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Sheila Rowbotham Interview: Home Economics – The Third Estate


Sheila Rowbotham’s most recent book, Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century (Verso, £10.99) looks at that period bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which saw such a burst of energetic campaigning, when middle and upper class women, for so long cloistered as angels in the house, broke free and started tramping round the streets of London and Chicago. The working women and men they met there – and sometimes lived alongside in settlements – and the sweatshop conditions of many of the poorest, transformed these early activists who ranged from feminists to socialists, anarchists to imperialists, eugenicists, social purity campaigners and philanthropic reformers, and gave birth to an explosion of ideas about the meaning and organisation of everyday life. Some of the most radical thinking came from working class women.

Rowbotham lives in Bristol in what was once a Victorian bank, converted now into multiple flats. It’s the kind of housing project that might have been the dream-child of Octavia Hill, an early advocate of affordable housing and co-founder of the National Trust, or one of the many other social reformers she discusses in her book – though instead of shared kitchens and laundries as they imagined, the communal spaces here are a sports shop and coffee bar that gestures vaguely to the building’s history with tinted photographs of nineteenth century labourers.

Dreamers seeks to redress this treatment of the past, whether it’s ignored or made ephemeral, by presenting vivid sketches of the pioneers who played such an important part in bringing our world into being. Indeed, one of the most striking things about this history of reformers and revolutionaries is how contemporary they feel, how resonant the cries of these early moderns and how many of the questions and hypocrisies that troubled them, spurring them to action, are still on our minds.

After this book, when you next read on Twitter about the struggle of low-paid workers in the London Living Wage Campaign, or forced virginity testing of women protestors in Tahrir Square, or underage sweatshop workers in Shenzhen, or the risks faced by girls in getting an education in Kabul and by women trying to enter the professions in Riyadh, you’ll remember the passion and conviction that Rowbotham’s dreamers brought to fighting identical battles a century before.

KW: Can you could say something about the connections between women in your book, Dreamers of a New Day, and today’s activists?

SR: Ha! Well I think the origins of the book were in my work at the GLC in the 80s [as a researcher in the Industry and Employment Department]. I’d been trying to democratise some of the social and economic plans that were being developed there [as part of the London Industrial Strategy]. We were trying to find alternatives to the monetarist, neo-liberal, Thatcherite policies, either out of what workers and people in the community knew about how things could be done differently, or building on what they had already put into practice.

KW: You mean ideas such as the GLC’s contract compliance programme?

SR: Yes, contract compliance, and trying to make sure people had fair wages. Of course, we then discovered these ideas had a history with people like Clementina Black [an equal pay and suffrage campaigner]. So I became interested in some of the issues discussed in Dreamers partly through what I was doing in my own life. After the GLC I went to work in a UN institute in the early 90s [WIDER: The World Institute for Development Economics Research], and there, with what I’d learned at the GLC, I tried to introduce the notion that poor women would have ideas about their economic needs. This was seen as very strange even though there were a range of quite radical economic research policies at the institute – the idea that someone who wasn’t at Oxford or Harvard would have anything useful to contribute was thought odd at that time. Later on it was taken up.

KW: I think we still have quite a limited view of what constitutes expertise. But certainly a recurring question in Dreamers, particularly in terms of the settlements, is: who has knowledge and of what kind is it?

SR: Well there was a difficulty in the settlements because there was always tension between what the upper-middle class social reformer women, and indeed the socialist women, thought would be good for working class women, and what working women themselves wanted. That’s why I became so interested in the Women’s Co-op Guild because although there were upper class women in it, it was remarkably good at getting the voices of working women out into the public arena – and what they say is really interesting. Then I found in American labour history that although there was never such an organisation, there were examples of women’s groups at a local level. For instance, in Seattle, there was women’s co-operative action.

KW: It’s been argued that because a welfare state wasn’t developed in America local organisation is more robust than in Britain. American community groups, it is said, are more independent and have better ties with people in their neighbourhoods. In some areas church groups are particularly active.

SR: Yes. But the groups I’m talking about were secular groups and linked to the labour movement. Since then, unfortunately, the extreme Right has backed church groups as an alternative to state welfare in America. And although it’s good to have people’s self-activity, there’s a problem if you have something that comes with a particular message.

KW: The encounter you describe in Dreamers between the middle class women of the West End and working class East End women is an extraordinary moment in history, I think.

SR: Yes. Some of those middle class women – there’s one I like very much, Isabella Ford [a novelist and activist from Leeds] – are really changed by experiencing contact with working class women, and sensitive to recognising that upper middle class women shouldn’t impose their ideas.

KW: Even Eleanor Marx was affected. Yvonne Kapp in her biography argues that Marx’s experience of the women’s strike at Silvertown in the East End was transformative.

