Sunday, 6 February 2011

Woman's Outlook magazine (visiting the National Co-operative Archive)

Working a few metres away from the National Co-operative Archive, occasional glimpses into what lays within has made me fascinated by Woman's Outlook, a bi-weekly (and later weekly) magazine produced for the Women’s Co-operative Guild between 1919 and 1967. I recently visited the Archive on my day off work to have a closer look.

Woman's Outlook was an enticing and, in some ways, surprisingly modern, mix of the political and the domestic that combined tips for housewives and working women with fashion, fiction and features. Its editors included Mary Stott in the 1930s ‘40s and ‘50s, who went on to edit the women’s pages in the Guardian.

The Women’s Co-operative Guild (which still exists today as the Co-operative Women's Guild) was formed in 1883 and worked for the improvement of the status of women, championing women’s rights, campaigning for women’s suffrage and demanding other important changes to society such as maternity benefits. Issue one of Woman’s Outlook describes the guild as: “Over 50,000 woman co-operators who have banded themselves into a guild to work through co-operation for the welfare of the people, seeking freedom for their own progress and the equal fellowship of men and women in the home, the store, the workshop, and the state.” Co-operation is described in a later issue as 'not only an ideal form of trade for the community' but also 'the fairest system under which the consumer can purchase his needs'.

The first issue of Woman's Outlook has on its cover the WCG logo, which depicts a woman gazing out over an industrial scene. As encapsulated by the logo of the WCG, Woman's Outlook was aimed at broadening its readers’ viewpoints, offering information and comment on the issues and laws affecting women in the UK, as well as global economics and politics, and preparing women for an increasingly prominent role in industry and society. In its own words: “We hope to assist her in her outlook upon industrial and social questions, and to give her thoughts, through our pages, something of the freedom of a flock of birds…we dream of it as a friend of all, seeking always to help forward to better things — a fuller life, more social opportunities and a wider choice of spheres of civic usefulness for women.” Later covers featured glamorous, stylised women either at rest or engaged in various pursuits such as golf, with my favourite being the decorative covers of illustrators such as G Beuzeville Foyster (who also illustrated children's books) in the 1930s.

Though Woman’s Outlook was published from Long Millgate in Manchester, it had an international perspective, with regular features on women and their place in societies all over the world, considering issues such as Scandinavian countries’ attitude towards prostitution and what it was like for Muslim women living behind the veil. As well as sending journalists to the House of Commons and to see a police court at work, it went out and about visiting women and celebrating their achievements, featuring profiles of women ranging from prominent trade unionists to Canada’s first women senator and 'the world's champion female aviator'. As it noted: “No paper would live that confined its news to events of its own town and nation. Readers, even the most rabid and nationalistic, want to know all about the world…the world is alive and we can no more escape being members of it than we can jump out of our own skin.”

When Woman’s Outlook started in 1919, women over the age of thirty had only recently gained the vote in England, and throughout its almost fifty year lifespan the magazine urged its readers to be politicised, join trade unions and get involved in campaigns such as: increasing the number of women MPs; providing nursery education; raising the school leaving age; abolishing the marriage bar; bringing women’s wages into line with men's; providing pensions; giving women equal compensation to men after industrial accidents and disarmament, to name but a few. Discussing a 1930s inter-country naval conference one writer pondered “I have been wondering if there is no dramatic action we women could take up so as to impress the world with our serious attitude on the question”, and elsewhere the magazine wondered 'is it any wonder we women get fed up and become radicalised' doing 'the same jobs day after day'. The magazine also offered self-help tips, from how to make a portfolio and advice on chairing and managing meetings — women were encouraged to become board and committee members in co-operative societies — to suggesting setting up study circles to share experiences with other women.

Whilst Woman’s Outlook urged women to take up causes and from its start gave women advice on how to find jobs, it acknowledged that many women were based in the domestic sphere — indeed, many women, such as teachers, had to give up their jobs upon marriage well into the twentieth century — and offered practical advice on hygiene, nutrition, child rearing and maternity as well as hints on furnishing the home and ‘smart and practical’ patterns for knitting and sewing. Love stories — often didactic tales with messages warning against moral ills such as taking credit and investing money unethically — sat alongside entertainment features on art and literature and more serious, educational articles on housing solutions and women’s working conditions.

Published during times of high unemployment, the magazine encouraged thrift and making the best out of limited means, and recipes were introduced with titles such as ‘You can’t eat your cake and have it but you can eat your orange and have the rind for use in countless ways’ and ‘When shelves are empty. Emergency jams from dried fruit.’. Women were encouraged to write in with recipes and advice, with the magazine running competitions ranging from making your own wine, including how much it cost (a potato and raisin wine, its submitter adding the detail that it was ‘in colour like best whisky’, triumphed), to the best ways to make the others around you happy at Christmas. A regular children’s page, ‘For the Bairns’ offered riddles, stories and advice such as how to look after pets.

From its inception Woman’s Outlook argued for world peace. It continued production through the second world war, printing a woman’s war time diary, a rousing series on pioneers of social reform throughout history, growing advice for allotments and recipes for making rations last as long as possible — whilst also running pieces scrutinising the distribution of food and questioning policies such as conscription. Women entered into debate through its pages, writing in to discuss topics ranging from the benefits of vegetarianism to political hot potatoes. Light relief was provided by a regular film column. All the while Woman’s Outlook urged for a Britain to be rebuilt as a fairer, more equal society after the war with better housing and access to healthcare and education.

By 1967, though modernised and resembling more of a newspaper, the magazine was no longer viable and closed for economic reasons. As the final issue noted, however: “Outlook has outlasted many of the women’s magazines that were concerned only with the more trivial aspects of a woman’s life.”

Woman’s Outlook was one of a number of publications produced by the Co-operative Movement. The magazine, and others including the Our Circle children’s magazine and the Co-operative News, can be found in the National Co-operative Archive in Holyoake House, Hanover Street, Manchester.

Cover images are used by permission of the Co-operative Press.