In early 1969, Sheila Rowbotham had a visit from Jean-Luc Godard. She was 25 and living in not-yet-gentrified Hackney, in a communal household where everyone contributed £1 towards the bills and £1 to a political fund of their choice. They’d painted the house white, ‘like the interiors of David Mercer’s film Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment‘, and now Godard was sitting here on the floor, ‘a slight dark man’, asking her to be in his next film, British Sounds. The socialist paper Black Dwarf had recently published Rowbotham’s piece ‘Women: The Struggle for Freedom’. Written in the same house, it started with a list: ‘Me; Hairdressing girl; Brentford nylons; Birth control; Unmarried mothers; TUC USDAW; Ford’s women: strip-tease girl…’ Godard wanted her to read the article while going up and down a flight of stairs with nothing on. She refused for two reasons: like other members of Women’s Liberation, she was against objectifying women; besides, she thought her breasts ‘too floppy for the sixties fashion’. When she told him that showing her naked would mean no one would listen to her words, Godard replied, ‘Don’t you think I am able to make a cunt look boring?’
The story, recounted in Rowbotham’s recently reissued memoir Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties, serves as an illustration to some of the book’s major themes. The most contradictory of them, and one that remains just as relevant today, is feminism and its attitude towards the female body. Much as Rowbotham and her fellow feminists loathed objectification, they were not against nudity, associating it with freedom: to wear whatever they wanted, to have sex with whoever they wanted, or simply to enjoy being naked. They were also, Rowbotham divulges with a wry smile, not above vanity when it came to their looks. Nudity in the name of revolutionary art was fine, and while Rowbotham and her comrades-in-arms agreed on the content of this art, its form, just like the shape of one’s body, was less easy to get right.
Among the thinkers who influenced her, Rowbotham mentions Simone De Beauvoir, Doris Lessing and C. Wright Mills, whose suggestion ‘to translate personal problems into social issues’ she took on board. Another important figure was Eric Hobsbawm, the supervisor of her thesis on the history of the University Extension movement, a scheme introduced in the 1870s to enable education for the underprivileged. Rowbotham’s activism – she went on CND protests and joined Hackney Young Socialists before turning to women’s rights – made her realise that there could be ‘another type of left’; that socialism was about class, race and gender all at once. She talks of the male chauvinism manifest in Vietnam solidarity meetings, where the speakers were all male, and women couldn’t put a word in edgeways. In another passage, she remembers a Socialist Labour League march when slogans ‘Up the Revolution’ were carried alongside ‘Girls wanted. Cockers only’. None of that, however, changed her conviction that a women’s movement shouldn’t be limited to feminist issues but must also stand up for other oppressed groups. Inequality as a multi-faceted phenomenon was present in her own background: her Oxford contemporaries mocked her for her Leeds accent; her students in Tower Hamlets thought her too middle-class; back home, dressed in beatnik clothes, she was deemed a ‘rough-looking twot’. The social upheaval of the sixties brought the working-class hero into focus, but there was little regard for the heroine of whatever class.
Made in the agitprop style pioneered by the Soviet director Dziga Vertov, British Sounds opens with a riff on Marx’s Manifesto: here the spectre of communism is haunting Britain while British Petroleum, Eurodollar and pop music try to exorcise it. The voice-over mentions various radical movements to the accompaniment of assembly line noises at the BMC plant in Oxfordshire. Rowbotham’s narration begins early on, overlapping with phrases spoken by a man. ‘Either we are struggling to combine badly paid work with bringing up a family or we are unable to do work for which we’ve been trained,’ she reads from her article, fading into his ‘Ideology and beauty’; her ‘Some women still never experience orgasm’ merges with his ‘Hitler and Hollywood’. While they read their respective texts, another woman (naked, fashionably small-breasted) keeps walking into and out of shot. Her body, Godard’s efforts notwithstanding, is less boring than the white staircase and landing. The voice-over goes on a bit, making you wonder what ‘the revolutionary silence of lovers’ it invokes might sound like.
The film was commissioned by London Weekend Television, which refused to show it. Most sources suggest its content proved too radical; some blame its cacophonous soundtrack; whatever it was, it probably wasn’t the nudity. Several people resigned from the company in protest, and in 1971, in a move to improve ratings, Rupert Murdoch became its managing director. ‘The last thing he wanted to do,’ Rowbotham quips, ‘was to make a cunt boring.’ Godard’s documentary gets a brief mention in her memoir, alongside several other films. When Rowbotham and Judith Okely, on holiday in Paris in 1962, bump into Bob Rowthorn – Okely’s lover until recently, and soon to become Rowbotham’s partner and comrade-in-arms – he suggests the three of them watch Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. This essential New Wave film was seen as a call to free love at the time, although in fact its message is the opposite. As the sixties kept on swinging, ‘Hollywood was being rehabilitated’, making the British young more interested in Howard Hawks than in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante; more drawn to Bonnie and Clyde (Rowbotham liked Faye Dunaway’s ‘becoming black beret’ but not the way she adjusts her hair to please her man) than to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which ‘left me with profound anxiety’.