SR: I think some of those American women, too, were affected by their engagement. So I would never put all middle class women in one bag. They had such a resolve to make these changes. One of the things that’s happened in Britain has been this move to the right, a move towards thinking people should only be concerned about their own interests – although individualism is incredibly important for women.

KW: And perhaps a part of the legacy of these pioneers? You could say that the feminisation of our culture and strengthening of the individual in it comes about as a result of the arguments they made.

SR: No, I don’t think it came from women. It came from a particular moment in American capitalism when American values and that kind of short-term capitalism became predominant. It’s different from the individualism of somebody who is seeking…

KW: …emancipatory individualism?

SR: Yes, the emancipatory individualism of the subordinate, which I think is really important. It’s also been part not only of the women’s movement but of movements around race and class where there is always that aim of self-realisation and self-assertion, because that’s what’s being denied these groups by the powerful. But this is different from saying, I’m only concerned about myself and my own self-interest.

KW: Do you think any of today’s groups or individuals are of the same kind as your earlier activists?

SR: I included quite a few anarchist women in the book: I’ve always been interested in the history of anarchism. In the absence of any convincing socialism, I think from the mid-1990s anarchistic influences took over.

KW: But it’s a particular version of anarchism – today’s aren’t the bomb-lobbing kind!

SR: No, today in the main it’s non-violent direct action.

KW: They have, though, the same suspicion of hierarchies, scepticism about the state, and interest in connecting outside systems of power.

SR: I was affected by similar ideas in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 60s. But I couldn’t in my own mind have an attitude that was completely anti-state particularly because of women’s issues: women have always needed social provision from other parts of society because they tend to be the people looking after the young and the old. I was surprised when I was writing Dreamers how strong the notion of individual liberation was, combined with a desire for some kind of social connection to others. These ideas kept coming through in all the individual parts of the book. [Dreamers is organised thematically, addressing subjects such as sex, work, consumerism and ‘how to be’.]

KW: And by social connection you mean the encounter – the reaching out to other kinds of people, the idea of learning from this experience and the question of how mutual that learning might be?

SR: Yes. But also ideas about how society and not simply the individual parent is responsible for children. That is such a basic and important idea which we accept now insofar as we have free education for children, but it was eroded by the Thatcherite belief that there should be no input from the state – family allowance, child benefit, these are the last remnants of it.

KW: In the past couple of months we’ve seen the Slutwalks and the publication of Caitlin Moran’s book, How to be a Woman. I wonder if you have any thoughts about these? Some of the things Moran has said in interviews are quite close to the arguments the women in Dreamers make. She says it’s important for women to talk continually about their experience of sex. There’s an almost identical quotation in your book.

SR: That’s really interesting. When the women’s movement began [in the 60s], we thought we’d invented everything. Then as we started to dig into history we were surprised. In the same way, I was surprised when I was writing Dreamers how modern many of the ideas were. And audiences have been, too. There’s a particular quotation in 1914 from the anthropologist, Elsie Clews Parsons, about taking on lots of different identities: “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. At midday or at midnight I may feel sexless…It is such a confounded bore to have to act one part endlessly.” The audience really gasp at that moment, astonished at how contemporary-sounding it is.

KW: If you look at novels and plays of the period, though, it isn’t so unusual to find people talking about multiple identities. Perhaps one of the things that separates this dynamic moment at the end of the nineteenth century from what’s gone before is the extent to which politics begins to open out and take on a broader range of influences. For instance, if you think about what Eleanor Marx is reading and working on – alongside her involvement with the SDF [Social Democratic Federation], the Socialist League and the Silvertown strikers – she’s translating Ibsen and Flaubert. This brings a pressure to bear upon more orthodox politics, particularly concerning attitudes to women, and it’s a pressure that can be witnessed in individual lives.

SR: But the mix of individualism and some sense of social obligation to others is there earlier still in Mary Wollstonecraft.

KW: Yes, but she stands out – one hundred years in advance of the women we’re discussing. You mention the Men and Women’s Club [a talking shop established by Karl Pearson in London in 1885 to address relations between the sexes] where they were all Shelleyans and Wollstonecraft informs their Shelleyanism, so there is a connection there. In fact, Olive Schreiner wanted to reconnect Wollstonecraft with a new generation and began writing an Introduction to The Vindication of the Rights of Women in the 1880s, but never finished it.

SR: And then Mary Wollstonecraft influences women like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict [anthropologists]. It’s funny how it goes on. Her influence is fascinating.

