The historian with a walk-on part

Promise of a Dream
September 8, 2000

As they grow older, historians of the modern age are likely to face the curious dilemma that arises from seeing the earlier years of their lives treated as history by a younger generation of scholars. Participant historians have to make up their own minds about how to deal with the problem. Should they attempt to correct the narrative? Should they write their own version? Do they have a duty to try to correct the record?

Sheila Rowbotham is a historian of some standing. Her response to the historian's dilemma as it relates to the 1960s, the decade that saw her passage from adolescence to maturity, has been to write a very personal account of those years as she experienced them, autobiography rather than social history. It is a book that will help future historians understand aspects of the experience of young people, experiences not often found in press reports, statistics or other official sources, but that makes no attempt to generalise about the decade.

The 1960s had for the 20th century some of the talismanic qualities that the 1880s had for the 19th. New ideas, new movements, outbursts of creativity in the arts and the public questioning of received dogma in sexual, marital and familial questions marked both periods as significant moments of change. And as with the earlier decade, the significance of the 1960s has become part of the stuff of political and sociological debate in the years that have followed.

Rowbotham does not attempt to enter the debate, but she has written an enthralling and sensitive account of one young woman's life between the ages of 17 and . It makes no claim to be representative, although, as the endorsement by Julie Christie suggests, many of the experiences will find echoes with other 1960s' survivors.

For many people on the left, the early 1960s seemed to represent a period when the mainstream caught up with, and whisked into itself, ideas that had been around for a long time. Open marriages, A. S. Neill and educational reform, support for decolonisation and the break-up of the old empires, participation in anti-nuclear and anti-war movements - all these were part of the lives of a significant number of liberal and radical families well before the 1960s. In that decade, however, the anti-Vietnam war movement in America and the re-grouping of leftwing and socialist ideas in East and West Europe after the dramatic events of Suez and Hungary seemed to bring into public life a generation of confident young people - the first generation to have grown up entirely since the end of the second world war, a generation prepared to make demands on society and on life in general, and to experiment in physical, mental and emotional ways that went far beyond the agenda of old-style radicals. The culture of acid and dope replaced alcohol and the odd reefer, Laingian counter-psychiatry made every student a diagnostician, and institutions from day nurseries and playgroups to the Houses of Parliament came up for scrutiny, analysis and proposals for either destruction or reform.

Rowbotham was a young, energetic internationalist. She was prepared to experiment with and to work with many of the new groups, including the fissiparous Trotskyite factions that were struggling for the legacy of the Communist Party or the soul of the Labour movement. But in all the formations from the communes to the editorial boards of journals, she found that the notion of equality between the sexes was given little more than lip service. Women still made the tea, did the typing and collected the kids from school. Rowbotham and some of her friends and associates began to put together a new kind of women's movement, and she began to look again at the history of women. From these two interests were to grow the writing and activity for which she is now well known; a concern with women's history and work, and a record of practical activity in helping to gain better working conditions for marginalised women - cleaners, home-workers and others who had so far been of little concern.

Not all readers, by any means, will have experienced these years in the same way. But the great strength of this book is the author's ability to combine the political and social with the very personal. The accounts of the successes, failures, joys and pains of young adulthood have the qualities usually found in the best creative writing. It is a book to be read for the quality of its writing and the honesty and humour of its presentation as much as for the history that it reveals.

Dorothy Thompson is at the institute of advanced research in arts and social sciences, University of Birmingham.

Promise of a Dream

Author - Sheila Rowbotham
ISBN - 0 713 99446 0
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 262

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