Monday, 21 February 2011

Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham's history of women's activism  covers the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, and her dreamers and visionaries are drawn from both sides of the Atlantic.  This makes her book extremely comprehensive in scope and allows her to tell us about a large number of women, some still well known, others new to me at least, who worked to effect social change and, in doing so, changed the position of women in society forever.  It also plainly shows how an idea needs the right context and conditions to flourish: campaigns and initiatives that worked in America failed in England, and vice versa; issues that seemed crucial in one country could be trivial or invisible in the other.

Rowbotham's approach is thematic, and covers topics such as sex, gender, work, domesticity, consumption and politics; she takes in the work of radical minorities and more mainstream campaigners, allowing us to grasp the range and complexity of ideas and arguments about these issues.  There are detailed analyses of the development (or lack of it) of sex education for young women and of the growth of consumer power.  The stories of consumer boycotts, organised and sustained by women, to reduce prices were particularly eye-opening, as one of them led to the kosher meat riots of 1917 in New York, in which women attacked butchers physically to register their protest about rising prices:  one Mrs Teibel Shimberg was seen "beating a peddler's head with her shopping bag".

Possibly my favourite dreamer in this book is Sarah Lees, a liberal suffragist from Edwardian Oldham.  Infuriated by the failure of Oldham council to address the housing needs of its citizens, she "formed a co-operative building society among the better-paid mill workers.  Within six years, they had built a garden suburb of 150 three-bedroomed houses, each with a bathroom, offered at rents which were affordable to working-class families." Like Sarah Lees, many of Rowbotham's dreamers had a strong pragmatic streak which allowed them to make a real and lasting difference to the lives of those around them.

Rowbotham's transatlantic approach allows us to see the differences between the needs of women in the UK and America.  Many activists proposed a communal approach to reduce the burden of domestic labour, and set up communal kitchens and laundries as a result.  Communal kitchens were relatively popular in America, but failed in the UK, because they were too much like the hated and feared workhouse.  Notions of communality of this sort have all but died away in current society, now that individual homes have (allegedly) labour-saving devices installed, although are perhaps being revived by community garden schemes in parts of the UK.  Another advantage of the focus on American campaigners is that it includes the work of black women in the wider history of women's activism.  Often separated by racial prejudice from white reform workers, black women established radical and innovative means of effecting social change.  Entrepreneurs like Maggie Lena Walker, who established a women's insurance company and a department store before revitalising a friendly society, show how purchasing power helped support the black community and resist the effects of institutionalised bigotry. 

My one criticism of this book is that it does, occasionally, become a list of remarkable women, and it can be hard to keep track of them as they disappear and reappear from the narrative.  Some sort of genealogical chart, along the lines of Rock Family Trees, would have been much appreciated.  But this is a minor issue: the book is an enlightening read, and encourages both reflection on the achievements of "our adventurous foremothers" and speculation as to what today's dreamers might achieve.

For those who would like to know more about this book, here is a thoughtful and enthusiastic review by Kirsty of Other Stories, guest-blogging for the F-Word.

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