KW: She’s the most important figure in the history of British feminism, I think. In a column for The Times, though, Moran lumped Wollstonecraft together with worthy feminists she was supposed to admire, but said that she preferred women like Jilly Copper and Courtney Love. In fact all of her idols were from the postwar era. It seems a shame – and a mark perhaps of their conservatism – that younger women are uninterested in anyone different from them. Moran boasts: “All these amazing birds from history are wasted on me”. Despite this, you’ve spoken optimistically about the way feminism keeps coming back. With Moran and the Slutwalks there seems to be a revival of interest, even if it doesn’t arrive as one might expect. As you say in the book, often ideas return in surprising forms.

SR: Yes it is different, but recognisable.

KW: The Moran book seems very much a creature of our time – it’s first-person, confessional, talks matter-of-factly about periods and masturbation. In Dreamers you discuss how turn-of-the-century women struggled to find a language in which they could articulate feelings and ideas about sex, how they looked to male ‘sexologists’ – Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, and even Freud for help. They were trying to find a credible means of expressing the personal and lending it authority. We seem, in the West at least, to have arrived at the world they imagined where everyone can speak freely and without shame and have their words given credence. Indeed, personal testimony sometimes seems to be the only authentic discourse. Do you think this is what the women in your book wanted, or has something else happened along the way? Are we now in danger of being too self-regarding, of living in what Christopher Lasch calls, the ‘culture of narcissism’?

SR: Again, what you’re talking about is very much from American culture in the 60s – that celebration of the individual voice. And it was important in Women’s Liberation to release that voice but, on the other hand, it gets stuck if you only have the individual voice because people can say, Well, yeah, that’s your opinion but it doesn’t really relate to anybody else. So it’s the problem of how that individual voice can connect to something wider.

KW: But isn’t it more than just American individualism? The people you are talking about are very interested in self-expression. In Paul Mason’s book, Live Working or Die Fighting [2007], which covers some of the same ground as yours, he describes a group called the Stockport Society for the Promotion of Human Happiness.

SR: How great!

KW: They were a self-education organisation designed to liberate people from ignorance and drudgery. Its members worked ten hour shifts and still they come down deadbeat at the end of the day to acquire knowledge, expand their horizons, extend their sense of self.

SR: But that’s also the self in relation to others, isn’t it?

KW: It is of course, because they wouldn’t have dreamed of an atomised, individualised society like the one we have.

SR: I think that’s the key. The fact that socialism lost the language of talking about how human beings could relate differently, whereas that kind of socialism was very familiar in the late nineteenth century. It’s part of my fascination with the period – they have a language for talking about how humans can relate to one another. One of the things that became difficult from the 1980s was any discussion of how human beings could connect. Relationships were always discussed in the language of negative fear. There is this pessimistic conservative outlook that says, You are likely as an individual to be attacked and assailed; or, If you send your children to the nursery school they are going to be violated by sex maniacs. There was such difficulty having any discussion of the fact that humans could live together in a more positive and convivial way.

KW: And that climate of negative fear does seem largely to be imported from American culture, though the British tabloids have played their part in fostering it, too.

Sheila Rowbotham, 2012

SR: The way we conduct our everyday encounters can be made so miserable. I was on a train, squashed in with this most bumptious and boastful young man who was drinking solidly through his lagers with his companions. It was not only that he made some occasional joke against women, it was that for two hours he spoke with hatred and hostility about his girlfriend. At the point when he was starting to get into homophobia I thought, if he says anymore I’m gonna’ say something. But I was sitting there squashed: what could I do? I often combat people on mobile phones in the quiet coach but this was difficult: he wasn’t actually doing anything to me, he was just expressing opinions that I found so horrible. And I was trapped.

KW: It’s another of the lines of discussion in your book, the conversations women were having about how to make the best of the space we share – these are the beginnings of contemporary debates about how the city is organised, about how to design and occupy urban space.

SR: It has significantly changed. I remember when I was younger being on trains and the person next to you would talk to you. You would have some sense that the person next to you was a human being.

KW: That you were travelling along together? It’s partly to do with technology – the ipad or the laptop enclose us even in public spaces. Where I live in Camden you get guys coming down in their cars at night. They park on the street, roll down their windows and play thumping music, oblivious to the fact that there are other people living around.

SR: Yeah, I don’t mind that, I got used to it in Hackney. Though my house was on the corner and sometimes at one in the morning my bedroom would fill with noise.

KW: But what you say in the book is important – the need for the expansion of the realm of the individual, increasing every person’s potential and choice while at the same time being able to do this in relation to others. Clearly there’s always a tension, even if only between people who want to play loud music and those who want to sleep! But this is the ongoing argument between ourselves and others. You discuss in Dreamers the debates over city versus country living, or the arts and crafters who had in mind a kinder, pre-industrial communitarianism as against those who believed in the power of technology to transform and ease life, or those who found in the anonymity of the city a freedom impossible in the country, one that allowed bohemian living, unshackling you from your parents’ disapproval or your neighbour’s prying eyes.

