Where her previous offering focused on one remarkable man – the socialist and gay activist Edward Carpenter – Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book is generous in the extreme, introducing the reader to dozens upon dozens of remarkable women. From the 1880s to the 1930s and on both sides of the Atlantic, there are all the usual suspects – although the kind one never tires of, such as Emma Goldman – alongside a host of former-unknowns, struggling to transform their selves and society. The women are diverse (wealthy housewives, working-class immigrants, the daughters of slaves), disparate (anarchists, socialists, liberals) and frequently divided (both as a sex and internally, as individuals).
There is much that feminists today can learn from their daring. Their scope of ideas and action was gloriously wide ranging and radical: they sought the complete transformation of the home, of the relations of production and of reproduction, of the very nature of work, of themselves as individuals and as a sex. They made connections between situations – their consumption and the sweatshops that enabled it; between struggles – anti-sexism and anti-racism; and between the illusory public and private spheres – home economics opened up a new critique of the capitalist economy.
Rowbotham is excellent at translating their energy onto the page; and so, while noting setbacks and shortcomings, the overall feel of the book is celebratory (a crucial rebalancing act given the extent to which women’s role in history-making has been marginalised and even forgotten) and joyful. There were several occasions where I became so caught up in the women’s dreamy envisioning that it was almost jarring to close the book and find myself back in a world where so many of those dreams have been co-opted or left unrealised.
And then it’s Rowbotham’s conclusion that becomes most relevant. Writing that ‘perhaps this faith in possibility is their most precious legacy’, she quotes the ‘redoubtable’ Lois Waisbrooker (an American writer, campaigner and former servant, but that description doesn’t do her justice – read the book): ‘The first step … is to believe that it can be done; the next that it will be done, and lastly to determine to do it ourselves.’