Sheila Rowbotham on new and old feminisms

Sheila Rowbotham is one of the grande dames of British feminism. When I went to a talk by her on Dreams of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century at Bookmarks, the packed crowd was hanging on her every word. And she was always impressive, even when depressing as she recalled the optimism of the Seventies in contrast to the feelings today: “It seemed things were going too slowly. We thought, ‘why don’t things change quickly?’ We didn’t bargain for the fact that capitalism would go into a completely different phase; we thought welfare-based capitalism would be democratised. We didn’t believe it would be so radically diminished. … We saw women in parliament as a detail, equal pay as a detail, but the details proved to be extremely difficult.”

She added: “We’ve learned now that you can go backwards. In the Seventies we assumed once you made a gain it would stay there. … It is much harder to argue for equality in a situation where equality is not respected.”

I asked her about the current focus on porn/sexualisation among much feminist campaigning, and she responded that “selling things through sex was the route that capitalism took, and was using more and more. I don’t know how you can get that to change.” The “only alternative vision available” at present was the environmental movement she said, for Marxists had found that their assumption that the working class would resist capitalism was wrong. “The challenge is how to change society without extremely moralistic disapproval. Lots of small groups of people have been convinced but it is how to convince the mass of people now watching the World Cup and buying lots of gadgets.”

It’s an historical perspective from one who was there, and has seen a lot. It’s not, however, the subject of the book she was promoting, her new Dreamers of the New Day, which covers from the 1880s to the start of World War I, and is entirely successful in proving that there’s nothing really new under the son. The women she’s writing about lived in a very different world, but between them they thought up pretty well every revolutionary advance that we’re still dreaming about today.

What they wanted was nothing more than the abolition of gender stereotypes, something that today seems very dreamlike indeed. Who could argue with the hopes of Elsie Clews Parson, in 1914 in Journal of a Feminist:
“The day will come when the individual … [will not] have to pretend to be possessed of a given quoota of femaleness and maleness. This morning perhaps I fell like a male; let me act like one. This afternoon I may feel like a female; let me act like one. At midday or at midnight I may feel sexless; let me therefore act sexlessly… It is such a confounded bore to have to act one part endlessly.”

They also wanted access to birth control and abortion – rights that women are still fighting for today — (while also – generally – rejecting Malthusian and eugenics reasoning around them). Rowbotham recounts how Stella Browne put the case for the legalization of abortion in 1915 in a paper to the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, before going on to be a founder member of the Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936.

The wonderfully long-lived and long campaigning Charlotte Despard was a leader in setting up mother and baby clinics, beginning in Nine Elms in South London. In my local area, St Pancras, under pressure from mothers the Medical Officer for Health opened a school for mothers along with a clinic with health visitors – it was to be a model for many more. In East London, Sylvia Pankhurst and her Federation of Suffragettes bought a pub, The Gunmakers’ Amrs, renaming it the Mothers Arms, providing medicine, milk and nutritious food.

There’s also oh-so-familiar debates about childcare and how much the mother should provide. Rowbotham quotes the Greenwich Village feminist Henrietta Rodman on mothering: “The baby is the great problem of the woman who attempts to carry the responsibilities of wage-earning and citizenship. We must have babies for our own happiness, and we must give them the best of ourselves – not only for their own good, not only for the welfare of society, but for our own self expression … [but] the mother of the past has been so busy with her children that she hasn’t had time to enjoy them…The point is not how long but how intensely a mother does it.”

Housework, then as now, was another cause for fervent debate. It was in 1913 that the American socialist Jospehine Conger-Kaneteko, demanded, as women would again do in the Sixties and Seventies, wages for housework. She insisted that women’s household labour was ensuring their husbands could be efficient employees, and employers should be forced to recognise this. More radically still, in 1920, Crystal Eastman asked: “How can we change the nature of man so that he will honourably share the work and responsibility and thus make the home-making enterprise a song instead of a burden?” Rearing sons to do housework was her answer, Rowbotham reports.

And the problems of clothing were a cause for great debate. Rowbotham quotes Charlotte Perkins Wilman on the distinctive female dress was meant to ensure “we should never forget sex”. But, our author says, women in desexualised clothing were very deliberately trying to colonise new spaces, even in the face of ridicule: “Critics sneared at the plain shirtwaisters and ties worn by Russian-Jewish immigrant working class new women who sat in cafes debating marriage, the family and working conditions. One hostile observer in the 1890s derided the “atmosphere of tea-steam and cigarette smoke’, denouncing the ‘pallid, tired, thin-lipped, flat-chested and angular’ women for whom ‘The time of night means nothing until way into the small hours.'”

It wasn’t only women who were acting bravely and thinking originally. Rowbotham tells the tale of the Comstock laws in America, passed in 1873, which banned the distribution of “obscene” literature through the mail. Among those caught, and jailed, as a result was Moses Harman (father of campaigner Lillian), once for writing about women’s right to resist rape in marriage. He was jailed again for publishing articles by birth control advocate Dora Forster, who argued that the worst kind of prostitution was in conventional marriages, where women were taught to use their bodies for economic and social advantage.

Rowbotham has found some wonderful examples of debates and encounters on issues still being played out today, perhaps more notably on prostitution:

“When the future campaigner against lead contamination, Alive Hamilton, braved a brothel in Toledo to rescue a prostitute, she found, instead of the victim she had expected, ‘a woman of mature years, handsome, dignified, entirely mistress of herself’ in a house that was ‘luxurious but vulgarly ugly’. The meeting was an occasion for mutual incomprehension. The young idealistic reformer heard the calculating voice of a tradeswoman. ‘…I spend my time persuading men to spend money on what they don’t really want.’ For her part the prostitute was appalled by Hamilton’s altruistic settlement life in the Chicago slums: “That is not the sort of thing I could possibly do,” she observed with disgust…. From 1910 the upper-middle-class Bostonian Fanny Quincy Howe regularly corresponded with a Jewish prostitute and morphine addict, Maimie Pinzer, who told Howe she regarded divorce as ‘a lot of follishness and a marriage ceremony the worst lot of cant I ever heard.'”

I’d defy any reader not to learn surprising new things from Dreamers of the New Day: the most prominent snippet for me was the origins of the word “ecology” – it was “oekology” originally, coined by Ellen Swallow Richards, the first female graduate of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, where she was later a lecturer. In her 1882 The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning, she presented housework as a science, and she regarded work in the home as the basis for a much broader responsibility outside it. The world was everyone’s house, she declared, and it required good housekeeping, and that meant a science of the environment, for which she found the word.

All of this original, and often still radical, thinking was done despite its originators living in a world with the most ridiculous (to our eyes) restrictions. Rowbotham explains that women in the 1880s and 1890s were attending in Oxford and Cambridge University Extension lectures, and even being allowed to fully enrol in the newer provincial universities. But at Owens College Manchester, the female students were barred from the library: they had to send their maids to collect books. And the anarchists Rose Witcop and Guy Aldred were charged and convicted with distributing obscene literature for Family Limitation a straight practical text on birth control, with their lawyer explaining that this was probably because a diagram that showed a pessary being placed in a vagina. The obscenity was that the finger might not be the woman’s own, a thought that came as a total surprise to the female publisher.

Dreamers of the New Day could be criticised, perhaps, for not taking us forward, for simply reporting the past, but Rowbotham is, after all, primarily a historian, and this book is wonderfully original and delightful to read – and it recovers for new readers wonderful women of the past who deserve to be remembered. Perhaps your favourite will Mrs Grundy who in Shipley, Yorkshire, fought for women’s access to the Turkish baths at the same price as the men. She’s certainly one of mine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *