Tag Archives: Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham, Women’s Liberation and the International Socialists


Through the 1960s a determined reader might have had access to much of the best of today’s social history. C. L. R. James and Eric Williams had shown the contested history of slavery, from its creation in Europe to the opposition to the trade from the people of Africa and the Caribbean. The British Marxist historians, including Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson, had pioneered the concept of ‘history from below’, the idea that the past should be witnessed from the perspective not of the rulers but of the masses. In France and Germany, the major forms of social history had been defined as ‘histoire totale‘ or ‘Gesellschaftsgeschichte‘. Through studying the total set of human behaviour, including protests of subaltern groups, social history could provide a total account of human history. The most important institution behind this trend was the French journal Annales, while the British journal Past and Present and the German Geschicte und Gesellschaft showed a similar ambition.

Yet for all the undoubted qualities of the new social history, it also suffered from certain, major weaknesses. In 1970 Eric Hobsbawm was invited to present a paper to a conference in Rome on ‘Historical Studies Today’. Hobsbawm was then at the left edge of the discipline and the most prominent intellectual within the Communist Party of Great Britain. Twenty-five years later, Hobsbawm was invited to include this same paper, ‘From Social History to the History of Society’, in a collection of his articles. The paper duly appeared, but it had to be published with an awkward preface, ‘The author cannot but note with embarrassed astonishment that it contained no reference at all to women’s history. Admittedly, this field had scarcely begun to develop before the end of the 1960s, but neither I nor any of the other contributors to this volume, among the most distinguished in the profession – all males – appear to have been aware of the gap.’

Had Hobsbawm taken a closer interest, in 1970, he might have noticed that the first signs of a growing women’s consciousness were already about. While the Communist Party showed little interest in the new politics, there were other traditions that were less resistant to it. The American women’s movement, which had been strong in the 1880 and the 1920s, had been reborn in the early 1960s. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique asked why so many of her friends felt ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’. They were articulate, well-educated women who played by the rules, so why were their lives incomplete? In 1963, Friedan launched the National Organisation for Women (NOW). Two years before Hobsbawm’s paper, American women had protested against the Miss America contest. There was a women’s liberation movement in the US and in Britain. Women’s history followed it.

One key figure was Sheila Rowbotham. Born in 1943 to a Methodist family in Leeds, Rowbotham’s mother was an office clerk and her father an engineering salesman. Even as a schoolgirl, she claimed that the story of kings and queens ‘left her cold’. Educated at St. Hilda’s, an all-women college at Oxford University, Rowbotham gravitated towards left-wing politics. In the mid-1960s she sided with the left inside the Labour’s Young Socialists. ‘I spent a long time watching how people reacted to each other and I became slowly versed in the intense if narrow rigours of Trotskyism, between the collapse of CND and the rise of the student movement.’

She briefly joined one particular group, the International Socialists or “IS”. According to Rowbotham, ‘In the sixties they seemed to be able to assimilate and learn from new movements while retaining an understanding of exploitation. This was important both for the student movement and locally for me in the Vietnam Solidarity Committee in Hackney. But before these, IS had supported various kinds of community action, a campaign about racialism in Islington and the organization of private tenants in Hackney which contributed to their involvement in the council tenants’ movement in the late sixties.’ For Rowbotham, the group’s combination of coherent theory and tactical flexibility continued at least until the end of sixties.

Another important influence was Rowbotham’s friendship with Edward (“E.P.”) and Dorothy Thompson, two socialist historians of the previous generation. Through their support, Rowbotham became an active participant at the annual History Workshop conferences. ‘I wanted to understand how people formed their ideas through action, collective action, and again, History Workshop, as well as its interest in subjective experience, personal experience, of education and things like that, was always more interested in a wider concept of collective struggle than existed within Marxist ways of thinking, because in Marxism there had always been this emphasis on production.’