SR: Yes I think in America in the 1920s a few of those modern women were very keen on that individual freedom. I feel a real split myself, because I know I’m a mixture, I don’t ever feel I’m one or the other. I’m really interested in them both actually. Something that affected my consciousness in the 60s was this classification of women: either you were into sex and therefore you were a chick, or you were a prude, frigid, a dried-up academic, which meant you might get taken seriously but no one would fancy you. Those two stereotypes were things I remember feeling really rebellious about.

KW: Another of the classifications in Dreamers that struck me as being almost as strong as your divisions between revolutionaries and reformers is the divide between the earnest and the ironic. In an earlier interview you talked about the earnestness of your Methodist past which was challenged by some of your teachers. One history teacher tried to repress your enthusiasm by controlling you with a slightly sarcastic personality. I recognise that. My university tutor was Lorna Sage [the literary critic who wrote a memoir, Bad Blood, and several collections of essays on women’s writing]. She was in a line of female academics and writers from the 30s on, who wanted to distance themselves as women – intellectually, at least – from the earnest, emotional or bodily side of life. Actually, you can see it as early as Virginia Woolf in relation to some of the things she says about those Co-op women…

SR: …she used her intellect…

KW: … she did. Even though Woolf was a member of the Guild and wrote an Introduction for their book [Life as We Have Known It, 1931], what she says there is revealing: her horror of the non-intellectual, her fear of what she thinks of as the instinctual, biological world in which female knowledge is bogus, the product of ‘wise woman’ or seers with special insights that objective, rationalising men aren’t supposed to have access to. You can see in some women intellectuals the desire to oppose all that.

SR: I can remember before I got pregnant feeling very uneasy about pregnancy and breast-feeding and then realising when I did have a baby how extraordinary all that experience is. Over time there’s this funny way when I see a woman with a baby, and there is a moment when eyes meet and I am back with the pushchair falling over and all the difficulties of managing with a baby on the tube. I learned so much about everyday life from going through that experience. I only had one child but if I’d had more I would have had more difficulty in writing because I was, in the end, a single mother – though Will’s father looked after him as well. I learned through that experience about things I would never have known about otherwise, because you learn a lot through doing. That’s something I think as a middle class intellectual it’s often hard to get, because so much of our learning is through books. I’ve learned, too, through listening to both male and female workers and hearing their experience of craft. Though I love to cook, I don’t really have any craft skills at all, I’m completely inept! But from such experiences you get a knowledge of timing, and all those tacit things. I’ve always been interested in tacit knowledge as a resource.

KW: Unlike Woolf who rejected that sphere of knowledge, not simply because she was a snob about working class culture, but for fear of the trap it holds for women. By Lorna’s time, though, women were more aware of the ironies of adopting such an intellectually lofty position – they understood it as a posture in response to something, a way of claiming territory on purpose that as a woman was denied to you. And of course, Lorna was also knowledgeable about the position women held in folk traditions, as the possessor and transmitter of certain kinds of tacit knowledge, not least through her friendship with Angela Carter who pulled off the canny trick of placing herself inside both traditions.

SR: I was greatly influenced by Simone de Beauvoir, but I remember feeling uneasy because she assumed the role of an intellectual without question and thus cut herself off from most other women. When I got into Oxford, being a lower middle class Leeds person, I felt uncomfortable to be educationally privileged, even thought I could see how being an upper middle class girl at Oxford allowed you some kind of intellectual space – a space taken for granted by all those people from North London and North Oxford.

KW: You’ve said as late as the 1990s that women were not able to speak publicly with authority, except for a certain brand of upper middle class woman. Do you think that’s the case today?

SR: There’s still a tendency for it. When it comes to intellectual or theoretical analysis, the media are more likely to turn to an upper class woman.

KW: Can we talk a bit more about the settlements as one of the means by which some women attempted to acquire knowledge? You’re saying that one way for women to learn is through doing, to have a baby yourself. Another way, for these earlier middle class women to gain knowledge of life beyond their own four walls, was to establish settlements.

SR: There were settlements, and also people went to live in working class areas in that period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which was quite startling.

KW: You have Clementina Black and Beatrice Webb, both working for Charles Booth [collecting and analysing data for Life and Labour of the London Poor, 1892], living and walking around not far from where Jack the Ripper was murdering women. They were undoubtedly brave and determined. But there was also a colonial mentality and language that informs some of their actions – something that working women were alert to and complained of, taking about the “slummers” descending on them.

SR: They did. They attacked Canon Barnett’s wife, Henrietta Barnet [a social reformer, she and her husband established Toynbee Hall, and with Lutyens, she developed the plan for Hampstead Garden Suburb]. They stoned her when she went walking in East London, but she had one of those really stiff bonnets on so it acted like a helmet! But there was some hostility.

