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Sheila Rowbotham, Dreamers of a New Day – Camden New Journal


Sheila Rowbotham became interested in history at the age of eleven when a teacher told her how the Pheonicians discovered the colour purple. It seemed such an astonishing idea that something everyday should have come into the world at a particular moment (the purple dye was extracted from shellfish, so expensive a process they called it the ‘colour of kings’), and it established a lifelong interest in people whose sudden flashes of imagination or defiance change the world, advancing it from “what is, to something better”. Her new book, Dreamers of a New Day: Women who Invented the Twentieth Century, is the culmination of this lifelong passion, exploring a half century of women’s thinking and activity between 1880 and 1930, designed to revolutionise that most stubborn and immutable of things – daily life.

What’s interesting and a little surprising is not just the variety of women here, from Eleanor Marx to Mae West, but how all of them, even the Victorians, appear so contemporary. When I visited Rowbotham at her home in Bristol she told me that when she’s given readings, “audiences gasp at the modernity of the ideas of these women from a century ago”. The anthropologist, Elsie Clews Parsons, for example, who recorded her frustration with life’s limitations at the turn of the century: “This morning perhaps I feel like a male; let me act like one. This afternoon I may feel like a female; let me act like one…It is such a confounded bore to have to act one part endlessly”. That “confounded” dates the language, but the sentiments anticipate many twentieth-first century adventurers, everyone from Eddie Izzard to Lady Gaga.

Reading Dreamers you feel the problems grappled with – about sex, work, state provision, how to dress, or that thorniest of questions, “How to Be” – remain substantially our own. When Caitlin Moran recently argued in an interview promoting her new bestseller, How to be a Woman, that we need continually to articulate our experience of sex in order that the subject not fall back into prudery or shame, she is asking of us only the same bravery Stella Browne showed when she talked publicly in the 1930s about her experience of abortion. And when young women take to the streets in the so-called Slutwalks, demanding they be allowed to dress however they want, wherever they want, they meet with taunts similar to those Beatrice Webb faced in 1885 when she was called an “impudent hussy” for walking about with men.

Living now between Bristol and Manchester (where she is Professor of Gender and Labour History) Rowbotham hails from Leeds and retains a robust Northern pragmatism that belies her rather girlish demeanour. For most of her adult life, though, she lived in London. Dreamers is a trans-Atlantic work tracing connections forged by British and American women in their endeavour to challenge the way men had hitherto organised the world, but London plays a significant part in the story. Mary Wollstonecraft, the visionary prototype for many of the women here, is buried in St Pancras churchyard and Rowbotham arranged for the restoration of her desecrated grave, finding the money from the undertakers (who still have offices on Kentish Town Rd) who originally buried her.

Not far away, off Brecknock Road, is a block of flats named after another of Rowbotham’s heroes: Edward Carpenter, whose biography she wrote in 2009. He is an important figure in Dreamers, one of the early ‘sexologists’ who women turned to, trying to find a new language in which to talk about sex that would take it out of the realm of backroom gossip and invest it with the authority of public discourse. Despite their modern mindset, though, Rowbotham emphasises how circumscribed were the lives of women a century ago – the middle class confined by corsets and respectability, the working woman by drudgery, often in sweatshops for 10 or 12 hours a day, before returning to homes without hot water or indoor toilets.

At the beginning of this period, women were not only denied the vote but access to the professions (a governess was still about the only paid occupation an educated woman could find), or even the right to move freely, which is why in the late nineteenth century the bicycle and the typewriter were such liberating inventions. Overcoming these restrictions took guts and imagination. In 1895, Edith Lanchester was incarcerated in a mental asylum by her middle class family because she chose to live out of wedlock with a working class man, while Mary Ware Dennett, Marie Stopes and Annie Besant who disseminated material about sexual pleasure and birth control faced prosecution for obscenity.

Annie Besant and the Matchgirls Strike Committee, 1888

But this wave of women, whether revolutionaries or social reformers, anarchist free-lovers or purity campaigners, had history on their side. Lanchester was freed and those who published information intended to take the misery and shame out of sex eventually won the day against the censors. During the First World War women showed they were capable of all kinds of work and the pressure for the vote become irresistible. Proud and determined suffragettes adopted the regal colour purple as their own.

Besides the resurrection of innumerable engaging and provocative lives, this book’s most important achievements are the account of a key historical encounter between women of the West End middle class and working class East Enders which engendered profound change on both sides and laid the basis for much of the welfare state. Another is the challenge that Clementina Black and others made to a hierarchy that placed producer over consumer, workplace over home, paid worker over unpaid housewife, unionised worker over marginalised “sweater” – all this, Rowbotham suggests, “hinted at a more subversive economics”, one which contemporary activists are beginning to reclaim. “The Fair Trade or Clean Clothes campaigns, or the Mexican women in squatter camps demanding the state provide them with access to clean water”, all provide “small examples of campaigns that have proved effective.”

While it may be impossible to dream today on a grand scale (the twentieth century left us wary of grand narratives) Rowbotham’s designs on us are clear: she wrote her book so that “we might see in a society much poorer than ours that they still pursued the resolute idea you could reform or transform. I wanted to throw their example out like a dare – Here you are! Now what are you going to do?”

A version of this article appeared as The Purple Reign of Women… in the Camden New Journal,  Review, pp 2-3, Islington Tribune and West End Extra on 25.8.2011.

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