It is hard to separate the history and political activism of this generation. At the 1969 History Workshop conference, there was a long discussion of women’s work. Men in the audience responded critically, with at least one insisting that women did not want to work. Afterwards Sheila Rowbotham, Anna Davin, Barbara Winslow and Sally Alexander met together and decided to hold a women’s liberation conference in Ruskin. This became the first such conference in Britain. Five hundred people took part, including some forty men, who justified their presence by running the crèche, and around 50 members of IS. Not just women’s history, but the modern British movement for women’s liberation begins with the History Workshop movement.

In the ten years from 1969, Rowbotham produced an extraordinary series of books. Her first pamphlet, Women’s Liberation and the New Politics (published in 1969) was an early statement of the case for women’s liberation. Next came Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972), a history of women’s struggles to achieve equality. Hidden from History (1973) provided a short guide to women’s history from the seventeenth century onwards, covering not just the feminist movement itself but now such diverse topics as religion, birth control, rescue work, sexuality, motherhood and anti-feminism. Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973) was more of a personal memoir, mapping the path of her own development towards revolutionary feminism, and indeed of her generation. Another book, A New World for Women (1977) rescued the life of an early Communist and champion of birth control. Written with Jean McCrindle, Dutiful Daughters (1977) was an oral history of fourteen working-class and lower-middle-class women. Some were activists, others just chose to talk about their own private lives. It is useful to see this book as an expression of the Thompsonian belief that human stories are always valuable. Another co-publication, Socialism and the New Life (1977) told the story of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis, two pioneers of sexual reform. The second author was Jeffrey Weeks, one of the first British writers to publish lesbian or gay history. This creative period culminated in Rowbotham’s contribution to Beyond the Fragments, this was not an attempt to tell the story of the movement, but a challenge to remake it, arguing that socialist organisation should build on the democratic power-relationships of women’s liberation at its best. These books constitute an early zenith of women’s history, to the left of the 1970s what the British Marxist historians had been a decade earlier.

Rowbotham’s writing was influenced by politics of socialism and human liberation – the politics which also caused Rowbotham to join IS. At points she acknowledged this directly. Like all writers, Rowbotham was influenced by the friends she made, and by her milieu of colleagues and comrades. The preface to her book Hidden from History thanks socialist activists including Joan Smith, Richard Kuper and David Widgery (all from IS); comrades from the women’s movement, namely Anna Davin and Barbara Winslow; social historians from an earlier generation, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Keith Thomas, Christopher Hill and Bill Fishman. Finally, it mentions women in struggle, whose activism ‘directed many of the questions I was asking about the past’. They included ‘the Fakenham women who occupied their factory, the London cleaners who went on strike, and the women in the claimants union who in campaigning against the cohabitation clause are confronting patriarchy and the state.’ For Rowbotham, it would have been laughable to think that feminism was essentially a ‘bourgeois’ or ‘middle-class movement’, her heroes were revolutionaries and working class women. Now, it has to be admitted that the length of her acknowledgments indicates that this was not a “party line” book; the politics of International Socialism was among her influences and (this is important) it was not the only one. But it was there, a part of the whole.

Rowbotham’s biographies of Edward Carpenter and Stella Browne were both published by Pluto Press, then the in-house publisher of the IS, as was Hidden from History itself. In another book, Threads Through Time, she names women from IS in Coventry as among the constituents of the first Women’s Liberation Conference. In a further book, The Past is Before Us, Rowbotham quotes approvingly from a speech by Anna Paczuska of IS to the second, 1971 Women’s liberation conference: “For us in women’s liberation, the right of women to work is an important demand. We do not necessarily think that working women are liberation but we understand that the right to work brings many women immense social gain…”

Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World contains some of Rowbotham’s first published passages of autobiography. She described being on the left in the mid-1960s in Hackney and encountering types of left-ism which left her cold, “Like the man form Militant who solemnly told everyone that drugs, drink and women were a capitalist plot to seduce the workers from Marxism.”

Here she describes being in an IS-dominated branch of the Young Socialists: ‘I made some friends; the implications of my class background were drummed into me; my political perceptions grew out of a working-class-based local organization which was integrally bound to Marxism. Most important I encountered a Marxism in practice in which there was no single orthodoxy but much disputation.’ This was the style of the group which Tony Cliff had nurtured, young, argumentative and hopeful.