KW: There were reacting to the element of tourism.

SR: And the memory of that hauteur remains. I can remember women talking to me in Hackney about health visitors and how they seemed so superior and looked down on working class women.

KW: And this feeling perhaps increased when the relationships became professionalised. I know Webb and Black came to the East End through their work for Booth, and there were the larger settlements where activities were organised, but what’s striking is how many middle class women just struck out on their own, walked into the East End to ‘encounter’ the poor, to find out about their working and living conditions and try to do something to ameliorate them on an individual basis. When these women finally gained access to academic, medical and social work positions, the relationship between the two groups shifted – it begins to feel more like a coercive relationship in which the middle class woman is not only the representative of her class, but of the state, too.

The National Federation of Women Workers, co-founded by Clementina Black, 1906

SR: But also those women could be really useful. I remember not knowing what to do with a little baby and how fantastic it was to go to the welfare centre because you could get reassurance – there was somebody there who knew about baby’s growth. I was an educated women but I didn’t know how to bath a baby: I took notes when I was in hospital. One time when I was still in agony with stitches, my baby’s father whisked him off, and I asked where he was. When he told me he’d given him a bath I said, You can’t do that, you haven’t got the notes!

KW: Of course they were an important source of information. I didn’t mean it as an anti-state remark, simply that the power middle and upper class women wielded increased when the relationship stopped being an improvised one.

SR: Linda Gordon, who is an American feminist historian [she’s Professor of History at NYU] has written really interesting things about this. There was a tendency in the 60s and early 70s in the women’s liberation movement to think in terms of the interfering state – and yet there was another side which Linda has shown: in some cases there was violence going on against little children. It’s the same dilemma now. When do you say that the person who’s caring for the child is not a responsible person, and therefore the child is in danger and somebody has to intervene? I would hate to have to make that decision.

KW: It’s one of the difficulties about authority and the state. And the women in your book are already discussing it: We need the resources, how do we get resources from the state without having them meddling in our lives?

SR: Yes, it’s key: how to reallocate resources for human need when it’s not necessarily the primary concern of the state – parts of it maybe, but not the central concern.

KW: You say towards the end of Dreamers there is great diversity in what the various women were doing but, as a whole, their activities “hinted at subversive economics structured around human needs”. This comes out in two ways: many women begin to think about consumerism rather than production; and there is a dialogue with the left about who gets to be considered a worker, about their prioritising of the workplace over the home. It interested me in your book how much agency there was in the position of the consumer, how much potential power over the market women had as consumers. That all seemed very salient and still relatively unexplored territory.

SR: Well that was another of the book’s origins. When I worked at the UN institute, I edited a book with Swasti Mitter about women organising around work [Dignity and Daily Bread: New Forms of Economic Organization Among Poor Women in the Third World and the First, 1993]. At the same time there was a lot of literature coming out about women organising around consumption in the wider sense. There was an interest in this popular movement globally among women hard-pressed by rising prices who were trying to get changes in consumption in terms of things you actually buy, but also in terms of social access to consumption. For instance, there were Mexican women in squatter camps trying to get water from the state. They were living in communities that didn’t have access to clean water. The global resistance movement that has grown up over the last few decades is, I think, as important as the feminist movement. It’s parallel with the feminist movement and sometimes interconnects with it, but it comes from different places.

KW: We’re talking about histories and whose history gets told – what the primary narrative of the left is. You’ve said that some stories are disregarded because they don’t fit a model of worker-dominated history. They come up from communities or women’s groups or ad hoc movements that don’t fit the traditional model, and it’s extraordinary how persistent and unyielding that model is.

SR: The trade union model? I think if you have any institutional framework, even an oppositional institutional framework, you’re always likely to be more present and more likely to have a written past, whereas these movements that sprout up, don’t. Which is why anarchistic struggles are so interesting: they pop up and then they go down and get forgotten, so a lot of the history of tenants’ movements, or of women’s support for men in mining communities, all these kinds of activities, have a rather submerged history – but they are there.

KW: It’s interesting, the degree to which some stories and ideas disseminate and others languish. People might be aware of global resistance movements, and they’ll know, too, about Fair Trade and the idea that you can put pressure on companies in order to change workers’ conditions, a bit like contract compliance…

SR: …yes, these ideas partly came out of the GLC. But Fair Trade are now themselves under pressure. I was speaking to a woman in the States who works for Fair Trade coffee and she says that big corporations have been offering more money to the farmers than the workers’ co-ops can afford.

KW: In an attempt to break them?

