Battle of the ages fought on two fronts

At 65, Sheila Rowbotham is fighting for her job and for a new wave of feminism, says Melanie Newman

March 27, 2008

"I'm not, like, a crazy feminist. Women definitely need men ... I want to have a husband and two kids and a nice little life baking pies," the American actress Hillary Duff said in a newspaper interview.

The young British singer Adele recently said of feminism: "I don't have an opinion on it."

The interviews in which these statements were made took place in 2007, almost 40 years after Sheila Rowbotham published her landmark pamphlet Women's Liberation and the New Politics, which argued that women are oppressed by society and culture as well as by political and economic circumstances.

The University of Manchester professor of gender and labour history is not surprised by the ambivalence, or even hostility, towards feminism shown by many young women today.

Speaking to Times Higher Education this week as a campaign against Manchester's decision not to keep her on its payroll now she has reached the aged of 65 is gaining momentum, she said: "When I was young, we saw feminists as prim, bossy ladies with long dresses.

"We didn't feel any connection with them at all. We gave ourselves a different name - women's liberation - because we saw feminism as being about narrow causes. We wanted to change the world."

Only later did the women's libbers - the "second-wave" feminists - acknowledge their debt to the 19th-century suffragettes.

"People have always put feminism in a hostile category," Professor Rowbotham said, but each new generation discovers it, often in the context of wider political movements in which women "get frustrated with arguing with the guys".

In 2000, she told a newspaper that there was a "dying down of feminism as politics". "Unease about gender is expressed in cultural rather than in political terms and there's a laddish belief that a woman can do anything," she said.

Today, she sees a resurgence. "I've noticed a revival of interest in feminism among undergraduates. My students were never hostile to discussing gender issues, but they did not identify as feminists. Now they seem quite happy to take that label on, and a hostile press doesn't bother them."

She suggested that students' political activism may have been sparked by the Iraq War.

"These students were young in the Blair times - it's all they've known. People who were young in the Conservative era didn't feel able to complain about new Labour because they had known what life was like under the Tories."

While some commentators argued that feminists have won the battle for equality - The Sunday Times article in which Adele was quoted referred to the young woman as being "free of the shackles of feminism" - Professor Rowbotham sees the fight as far from over.

"I continue to be concerned about women's situation. The contradictions and conflicts that women face, particularly when they have children and want to work, are just as bad as when we started. There have been improvements in legal rights and in nursery provision, but at the top end of the scale there is more pressure on women to work intensely.

"At the other end, you have people like cleaners and ancillary workers in hospitals who were once in regulated employment: they had full-time jobs. Many of those jobs have been privatised, the women are working for agencies, and they have fewer rights and lower pay."

Race and class may impede the progress of women in the latter group as much as their sex. The interaction of race, class and sexuality and other factors that divide women from each other is of prime concern to "intersectional" or "third-wave" feminists.

"There are groups starting and they are not only concerned about women, but about women in relation to other groups, which is the sort of political approach that I took," Professor Rowbotham said.

But the women's liberation movement has been criticised by third-wave feminists for glossing over the issue of race.

The "sisterhood split" has been thrown into sharp relief by the US elections, where some feminist groups have criticised others for backing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. The US National Organisation for Women, for example, is reported to have told women voters that sexism is "the worst of the isms".

In this context, the academics and students who have written to Manchester to protest against Professor Rowbotham's being forced to retire have stressed that her work is still highly relevant.

An archive of her letters is due to be opened at the Women's Library at London Metropolitan University in April; her biography of the pioneering socialist and gay activist Edward Carpenter is due to be published this autumn; and her courses continue to be very popular with students.

"I'm asking to stay on at a third of my salary for another three years," Professor Rowbotham said.

"Academics all around the world have signed the petition saying that Manchester should value my work, and students say they value my teaching. But the university has said there are budget constraints."

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