Rowbotham continues: ‘I learned from older Marxist friends that alternative Marxisms existed beyond and behind my world of the YS. They talked to me about the Communist Party, about Hungary, Algeria, about the Social Democratic Federation in Leeds. They connected politics to the way you lived.’ There was no idea then that the politics of the group might be separated from the moral failings of its leadership; this was a Marxism which had an argument for everything.

‘It seemed I was just part of a great ebbing and flowing mass of people, who fell in love, suffered, activated, died, but who all took conscious if tortured decisions which had a small but not insignificant effect. Most important, some of these people were women. The socialism I discovered from them was one which was explicitly committed to human dignity and which assumed that women should be as proud and as responsible as men.’

Why did IS attract a young activist like Rowbotham? Part of the group’s success was that it navigated successfully between two false approaches to Marxism; one, in which the problems of politics had been solved by the early passages of the Communist Manifesto, and in which all human suffering was reducible to the problems of class, and a second in which exploitation was relegated altogether and became just another one of several, undifferentiated sufferings.

The point which Marx himself had grasped (not in his 20s, it must be acknowledged, but somewhere between the Manifesto and Capital) is that the workers are not the most downtrodden, dispossessed group in society. Their claim to primacy rests not from their greater suffering but from their better implantation at the heart of capitalism and their greater capacity to take over the workplaces and production.

IS did not consider itself ‘the party’; and would have laughed at the pretensions to ‘leadership’ of the modern-day self-declared ‘working-class vanguard’ in which educators outnumber fire-fighters by 150 to 1. It was modest; its members were not afraid to laugh at themselves. But what they understood best, and more creatively than their rivals on the left, was that any socialism worthy of the name must somehow join up the struggles of the oppressed and the exploited. More than this, IS grasped that ‘joining up’ does not mean ‘dissolving one into the other’. A perspective for women’s liberation, if you wanted to have one, should grasp both the specific suffering of women in society, and recognise and analyse its specific forms (equal pay, domestic violence, unequal resposibilities for childcare, etc) while at the same time championing a world run by the workers.

Like socialism, IS always had two souls. Rowbotham’s eventual reckoning with the group came at the start of the 1980s in her autobiographical contribution to Beyond the Fragments. In effect, she blamed Cliff’s Leninist turn for her departure:

‘I joined for about eighteen months, following a drive to recruit people who agreed very generally with their aims after Powell’s racist speech in 1968. A debate about organization was just coming to an end. I puzzled over various position papers in bewilderment. In a sense I’m still reeling, for ideas take years to sink in and grow out of me. Anyway in retrospect this argument seems to me to have been crucial. It involved discussion about the degree of autonomy local branches should have. The case for a centralized structure was eventually accepted. This debate came to be referred to as a closed issue – as if it had been settled. But its implications were critical for the course which IS was to take as an organization. Closing up on these issues was a mistake. It was implied there was no time for further discussion.’

IS, she argued, had not sustained in its initial interest in the politics of Women’s Liberation – despite the fact that several of the WL groups outside London had been established by IS members. There were other examples of sectarianism, she complained, including the group’s long hostility to gay liberation: ‘Why should a group which had rejected dogma hold its ideas as moralistic defences?’ she asked. ‘Ostensibly committed to learning from workers’ struggles, the initiator of rank and file groups, opposed to bureaucracy in the labour movement, IS baulked at extending these ideas into the wider issues of everyday life or at applying them within their own organization. Even the commitment to workers’ rank and file struggles and experience came to be narrowly defined in terms of recruitment.’

‘In its early days IS really did try and break with sectarian traditions and with the windbag rhetorical rituals on the left. But this hardened into a refusal to talk about the politics of what they were doing within the left.’

All this was written, of course, before the closure of the SWP’s women’s magazine Women’s Voice, a yet further crime which could have been added to Rowbotham’s indictment

We can see this hardening in our own time, as well as its potential antidote: a left which can grasp the politics of the intimate and the everyday; a left which is serious about democracy within; a left which is comfortable in the world of the present (rather than being chained to the repetition of ideas which have not been reconsidered in 30 years).

Wouldn’t this be a better place to begin?