SR: Yes, because the co-ops put money back into the communities for social provision, so they can’t compete with the prices these businesses can afford. She was in a state of anxiety because their budget could hardly cope. There are many social, everyday changes that get made, and it seems an advance has been made, but then there are new attacks from unexpected quarters.

KW: And there is a connection between the security of the advance and the security of the record. Caitlin Moran was saying: talk about sex. But talk about all of these things and make the record – be aware of the importance of the record in holding the line. I was impressed by how strong that sense of consumer power was in your book, and how worked out were some of the women’s ideas in relation to a broader economics. You seem to find in what they say the possibility of something much more subversive: an attempt to devise a radically new economics.

SR: A friend of mine from Manchester called Diane Elson [now Professor of Sociology at Essex], who is part of a group of feminist economists who work globally, is doing stuff now exactly on this kind of issue. So I mentioned her in the book. Although it’s about history it does have modern connections and you’ve hit on many of them.

KW: I was trying to think about the relationship between how these women lived and how we live today. And the connections are startling. Before I read Dreamers I thought of consumerism as a Western disease and home economics as something embarrassing remembered from school in the 70s to do with being tidy and housewifely. I hadn’t put it together fully, hadn’t thought, as these women did, about the radical potential of consumerism, asking how the world might look if you started your thinking about economics from the home.

SR: There’s a whole history of ideas about how you can have social consumption. And funnily enough, it was the Co-op’s divvy that gets adopted by the commercial supermarkets with their cards. So many capitalist innovations come from social beginnings.

KW: Capitalism has been very good at assimilating radical or bohemian ideas, stripping them of their original meaning, then packaging and selling them back to us. I went to see the documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore, talk at the Roundhouse a few years ago. He got everyone in the audience to cut up their supermarket reward cards, calling them a giant con which gave back nothing and existed simply to promote mindless brand loyalty. In Dreamers, though, you describe ways in which women in the nineteenth century were thinking about the power of consumerism. For instance, the story about the women in Edmonton in North London who want to bring down the cost of milk so they stop buying fresh and used condensed instead. And it works: they bring prices down. Today people might buy Fair Trade coffee or bananas, but our activity all seems top-down; the prospect of a group of women getting together to organise action locally, from the bottom up, seems less likely. When you were talking about anarchist influences in CND I was reminded of a film about a new movement to eliminate nuclear weapons [Countdown to Zero, 2011]. In the history the film gives of anti-nuclear protest they don’t mention CND until the end. After the film an audience member from CND pointed this out (and that a lot of the film focussed on what you were talking about earlier: negative fear) and was told, We don’t want to look to the past. The new organisation is branded like a commercial product and has ‘celebrity’ supporters. It seem to be an example of what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia – denying the past to inflate its own sense of uniqueness.

SR: Because there has been CND twice: the 50s and 60s when I got involved in my first radical activity, and then again in the 1980s when it was a massive movement.

KW: But they kept faith with one another. Many of these new top-down, branded, click-of-a-mouse organisations don’t appear to want anything to do with past struggles.

SR: Sometimes people say, Oh the past has got these bad connotations, it looks boring.

KW: Exactly. In a Guardian review Peter Bradshaw repeats the film’s characterisation of CND, calling it “old-style Spartist agitprop”.

SR: Perhaps it’s also when a generation gets older, as with CND, it’s easier to dismiss. I think we did that in the women’s movement in the 60s to the Suffrage generation. We just thought, Oh these silly women, telling us what to do. The next wave of teachers, headmistresses and dons who taught us were formed by the Suffrage movement and we thought, No, we’re not like that, we’re different.

KW: With their funny bonnets! But it’s interesting in terms of models of history and what you say in Dreamers about the importance of tradition – how knowledge of what’s already happened can make you feel less strange when you try to do something new, how it can arm you knowing there was Mary Wollstonecraft, there was Eleanor Marx, there was Isabella Ford. It’s about the significance of history and continuity.

SR: I think once a movement gets going then some of the people in it start digging around and realising there are precedents. Others, though, are not very interested in history. I have friends who say to me, Well, I haven’t really read your books yet.

KW: They see history as a burden?

SR: It takes such a long time to say things through history.

KW: But maybe there are moments when people need to jettison the past. In one of your books, Dreams and Dillemmas [1983], there is a poem in which you describe history as hampering: “I often want to fling the lot out…and steam into the future”. I was trying to think generously about this new anti-nuke group and see that there are times when you just need to kick the ground from beneath you – and maybe that’s healthy.

SR: As long as people don’t just keep kicking, as long as they then start to think, Well, hang on, perhaps there is a connection here. It’s interesting that some of the new young movements like UK Uncut are now linked in with the unions in resisting cuts in the public sector. I think that’s important because when the young anarchist types are on their own, they are very vulnerable. Apart from their parents – who tend to be the middle classes making a fuss – they don’t have any sorts of ballast. Whereas when they’ve got institutional links it’s harder for the state to isolate and attack them.

