Sex, politics and a quality imagination

Renowned feminist writer Sheila Rowbotham talks to Matthew Reisz about writing from her own experience and imagining what it is like to be inside a homosexual man's body

October 16, 2008

There was a crucial moment in the late 1960s when many radical women switched their focus from left-wing politics to feminism. A particularly dramatic account appears in Sheila Rowbotham's memoir, Promise of a Dream (2000).

In January 1969, she published a pioneering polemic, "Women and the Struggle for Freedom", in a radical magazine called Black Dwarf. This attracted a good deal of attention and when the French director Jean-Luc Godard came to look at radical London, he proposed "to film (her) with nothing on reciting words of emancipation as (she) walked up and down a flight of stairs - the supposition being that eventually the voice would override the images of the body".

Self-conscious and irritated at the tendency of "the pesky male mind" to "jump so quickly from talk of liberation to nudity", Rowbotham demurred. At which Godard curled his lip and came up with the immortal line: "Don't you think I am able to make a cunt boring?"

By this point, sobering up from the optimism and excess of 1968, Rowbotham was getting fed up with the way women were patronised and shouted down by male activists. "In a mood to burn my boats", she remembers, she sent a resignation letter to the editorial team at Black Dwarf, "suggesting that they sit around imagining they had cunts for two minutes in silence so they could understand why it was hard for me to discuss what I had written on women". Baffled outrage was the only response.

"I think many women were attracted to the Left because it seemed more open and honest and libertarian," she says now. "[This] led to disappointment when it was evident there was something wrong. The young men, like the young women, had all been brought up with conservative Fifties attitudes and so, though they might have paid lip service to different ideals, when it came to how they actually operated in terms of gender, they reverted back to how their dads had been with their mums.

"In the old Left, sexism was kept under wraps much more politely, because there was more acceptance of formal routines. When we had all these forms of structureless organising in the student movement we didn't have that safety valve and it exposed a situation where the men who could talk toughest were the ones who started to dominate. And that created antagonism among women."

Rebelling against all this, Rowbotham produced a series of major early feminist texts: Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972), Hidden from History (1973) and Woman's Consciousness, Man's World (1973). These were nothing if not ambitious - the first covered the whole period from the 16th century to the war in Vietnam - but the lack of previous research left an excitingly open field.

"I literally went into the British Museum (library) and said 'I want to look at all the books about women'," she recalls. "And I just sat and read everything that was categorised as 'women'. It was possible to do that. You would get a huge book about a topic and there would be a tiny section on women, about four little page references. When we started to do women's history, it did feel as if we'd been missed out."

Much of Rowbotham's career has been devoted to practical politics. She was employed by the Greater London Council (GLC) from 1983 to 1986, editing a newspaper called Jobs for a Change and funding projects such as "a co-operative launderette mainly used by pensioners in West London".

A consultancy role at the United Nations University's World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) in Helsinki, looking at how women managed to organise themselves in unpromising environments such as Mexican sweatshops and free-trade zones, took her "GLC interest in how you develop economic and social policy democratically into a global context".

Although she taught as an extramural lecturer for the University of London and held short-term posts at the University of Kent, the University of Paris VIII, the University of Amsterdam and Carleton University in Ottawa, Rowbotham only acquired a permanent academic post at the University of Manchester in 1995. She is now a professor of gender and labour history. When she faced involuntary retirement at the age of 65 earlier this year, students protested and began a Facebook campaign demanding her continued employment as a lecturer.

She was recently re-employed for three years on a contract for one third of a full-time position, as she had requested, mainly carrying out research but also teaching a course "that students want on 'sociology of the counterculture', looking at lots of people I'm interested in, 19th-century Bohemians, Greenwich Village people, the Harlem Renaissance, the anti-globalisation movements of the late Nineties and recent music".

She refuses to comment on claims that there might have been political motives behind the plan to compel her and fellow radical Terry Eagleton to retire at 65, commenting only that "there's a lot of interest in all kinds of radical ideas in universities".

Today, Rowbotham defines herself as a socialist and a feminist. "We used to say we were socialist feminists, but that term just fell out of use. I meant then and would still mean a society based on association and co-operation and equality. It was rather utopian even in the hopeful times of the late Sixties and early Seventies, but to say those things now seems completely wild and remote from any possibility that people can imagine."

