Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century. By Sheila Rowbotham. Verso, 312pp, £17.99. ISBN 9781844676132. Published 3 May 2010
For 30 years, Sheila Rowbotham has been at the forefront of feminism's determination to illuminate the history of women, and her latest book lives up to all our high expectations of her work. Dreamers of a New Day celebrates the work of women on both sides of the Atlantic who campaigned for a better place for women in the new industrial and urban world of the 20th century.
The book is written lucidly and with characteristic generosity. The writing of history is sometimes accompanied by a good deal of "s/he/they could do better", and one of the most impressive aspects of this book is that Rowbotham is seldom judgemental about her subjects and fully recognises that political engagement often involves both compromises and individual costs. It is no surprise to learn that the women whose history she recounts faced personal losses and sacrifices in their attempts to better the lives of others. Few had the privileges (not to mention the sense of self) of Beatrice Webb, who famously remarked to her future husband, Sidney: "I love you - but I love my work better."
Work, in the context of the world of Webb, was that of the written word, the same world as that of Virginia Woolf, a woman who is also associated with invention - in her case the invention of modernism. Woolf did not turn her back on material questions, but what is perhaps relevant in this context is the way in which her concerns, particularly those about subjective experience, are often assumed to be more characteristic of the 20th century than the history that Rowbotham celebrates.
There is a strong case for arguing that women contributed (in all sorts of ways) to the making of every century, and in that sense Rowbotham's subjects were perhaps less extraordinary (although no less important) than she suggests. But at the same time what stands out in Rowbotham's account is twofold: the welcome way in which she maintains the material in the history of women; and an implicit challenge to the view that the 20th century was only a time of barbarism. Instead, here she celebrates altruism, a human capacity that many people do not regard as foremost in modern history. Narcissism, individualism, greed and brutality (not to mention continued determined efforts to discipline and punish) are more commonly the words used to describe the culture, the events and the people of the 20th century. Resisting that culture, and attempting to alleviate its impact on the most vulnerable, needed collective responses and it is these responses that are recorded here.
Crucial to these responses was a clear identification with the particular situation and experience of women, a characteristic that is perhaps more of a marker of what was invented rather than, as Rowbotham argues, the 20th century itself. Women at the beginning of the 19th century had claimed, as Barbara Taylor, another feminist historian, has pointed out, that male trade unionists were often as "bad as their masters" in their refusal to acknowledge the interests of women. In common with other powerless social groups, women had to acquire recognition.
What is so fascinating about the relationship of women to the 20th (and indeed the 21st) century is the way in which the achievement of that recognition brought with it both considerable improvements in individual lives and at the same time new forms of gendered inequality. Not the least of these is the continued capacity of industrial capitalism to exploit women; the sex that fought for rights in employment, education, politics and that still-elusive goal of equal pay is now the one whose sexuality fuels huge consumer industries.
It is perhaps here that we confront the paradox of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yes, women have different (and for many of them better) lives than their great-grandmothers. But those lives are still curtailed in ways that many of Rowbotham's campaigners would recognise: the competing demands of work and home and the dominance (as the most recent British election campaign made clear) of the masculine in politics.
The value of Rowbotham's book, however, lies in its recording of a particular political tradition - the making of a template for politics that is not about the interests of the few but of the many, the value of challenging individualism and greed and refusing to celebrate their achievements. The book provides us with the timely material that may encourage us to continue to try to join up some of the dots in contemporary politics, including those of gender, class and power.
Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century
By Sheila Rowbotham
Verso, 312pp, £17.99
Published 3 May 2010