KW: And also it puts them into history. It makes a continuum – an awareness that what we do now on the street relates to what was done before.

SR: And it livens up the unions because they take so long to get things going and they always do things in the way they’ve done them before. A friend of mine was saying that his son, who’s connected to UK Uncut, couldn’t understand why our generation go on a march, start at the beginning and go to the end. He thought it was mad ritual, couldn’t see the point of it!

KW: It’s a bit like people who read books from beginning to end. Now you have Kindle, why do that? The teleology of things – the question of where we are heading (if not to the Finland Station) – is still a powerful idea for our generation.

SR: Yes, I have to read a book from beginning to end, even when I don’t like it. I have finally managed to stop watching Camelot, though. I enjoy those fantasy-past things like Morgan le Fay. But finally Camelot defeated me.

KW: It wasn’t delivering the requisite enjoyment? I have to say that with UK Uncut it seems much more that it’s them reaching out to the unions rather than the other way around. Although the last anti-cuts demo [London, 26.3.2011] was larger than people expected, the TUC still seemed fossilised, incapable of even attempting to grasp the new reality.

SR: The unions have a problem in mobilising. So much of their organising is of a certain kind of tried and trusted people who tend to go on everything. Things are changing a bit in Bristol, though. I was trotting along and talking to people who were working in call centres and had never been on a demonstration before. But it wasn’t mass mobilisation. To stop the government you’d need absolutely mass resistance.

KW: But what force can stop a government now? My nephew has been in Yemen for the last year. They’ve been out there every day for five, six months…

SR: …getting killed…

KW: …getting killed some of them, but even still, running a mass ongoing mobilisation. We’ll have to wait and see what happens in Greece, whether or not there is the stomach for a mass rebellion against the terms of the bailout.

SR: But when we had the mass anti-Iraq war march it never stopped Tony Blair.

KW: No. But it did impinge on the public mind. Now there’s often a sense of so-what when people take to the streets, the feeling your young friend from UK Uncut has that demos are old-fashioned and we need to reinvent protest. Though there have been times when resistance has been more imaginative, when outsiders have come along and shaken the unions out of their conformity. The way I knew David Widgery [a writer and doctor, whom Sheila had a relationship with in the early Seventies] was through Rock Against Racism. It was brilliant at bringing together the cultural and the political, at reimagining public intervention.

SR: And some of that carried on into the 80s with alternative comedians. I don’t have any comedians in Dreamers but I do have this wonderful woman, Peggy Leech, at the Round Table [where Dorothy Parker and her witty friends met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York]. A guy comes in after playing tennis with his shirt open showing curly black hair. Leech quips: “I see your fly is open higher than usual today.” I really enjoyed doing that, it was so funny. And I was interested that those 20s women could make such overtly sexual jokes.

KW: The book is so elastic, spanning the distance from Eleanor Marx to Mae West, and there are enormous shifts in consciousness which is probably why I was thinking about the division between sincerity and irony.

SR: It’s a function of my nosiness. I find that I go into a lot of areas.

KW: But it shows how much freer women became over the period. And it raises these important questions about the relation between production and consumption.

SR: I think it would have been from the late 1980s, early 90s that Diane Elson started to write about what kind of social alternatives there may be to the market. Instead of just the problem posed by the state she was interested in thinking about the market, too. I remember a discussion in which an economist who’d worked in Nicaragua was saying one of the really complex problems was pricing. If you are trying to have a planned socialist economy, the way in which you decide prices is incredibly difficult.

KW: And the market removes responsibility for the question?

SR: But the market is rigid: you need to have some elastic relationship to what needs are. Going back to the book, the interesting thing about the social settlement people and the labour movement women was that they were inventing on their feet, meeting needs as they encountered them, and so they were creating social provision very flexibly. I think a big dilemma now is how you set up structures but also make these elastic and able to relate to the emergence of different forms of need.

KW: You don’t delve too far into the party politics of the time but it’s notable how many of the women – and the men, too – are politically promiscuous: they join the SDF, they join the ILP, they join the Fabian Society, they join the Men and Women’s Club.

SR: Yes, there’s Charlotte Wilson going from the anarchists [with Peter Kropotkin she co-founded the anarchist paper, Freedom, in 1886] to the Fabians and then into the Suffrage movement. But these ideological zigzags still happen today. I am tickled now because it is quite funny to see young anarchists demanding state pensions!

KW: Not following their creed.

SR: Well, not following an ideological, rigid anarchism.