Promise of a Dream draws on personal experience to illuminate the complexities, dilemmas and absurdities of progressive political movements. Rowbotham's new book - a biography of socialist and early gay activist Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) - explores how an earlier generation dealt with similar issues.

It also takes her back to the very beginning of her own career. For four years in the 1960s, she worked on a never-completed PhD about the University Extension Movement, which originated in the 1870s and that took lecturers, including Carpenter, out into the manufacturing towns and cities of northern England. Even at the time this was seen as a combination of idealism and opportunism. With the extension of the franchise, Oxbridge was coming under increasing pressure for its elitism.

The Victorian equivalent of "outreach" or "widening access" was therefore partly, as Rowbotham writes, a way for the ancient universities "to appear progressive without drastic internal reform or loss of their considerable resources".

Some of those taking part, she says, had "an imperial or religious agenda" or believed that the barbarous masses needed to be civilised. Others - such as Carpenter - had a genuine commitment to expanding education and were often radicalised further by the experience.

This research gave Rowbotham a deep knowledge of late-Victorian England and a wider interest in history that was somewhat at odds with the spirit of the 1960s. "I think there is an element in the libertarian Left that wants to make the world anew," she elaborates. "You want to be the people who've seen how to do it - and you're not so interested in history and precedents. And it was the same with the women's movement, with people saying 'here we are, we're completely unique'.

"Since I'm a historian I want to think about the problems people faced in the past, because I always have this naive hope it might help in the present. But people intensely active in radical causes are often too busy being active."

Rowbotham first wrote about Carpenter in a book she co-authored with Jeffrey Weeks, Socialism and the New Life (1977), but for a while she rather boxed herself into a corner. Committed to the notion that only women could and should write about women, she could hardly escape the corollary that she shouldn't be writing about the male figures who interested her. It was one of her mentors, the historian and anti-nuclear campaigner E. P. Thompson, who helped her find a way around this dilemma.

"I did think in the early days of the women's movement that if you had an experience, then you would write better history - and I got really told off by Edward (Thompson). He said it doesn't always follow that people who have had the direct experience will write better history.

"In writing Carpenter's biography, I can't quite imagine what it is to be a man, inside a man's body, or his desire as a man for other men. I'm completely apart from the person I'm writing about. But the thing that Edward said, and that really struck home, is that there's the quality of imagination.

"You can get pretty close to other human beings. If you weren't able to, all hope of communication would fail. I'm sure there are things I don't see and don't understand because I'm a woman and heterosexual, but I think you can cross over."

Carpenter intrigues Rowbotham for a number of reasons. Although he agitated for political reform and better employment conditions, he was equally committed to emotional and sexual fulfilment, at a time when there were real dangers in expressing or discussing homosexual feelings.

"My original interest in him," she says, "was because I was fascinated by people who tried to link personal life and political change in the early days of the women's movement, when we were trying to think how that could happen."

Her book presents Carpenter as a highly unusual combination of "sexual radical, noble savage, sage, simplifier (apostle of 'the simple life'), socialist, anarchist, artistic commentator, market gardener and mystic mathematician". He was not, she admits, "an impressive systematic thinker but more like a jackdaw who picks up ideas from different places and puts them together".

Some might think that this makes Carpenter sound warm-hearted but woolly-minded. But Rowbotham sees him differently and much more favourably - as an archetypal "lumper".

"Ken Livingstone once said to me that when they did zoology as part of his zoo training they talked about splitters and lumpers among the people who defined animals. He thought the Left was rather like that," she explains.

While Rowbotham's memoir of the 1960s presents an affectionate and sympathetic picture of left-wing and countercultural activists, she also conveys the many irritations - the self-righteousness, the factionalism, the obsessions with ideological purity - of being surrounded by "splitters". Both that book and the new biography make an implicit argument for a less prickly and more inclusive form of politics.

While they may not count as "totally distinct character types", she admits, "I would say I was a lumper - though I find some people's views so annoying that I become a bit of a splitter. Everybody has a bit of both. But I think trying to emphasise the lumping side is a more sensible and positive approach."

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