I can still remember the excitement I felt when, in 1981, I was offered a Social Science Research Council studentship to study full-time for my PhD at The Open University. I had intended to research the education of working-class women in early 20th-century Britain, but my interest soon switched to the 19th century.
These were heady times to be a PhD student trying to find out about women's lives in the past. A decade earlier, the so-called second wave of feminism in Western Europe and North America had sparked off a renewed interest in women's history, an interest that challenged most historical accounts of the past.
Most mainstream history had been written not only by men, but also about men's activities in wars, courts, politics, diplomacy, business and administration. Women were largely invisible or, if present, belittled in some way or located within sex-stereotypical discussions about the family or the effect of their paid work on their family roles.
If there was one book in Britain that crystallised the discontent and disillusionment that many activists in the women's liberation movement felt about this situation, it was Sheila Rowbotham's Hidden From History: 300 Years of Women's Oppression and the Fight against It. This book acted as a catalyst for the "taking-off" of women's history in this country. I read it with amazement and joy.
Hidden from History was first published in 1973. A slim volume, it did not present new and detailed research, but instead offered a broad sweep of the past, charting the changing position of women in England from the 16th century to the 1930s. Writing from a socialist feminist perspective, Rowbotham drew upon a diverse range of secondary sources to explore the complex interrelationship between the class exploitation of women in the past and their oppression as women.
"The subordination of women has been sexual as well as political," she proclaimed. Issues that had been central to women's lives and largely ignored, such as birth control, abortion and female sexuality, were explored. Nor was the link between the past and present ignored. "We are involved in a continuing struggle to claim our bodies and our labour power which social relationships of domination have removed from our control," she concluded.
Today the expanding field of women's history is less feminist and more descriptive, and no longer confined to the themes and the socialist framework that Rowbotham articulated. But the very title of this canonical text encapsulated the "problem" with history as taught in our universities 40 years ago. It embodied an idea that was influential in its time and still reverberates in many corners of the earth. It shook the academy from its assumption that men's histories should be portrayed as universally applicable to humankind.