KW: The strong, unifying theme you do have for the various women in the book is that they shared the idea of a dream that could propel them forward. There have divergent opinions but they are all joined in the belief they can envision something new. They dreamed up new utopias, asking themselves, How do we want our lives to be, how can they be? And then they had the gumption to go out and act on their dreams. You say one of their most important legacies is their belief that you can change how things are, that life is not simply preordained. I wanted to ask you about the difficulty of dreaming today. It seems to me a much more daunting proposition and we are more stymied. There’s a winning zeal to those women who set off into the East End saying, Right, I’ve taken off my bonnet, I’ve rolled up my sleeves, now what can I do? But there’s also naivety and arrogance.

SR: In the past, what people have tended to do is to protest. Since the early 90s people have emerged saying they are anti-capitalist, and that is a great breakthrough because for so long it felt like capitalism was the only show in town, so to say you were anti-capitalist was amazing. I remember hearing people saying it and thinking, Great! they are contesting it. But the problem is that we don’t know how to go beyond simply contesting, and the old models of how to change society have run out.

KW: That’s right – the Dreamers have a greater arsenal, they both counter and encounter, challenge the world and challenge themselves. But you seem to be saying that without viable alternatives capitalism has become totalitarian, making it almost unthinkable for people to say they oppose it. The question from history these women ask is: Why has it become so hard to re-imagine the world? Perhaps the answer is that they are pre-Aushwitz, pre-the Bomb, pre all the things in the twentieth century that confronted us with our capacity to harm.

SR: Mainly, they are pre-Leninism. I stop the book just before the point at which Leninism was beginning to take hold.

KW: And what do you think was the impact of Leninism on what these women were trying to achieve?

SR: Dreamers ends in the 20s before Leninism in the Communist Party really has an influence. I’ve written on the Marxist approach to the emancipation of women in my first work, Women, Resistance and Revolution [1972], in Women in Movement [1993] and in my short book on Stella Browne, the birth control advocate [New World for Women, 1977]. However several Marxist women do feature in Dreamers and when I move briefly into the 30s in the concluding section women organised by the Communist Party take mass action.

KW: But how would you assess the role Marxism has played in the struggle for women’s emancipation? How should we respond to it today?

SR: Marx and Engels had important ideas about the emancipation of women but failed to emphasise women’s agency, which nineteenth century socialists were more inclined to do. The Leninist/Bolshevik approach represented a narrowing of what could be discussed as emancipatory. The Communist tradition tended to lose vital understandings present in other radical movements such as libertarian socialism, ethical socialism and anarchism. Much of my historical work has been about these submerged strands of leftism. However the history of practice is always more complicated and when you look at what women in the CP did from the 20s you see all kinds of issues being raised as a result of women’s experience. But following these through would be another book. Young women in the US have done work in this area. Politically I think it is time to put Marxism into an historical context, take from it ideas but also engage critically. Socialist feminists of my generation were seeking to do this. Rather than taking class as the sole motive force in change, class struggle along with other social movements for change need to be taken together.

KW: But the Communist tradition continues to exert a powerful influence over left politics and thinking. Even though many rejected Soviet socialism long before 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union still enacted a body-blow, its demise created a suspicion of collectivism and did something to the imagination of the left. Today’s activists are more knowing and pluralist – and therefore more ironic – but the nobility of the great dream has gone.

SR: My friend Hilary Wainwright [co-author with Rowbotham and Lynne Segal of Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, 1980] has been much involved in studying small projects that have successfully countered some of the big trends towards privatisation and the excesses of capitalism. And I know through my connections to things like women and global labour there have been groups set up – the Clean Clothes Campaign and, as you mentioned, Fair Trade. People have created, if not a total alternative, many small examples of ways that have proved to be effective and have held things at bay.

KW: So perhaps it’s a question of scale? The grand narratives really are bust.

SR: It may be that it needs to be reconceived from a new basis of understanding what is actually effective, both as resistance and as alternatives. But of course that takes an awful lot of time because you are faffing around looking at all these examples.

KW: And, as you say, often these are examples where the record does not exist because there has been no organisation to keep the record.

SR: Not to mention the fact that when they do record their actions, every little group creates different versions of what actually happened.

KW: So it’s difficult to systematise whatever information is available? But what comes across so forcefully in your book is the belief of these earlier activists and thinkers that their adventures in the everyday can change them, can make them more expansive and powerful. In recent times – at least until the new activism arising from the convulsions and uprisings of the last six months – it’s been impossible to say that without irony.

SR: I suppose this is why I wanted to do the book. If today we can see that people were doing just that in a much poorer society, that despite their limitations they still pursued the resolute idea they could reform or transform. I think I was throwing it out like a challenge – Here you are! Now what are you going to do?

This interview appeared first as Home Economics: A New Interview with Sheila Rowbotham at The Third Estate on 8.9.2011.

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