‘dreamers of a new day’

David Broder reviews Sheila Rowbotham’s new book about turn-of-the-century feminism

I first heard about this book when I saw a review of it in The Observer. The reviewer began her first paragraph by referring to the under-representation of women in David Cameron’s Cabinet.

Of course, establishment politics and politicians are sexist. But the ideas typical of the reviewer’s focus—not enough women ministers, not enough women in board-rooms—is greatly at odds with both the themes of the book, and the intentions of the many great working-class women whose activism Rowbotham describes. Their struggles were to liberate the whole of society, not just to pave the way for a handful of  women to ‘make it big’.

This does however relate to a debate very apparent in this period: is the goal of feminism just formal equal rights, or is it to challenge more fundamentally the way in which capitalist society itself is ‘gendered’? Rowbotham’s protagonists fought to change everyday life and saw gender reflected in all fields of activity.

For instance, she quotes Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writing on 1915 on society’s ‘dress code’: “‘Cloth is a social tissue; a sort of social skin’… the distinct costumes of men and women were meant to ensure that ‘we should never forget sex’”.

This challenging of gender roles went hand-in-hand with challenging reactionary and stuffy attitudes towards sex. The 1880s saw a strong development in the USA of “an explicitly female counter-cultural space in which to articulate wants and desires”, challenging both the idea that sex was just part of a woman’s “marital duties” but also the patronising assumptions of ‘moral reformers’. We are told of one woman who, when she “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’”.

Educational authoritarianism was also questioned, for example in the Finnish immigrant socialist halls in America where children called all adults ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ and “implicit… was the idea that the upbringing of children was a social responsibility”.

Rowbotham furthermore details the work of birth control advocate Stella Browne, who “saw women’s control over procreation as part of a wider process of creative, liberatory revolution”. She comments, “The slogans ‘workers’ control’ and ‘birth control’ foregrounded active individual agency in the wider struggle to transform society”.

Indeed, she counterposes ideas like those of Browne and Alexandra Kollontai to the various birth control plans advocated by eugenicists, and the ‘left-wing’ reaction to this which feared birth control would reduce the working-class population: while the socialist feminist approach stressed individual needs and desires, the latter attitude was based on grandiose and anti-democratic schemas.

The book does make some effort to look into the failings of the male-dominated left, for example the neglect of women—in particular black women—by the American trade union movement. However, Rowbotham does not really integrate this into discussion of the connection between the gendered nature of many left and workers’ movement organisations, and their bureaucratic and statist means of organising.

This is hinted at in the book, for example the objections of the likes of communist Sylvia Pankhurst and the Industrial Workers of the World to statist welfare schemes, or ‘wages for housework’, which they saw as paternalistic measures institutionalising the family unit. Rowbotham’s and Lynne Segal’s articles in Beyond the Fragments both discuss in more depth how we should defend state welfare provision while also demanding greater say in how public services are run.

Dreamers of a New Day is heavy reading due to the sheer volume of subjects, individuals and political struggles discussed. However it is valuable in demonstrating the interconnection of collective political action and individual behaviour, and how the society we want in the future has to be created in the here and now.

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