, caused a number of members to leave[viii]. It is hard to imagine the dilemmas encountered in the run up to the Second World War; to support a war that would doubtless send many more young men to an early grave and cause unspeakable destruction, or to sit back and do nothing as the evil forces of Fascism rose across Europe, attacking basic freedoms and notions of democracy. The co-operative movement, and indeed co-operative women, did their bit for the war effort – Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) factories were taken over for the production of military clothes for the government and the CWS ran army canteens.

Summing up the difficulty of the Guild’s pacifist stance, and wearing the white poppy, one member described the white poppy as “one of the most courageous things that ever happened – because in the period between the wars it was absolutely unthinkable not to wear a poppy on 11th November”[ix]. Another recalled: “People think there’s something wrong with me when I won’t buy a Flanders poppy … I have a funny feeling they think “Oh her, she doesn’t care”. But I do care – I care because they never should have lost their lives. To me war is just really dreadful.”[x] Another remembered: “I knew that in various areas white poppy wreaths were laid on cenotaphs in 1937, ’38 and ’39. They were immediately taken off and jumped on by irate people who said they were an opposition, a denigration of the dead.”[xi]

As Mary Stott, Guardian’s Women’s page editor for many years (but editor of several Co-operative Press publications prior to that, including the  journal Women’s Outlook) said, reflecting on the white poppy in the 1970s: “In many ways it was easier to be a pacifist in the 1930s than now – no one had forgotten the vast, senseless slaughter of our young men in World War I – yet it took as much courage, I think, to wear the white poppy on 11th November as it did for the committee of 100 to lay down in the road in the 1960s.”[xii]

Today the white poppy is distributed by the Peace Pledge Union. It is still subject to controversy[xiii], and the white poppy is far from being a household name – how many newsreaders, for example, do you see wearing it? We need only look at conflicts still raging across the world today, however, and our increasingly divided society, to realise that its message is relevant now more than ever.

White poppies can be purchased here at the Working Class Movement Library.

Gillian Scott will speak on The Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Question of Peace Activism between the Wars at the Peace History Conference at the People’s History Museum in Manchester on Saturday 10 November at 2.15pm.

[i]  Caring and Sharing: The Centenary History of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, Manchester, 1983, p.109

[ii] Quoted in Caring and Sharing, p.112

[iii] Quoted in The Woman With the Basket, Manchester, 1927, p. 14

[iv] Quoted in Of Whole Heart Cometh Hope, London, 1983, p. 3

[v] Caring and Sharing, p. 110

[vi] Of Whole Heart Cometh Hope , p.38

[vii]  Ibid

[viii] Gillian Scott, Feminism and the Politics of Working Women: The Women’s Co-operative Guild, 1880s to the Second World War, London, 1998

[ix] Of Whole Heart Cometh Hope , p.38

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Mary Stott, Forgetting’s No Excuse, London, 1973, p. 35

3 Responses to “The white poppy: pacifism and the Co-operative Women’s Guild”

  1. Reblogged this on Northern Radical History Network.

  2. So pleased to see this. I will tell my guild all about it.

  3. […] Marshal Haig, has been a symbol of nationalism and militarism almost since its inception.  This is why the white poppy came about in 1933.  Due to the erosion of the original message of ‘Never Again’, the Co-operative Women’s […]

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