One sequence in British Sounds shows students developing their own agitprop arsenal as they rewrite popular lyrics: ‘Honey pie, your position is tragic, you’ve lost all the rest of the person you were.’ It echoes Rowbotham’s memory of Hackney Young Socialists gatherings, where they played the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, but some ‘wet blankets’ refused to dance to this music as ‘petty boogewah’ and demanded Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire’. ‘What was it about socialists, I wondered? Why did they approve only of music from times gone by?’ Of course, there was also a lot of contemporary music around, as Rowbotham recalled in a recent talk: ‘Sometimes I thought I’d come up with something original, but then I realised it was all getting absorbed from the music.’
Another film mentioned in the book, Peter Collinson’s Up the Junction (1968), is famous for its soundtrack, written and recorded by Manfred Mann. Rowbotham calls it ‘kitchen-sink drama sentimentalised, but… unusual in dealing with contemporary class dynamics from the vantage point of the woman’: that is, of a posh Chelsea girl transplanted to a sweets factory in Battersea. By contrast, Ken Loach’s 1965 TV play of the same title, also based on Nell Dunn’s short story collection, is anything but sentimental. Its reportage-like quality – to quote Loach, ‘we were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news’ – makes it authentic, immediate, class-conscious. Like Promise of a Dream, Up the Junction doesn’t try to gloss over controversial issues. Its portrayal of casual racism among the working class parallels a scene in the book in which a situationist is trying to agitate dockers. The best vindication of the play’s agitprop technique is its naturalistic depiction of a back-street abortion and its horrible aftermath. The BBC broadcast attracted 10 million views and hundreds of complaints, all contributing to the process that led to the legalisation of abortion in the UK in 1967. The same year, homosexuality stopped being a crime here.
In her honest account of radical activism, love affairs, studies, travels, teaching, agitation and other stuff of the sixties, Rowbotham keeps returning to the problem of feminism vs femininity. ‘Simone de Beauvoir might not wear mascara,’ she reflects on an occasion when Bob told her off for using make-up, ‘but Simone de Beauvoir didn’t have ginger eyelashes.’ Her younger self finds emancipation ‘too prim and proper’; she has a sense of style and follows the latest fashions, even at the risk of her miniskirt provoking wolf whistles. As for others’ looks, here she is commenting on the appearance of Jane Arden, the author of the avant-garde feminist play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven, at a Women’s Liberation meeting: ‘“Stupid hat,” I thought to myself cattily.’ Arden addresses the gathering ‘with majesty’ and is heckled: the women are too fed up with being bossed around by men to take anymore from anyone. Once again, big issues jostle with little things, reminiscent of the wish list in Rowbotham’s article: ‘We want to drive buses and play football.’
The year of sexual reforms, 1967 was also a time when Rowbotham began ‘ruminating about being a woman’ in her diaries. Reading John Braine’s novel Room at the Top (1957), at first she ‘loathed’ the good girl Susan and ‘identified with’ the world-weary Alice, ‘especially after she was played by Simone Signoret’ in Jack Clayton’s 1959 film, but now such interpretations seemed too simplistic. In fact, Promise of a Dream variously brings to mind both heroines, as well as the working-class protagonist determined to climb up the social ladder at all costs. The scene of Susan’s seduction in the film echoes Rowbotham’s reaction to her own first time: ‘Could losing your virginity be a kind of non-event?’ Alice, too, is torn between a ‘desire to be overwhelmed sexually’ and an ‘equally strong wish to be independent’, which in Rowbotham’s case was also the struggle ‘between the desire to cut all my hair off, wear no make-up, look out and be’ and to ‘cover up’. Perhaps it was these conflicting impulses that made her skeptical of a ‘fixed ideal of “women” as all good and “men” as all bad’. The author of Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973), Rowbotham has always viewed equality issues from a historian’s perspective, rejecting the tendency to see men as ‘universally predatory, which is the retrospective caricature of the sixties’. ‘I did not see men as a group as uniformly powerful or myself as a defenceless victim,’ she writes in the memoir. ‘I don’t agree with the concept of patriarchy,’ she said in a recent talk, since it assumes a fixed notion of male dominance, while this phenomenon has been changing over time, meaning that ‘every generation has to make a women’s movement again’.
‘Like many other young sixties rebels, I assumed that whatever I had just discovered was somehow new,’ Rowbotham writes. Her idea to launch an agitprop campaign in 1968, though, was inspired by agitprop trains that had travelled across revolutionary Russia half a century earlier. Excited by the idea of ‘living newspapers’ and a ‘living school’, she argued with the alternative theatre director Roland Muldoon, who believed that to reach young workers, a different method should be used, agitpop; a notion that appeared too flippant to serious agitators. One of the slogans British Sounds ends with, voiced by a man and a woman (slightly out of sync), is ‘Solidarity with the artistic offensive launched by open films and agitprop in the factories, on building sites and in council flats’. Rowbotham and her colleagues weren’t entirely unsuccessful – their Revolutionary Festival in Trafalgar Square in July 1968, for instance, generated support for Vietnam’s national liberation – and yet the propaganda campaign was, she admits, ‘strong on ideas but weak on implementation’. The gap between content and form was, as always, the hardest to bridge.