Sisterhood, solidarity, silence


A review of Sheila Rowbotham, Daring to Hope (Verso, 2021)

The publication of a new volume of Sheila Rowbotham’s memoirs is an occasion to celebrate. The period covered by the book from 1970-9 comprises all the most moments of second-wave feminism in the UK: the first Ruskin women’s liberation conference with its four demands of equal pay, equal access to education and work, free contraception and abortion, and free nurseries; the protests against Miss World, the successful struggle (joined by the trade unions) to defeat anti-abortion laws.

Rowbotham’s perspective, then and now, was a rank-and-file one. Having written some of the defining books of the emerging movement – Women, Resistance and Revolution; Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World; and Hidden from History – she had sketched out one of the tenets of the new movement, the belief that by drawing out a continuous tradition of women’s efforts to change the world, activists could understand themselves, know the shoulders on which they stood, and change the world.

Much of Daring to Hope takes the form of brief studies of pioneering feminists – the women that Rowbotham met at significant movement events, so Rowbotham meets Sally Alexander a fellow historian and organiser of the Miss World protests, and reports to her friends how men seem incapable of distinguishing the two of them. She meets Barbara Winslow, later the biographer of Sylvia Pankhurst. In the United States, Rosalyn Baxandall is researching a book on the IWW leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Rowbotham meets Baxandall when the latter reviews her own books, then stays with her in New York. Expecting to meet someone “frighteningly intellectual and serious”, Rowbotham is astonished to find her host tall, blonde and very funny.

One early friend and rival is Germaine Greer, whose name had been made through lurid pieces for Oz magazine. (Rowbotham’s friends at the latter magazine included its editor Richard Neville, Marsha Rowe and David Widgery). Rowbotham reviews The Female Eunuch favourably for Oz, while writing into her review a coded warning that Greer’s vision of the free woman seemed to be rather too open, like Greer herself, to a cult of the celebrity. Women’s Liberation, Rowbotham insists, was a militantly egalitarian movement – hostile to any notion of leaders, always emphasising the collective.

Beyond speaking, researching and writing, Rowbotham’s main organising involvement is a several-year attempt to unionise the women who cleaned the offices in the City. At times, she and her friends secure victories. At times, they are pushed back. One of the few moments when the campaign really does seem to be winning occurs in 1971, when Bernadette Devlin MP agrees to meet the cleaners. “Devlin sat on a table in a mini skirt, crossed her legs, flicked back her hair and got straight into speaking with knowledge and fervour about women’s working conditions”. What better symbol could you have of the radical 70s than this event – which brought together in one occasion, each of the demands for women’s liberation, for Irish freedom and revolutionary socialism?

Although Rowbotham was a pioneering feminist, she alludes to the love and intellectual support she received from certain leftwing men. For almost all of this decade Rowbotham was in a relationship with the socialist doctor and anti-fascist Dave Widgery.

Further, Rowbotham alludes to letters sent to her by Dorothy and Edward Thompson, the latter appearing in the text as a continuous, brooding but silent presence – disatsfied with progress, warning of dangers. On reading the first draft of Women, Resistance and Revolution, Rowbotham notes, the two historians sent her an “extremely critical” letter – accusing her of recreating a teleological account of women’s appearance in history, which operated on its own “hidden momentum” and failed to account for the subtle shifts of women’s consciousness whether during periods of ascent or backlash. The letter is summarised but not quoted – which, for this reader anyway, was a significant loss.

Throughout her book, Rowbotham’s style is to quote as sparingly as possible, and to tone done the rifts within the movement in favour of a narrative of shared unity towards a single goal. These choices are not accidental; form is message. Today, as fifty years ago, Rowbotham wants us to see not the splits, nor to get stuck on the discordant voices, but to focus on a an agrument spreading stage by stage from birth to rise to triumph. I can understand why she writes like that – Rowbotham is a movement-builder – just as the socialists of the 1880s and 1890s were movement-builders, and sometimes you do indeed need a story in which the rise is continuous and ultimate victory guaranteed.

But, for the leader of such a movement optimism comes at a price. When people behave selfishly or destructive, you have to keep your silence. The longer you spend criticising those whose only relationship to the movement is to take from it, the greater the danger that the movement as a whole will seem less, for their participation in it. Until there are important things you cannot say at all.

In one instance, Rowbotham does speak candidly about a destructive voice: Selma James of the Wages for Housework collective, and her allies, who Rowbotham describes as having treated the early women’s liberation movement to an old-style raiding exercise – creating friends and enemies according to a single measure, would they, or would they not, encourage the spread of James’s ideas?

The one debate which came closest to splitting the movement in two was that between socialist feminists, of which Rowbotham was an exemplary figure and the radical feminists, led by the likes of Sheila Jeffreys. From 1977 onwards the two wings of the movement were hurtling apart over a series of controversies which included: was all of human history a single period of women’s subjugation leading up to the present (Rowbotham’s essay The Trouble with Patriarchy was the clearest statement published in rejection of that view), was all heterosexual sex tainted by male selfishness and violence (the sex positive/sex negative controversy), and (if it was the case that pornography etc) were the highest forms of male violence, what should be said or done about women prostitutes (so that by the end of the decade you had the pedecessors of today’s “SWERF” and “TERF” politics).

The existence of those splits place a question mark beneath the narrative of Rowbotham’s account. She wants everyone in the women’s movement to be united, just as everyone seemingly had been between about 1970 and 1976, or between about 2010 and 2015.

Such are the splits of today that while pro-trans feminism can find any number of parents in the socialist feminist camp (to this reader, anyway, there is a pretty clear line between the anti-essentialism of Lynne Segal’s Is the future female? and today’s revolutionary and social reproduction-oriented feminism); it is also the case that an important part of the anti-trans bloc justifies itself using a a language of class versus identity that can be traced back to the Women’s Charter and parts of the socialist feminist coalition, and to meetings which Rowbotham describes herself as dutifully attending.

The approach of Daring to Hope is, in relation to these developments at the end of the decade – just not to see or comment on them. Two hundred women are named in Rowbotham’s index, but there are no entries for Sheila Jeffreys nor for radical nor revolutionary feminism.

There was never a proper reckoning between these two strands of the femnist movement; or if there was, it was acheived through a silent backtow of opinion, in which the Rowbotham generation – having exposed the faults of the Leninist sects in Beyond the Fragments (the final section of this volume), then fell victim to an unspoken policy of exclusion at the hands of the new radical majority, becoming in the words of Melissa Benn ‘ghost[s] at the feast of the politics [they] helped create’.

Those of us who live through our own 1980s – with the right secure in power, and social movements isolated and inwardly-looking as befits a generation suffering defeat – may regret that there was no open reckoning in the 1970s between these two trends. Or, more accurately, that the left of 1970s feminism never acknowledged what they were, i.e. pioneers constantly having to re-persuade those closest to them. Their eyes were always set on hope but sometimes (and fatefully) they lost the argument.

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