Daring to Hope by Sheila Rowbotham review – at the forefront of 1970s feminism | Company books

Sheila Rowbotham, co-founder of the first women’s liberation conference in Oxford in 1970, then dared to hope that revolution, if not near, was at least possible. At the end of the decade – a period of deep dislocation and dissent which included a miners’ strike, the three day week, the Vietnam War, unrest in Northern Ireland, the rise of gay liberation, a government Labor introducing deep social cuts, followed by the election of Margaret Thatcher and the arrival of neoliberalism – Rowbotham writes: “Socialist feminists like me have not given up hope but daring has waned.

Dare to hope: my life in the 1970s records a grueling life of activism, lecturing, pamphleteers, publishing, bookwriting, journalism, travel, speeches, struggling against emerging ideas and conflicts in the supposedly non-hierarchical brotherhood (“Who had to start a meeting when everyone was competing not to be a leader? ”), motherhood and, as a sexual libertarian, a complicated love life with, at one point, three men on the move and a town hall in Hackney to maintain a very unreliable income. “A vision of us giving birth to a new policy of harmony” did not allow much sleep.

Rowbotham, now 70, is a multi-award-winning social historian and co-founder of the History Workshop movement, which views history from the perspective of women and “ordinary people.” For decades she was a columnist for radical groups in Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam, China, Russia and Britain (as documented in the years 1972 Women, Resistance and Revolution and Hidden from history in 1973). Basically, what she learned helped shape the ideas that sparked the second wave of feminism.

Rowbotham deserves to be better known to the younger generations. womena consciousness, the world of man, first published in 1973 and reprinted several times over the decade, is still a powerful introduction to how “in a world defined by men” women face enormous obstacles in “projecting themselves”. in the future “. Then it was about mutual support and grassroots collective action to run nurseries, rape centers and shelters, organize housekeepers and support strikers – find out what the women had in it. common was systemic discrimination. The staff had become political. “This feeling of recognition that could signal new ways of seeing,” she writes.

Rowbotham has wisdom – and wit. When Paul Atkinson, the father of his son Will, announced that they would “practice celibacy and [having] historic outings, ”she writes:“ I must respect the human right to choose, ”drily echoing the pro-abortion slogan. (A friend says of left-wing feminist men: “Somehow, once they got over their chauvinism, their lives were on the run.”)

In 1970 Rowbotham was 27. It was a time when rape in marriage was allowed, a woman needed a guarantor to get a mortgage, equal pay legislation was yet to come and among the many factions on the left, the women were seen but certainly not heard. .

The first women’s liberation conference demanded equal pay, equal education and employment opportunities, contraception and abortion on demand, and free 24-hour nurseries. Even then Rowbotham feared that “once achieved, women will remain oppressed.” Her goal as a socialist feminist was not to “bend down”, climb the corporate ladder, and help maximize economic growth, but to create a better society.

In Dare to hopeRowbotham writes of her disenchantment with mainstream Marxist history for neglecting the role of housewives in supporting the economy and issues of sexuality, sexual oppression, and motherhood. In the 1970s, she wondered about the whiteness of the feminist movement. “Is this a movement for liberated women or a movement to liberate all women?” ” she asks.

At the end of the decade, with Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, Rowbotham wrote Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism to try to strengthen the bonds of solidarity which are unraveling while hope had been destroyed by the rise of the right. “Brotherhood demands a new way of living,” she writes. “The ultimate oppression of women forces a redefinition of what is personal and what is political.”

If that sounds archaic, it shows how much daring has been diminished.

Dare to hope: my life in the 1970s by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso (£ 20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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