Book review: ‘Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the 20th Century’ by Sheila Rowbotham (Verso, 2010)
This inspiring book examines how women challenged many aspects of public and private life between the 1880s and 1920s, in Britain and in the USA. They did so from different positions in the political spectrum, as liberals, socialists or anarchists. Women expressed their opinions, and often their frustrations, in books and pamphlets on political issues but also in social research, memoirs, novels and poetry. The context was their sense that society was moving towards a more collectivist approach and ‘in differing ways they saw their role as speeding up the process’. In an era when we are going the other way, Rowbotham captures an unfamiliar sense of optimism.
The slogan ‘the personal is political’ was coined by second wave feminists in the late 1960s, but the range of topics covered here shows that it applied over a century ago. The first chapter gives the impression that the focus is going to be on the well-trodden path of women’s contribution to the public sphere through campaigning and philanthropic activities – but then things start to get more interesting.
We are soon into the territory of challenges to personal life, and how matters previously regarded as private were shown to have social and political implications. The three chapters on sex, birth control and motherhood include fascinating material and outline fundamental disagreements. Some women, particularly anarchists, defended their right to ‘free love’ unions, despite finding that society was far less forgiving of cohabitation for women than for men and that, in some cases, to remain unmarried was no guarantee of happiness in their relationships. Others felt that women should be protected from potential sexual exploitation by men. Although there was widespread agreement on the need for sex education, use of contraception created further rifts. Malthusians were in favour; opponents argued that poverty would be alleviated by the redistribution of wealth rather than by smaller families. Eugenicists on the right and left of the political spectrum saw an opportunity for selective breeding. Marxist women were initially suspicious that the whole issue was ‘a diversion from the class war’. What was not in doubt was that giving birth was far more dangerous than it is today, with the British campaigner Dora Russell, writing in the early 1920s, reporting that it was four times as dangerous as working in a coal mine.
A second significant area is housework and domestic consumption, which proved to be surprisingly radical. The new emphasis on the importance of the home led women to argue for greater involvement in municipal activities such as public health, housing, education, and social work, all of which contributed to better domestic conditions. Housework remained time-consuming and isolating, though, for those without servants, as ideas about collective living never really caught on. As one working class woman in Seattle put it: ‘I loved my home, but I hated the everlasting monotony of putting the sugar-bowl on the table and taking it off again three times a day; of wanting something of beauty as well as utility in my surroundings, and never being able to afford it’. The seeds of consumerism had been sown – but many new inventions made women’s lives easier, such as the first laundries and takeaways. Purchasing power began to be used as a political tactic, for example against department stores in the USA selling clothes made in the sweat shops of New York’s Lower East Side. But perhaps most important were the campaigns for better housing, which included action to improve the New York tenements, Octavia Hill’s liberal philanthropic approach in England, and the involvement of socialist women in 1915’s Glasgow Rent Strike. Housing was never far from the attention of women, both reformers and revolutionaries, in those years. We could learn from that today.
Finally the book returns to the workplace. On both sides of the Atlantic women were active in campaigns for better working conditions and there are many remarkable examples included. Dilemmas remained: whether to work for the overthrow of capitalism or for gradual improvements through regulation and better wages? If the latter, what were the best tactics? And was it better to work with men or in women-only organisations such as the Women’s Trade Union League? Rowbotham ends by describing the frustrations involved for many women: ‘Change proved not to be linear; instead it was patchy and seemed painfully slow’. However, once the impact of these years on the rest of the 20th century is reviewed, a more hopeful picture is revealed.
Of necessity, the broad range of topics, in two countries, means that each chapter doesn’t go into much detail, but the book will prompt further reading, including perhaps a return to old favourites. The similarities and differences are instructive. There are still unresolved issues around employment rights, the domestic division of labour, participation in political parties and the trades unions, and attitudes to birth control and motherhood. Other aspects of women’s lives at that time appear utterly bizarre now, for example the harsh physical labour of housekeeping, the social isolation of many women, and – of course – the lack of enfranchisement. Incidentally, the suffrage movement gets surprisingly little coverage.
In a strange way it’s reassuring to read about some of the questions I remember from the 1980s being problematic a long time before that, most particularly conflicts relating to class and ethnicity. Women don’t always agree – but we can still achieve the changes we want and need, in some cases through working with men and at other times on our own. This book reminded me of why I’m a feminist, and that I’m part of a long tradition.
Latest posts by Jenny Muir (see all)
- An interview with Claire Hanna - October 13, 2010
- Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the 20th Century - August 17, 2010
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- An interview with John Barry - March 1, 2010
- Are We There Yet? - February 5, 2010