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Sheila Rowbotham: In Hope and Struggle

Sheila Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham discusses life in the struggle for women's liberation, her path to socialist feminism – and why she believes the debates of the 1970s continue to hold such resonance today.

Sheila Rowbotham's new book 'Daring to Hope' was recently released by Verso. (Credit: Getty Images)

Interview by
Francesca Newton

On International Women’s Day 2021, Boris Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton said that the prime minister considers himself a feminist. The only conclusion to be reached from this is that the term ‘feminism’ no longer carries much concrete meaning, becoming an empty phrase that anybody can project any meaning onto for their own ends.

But if this is the case, it isn’t to say that the real need for feminism no longer exists. On the contrary — after four decades of the decimation of the public services women disproportionately rely on, to the widespread proliferation of the low-paid, insecure, precarious work women are disproportionately employed in, the need for a clarified, class-based feminism is more important than ever.

To help us grasp this growing chasm between necessity and reality in twenty-first-century feminism, we can look at other formative periods in the history of the women’s movement. Recently, socialist feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham — author of Women, Resistance, and Revolution, and Hidden from History — published Daring to Hope. The new memoir details Rowbotham’s experiences in the pioneering socialist feminist circles of the 1970s, telling a multinational tale which ranges from accounts of deep personal relationships to serious political organising.

Tribune’s Francesca Newton spoke to Rowbotham about her memories of this formative era, where she and those around her attempted to build the kind of feminism we need today — a feminism that strives for collective improvement and real social liberation.


Daring to Hope deals with the 1970s, bookended by the first and last Women’s Movement Conferences in 1970 and 1979. Before we get onto that period, can you speak about your entry into political organising, and what interested you in socialism and feminism initially?


I was always a rebel, but when I got to university, I met people who were socialists, and they convinced me that I couldn’t just go around being mystical. The version of feminism we had at that time was maybe represented by St Hilda’s College at Oxford, where I was, which had been formed by women in the early suffrage movement. We had this idea that they were a bit prim and proper, and not really like us. Instead, the people I related to first were women who’d been active in revolutionary movements in places like France: I had this connection to women who had been trying to change society, to change aspects of women’s lives.

I’d become aware through my own life, and through speaking with women friends, too, that there were problems we as women rarely talked about. The things we were experiencing were not just individual — they were things that happened in the relationships between men and women on a wider scale. Certain patterns of behaviour emerged, and we realised we had to start questioning the assumptions that informed them. But at that time those assumptions weren’t seen as anything to do with politics, because politics was meant to be to do with external changes.


In your book, it comes across clearly that you were concerned with growing the early women’s liberation groups beyond the middle class. You also talk about the challenges you faced trying to introduce women’s issues into more traditionally male-dominated socialist settings, and what was sometimes a tendency there to dismiss women’s issues as a bourgeois distraction from the real struggle. What aided those efforts at expansion — and what hindered them?


At that time, what we weren’t conscious of was that we were part of a sociological shift. There was a whole stratum of people from lower-middle-class and working-class backgrounds that started to get into higher education in our generation. It was a small minority, but there were people who came from backgrounds where no one had been to university. And there were more men in that situation than women, because when I was at school, girls were encouraged to go to teacher training college if they were staying on in the sixth form.

So in my year, only a handful — about three of us — went to university, which meant we were kind of odd. And in being odd, we began to question our position more. The young men who went into left groups were often from exactly the same situation — they were people who’d gone to university and started to question the values of their parents and their backgrounds — but the accusation was always that we were too middle-class, whereas they were middle-class, too.

It was different with trade union men. It was not the case that there was a universal hostility. The Institute for Workers’ Control, for example — a group formed in 1968, which advocated workers’ control of the means of production — was where some of these ideas about women’s experiences started to come up. And there were people like Audrey Wise, who, because of her politics as a trade union woman, could cross over between young, intellectual women and people who were in the trade union movement.

And, of course, there were a lot of union women from a rather different situation questioning their own position, who brought women’s issues organically into the movement. They didn’t want to sit around in consciousness-raising groups, discussing their inner beings, but they were very aware of their situation, and compared it sometimes to other kinds of civil rights educational meetings. When I read the reports from the women’s section of the TUC, I saw that there were lots of those issues being raised by women in the conference, too. And that was really strengthening.

There was a traditional section for women in trade unions in the past, going back to the 1940s, but quite a lot of independent-minded trade union women in the late sixties and seventies felt that they were being contained by being put into a particular women’s section within the union. It was similar with women’s sections in the Labour Party. Women could sometimes be dismissed — for most of us, that’s an experience we have in common.


You mentioned a disinclination for some trade union women to sit around in consciousness-raising meetings. That seems like quite a far cry from what you describe in the book, in terms of the actions of the women you were organising with at the time — particularly the effort to recruit night cleaners for the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). What was the relationship of that effort with the socialist and women’s liberation movements respectively?


That initiative came from May Hobbs, who worked with the cleaners, coming first to the International Socialists. They sent a message to me to ask me to contact people in the women’s liberation workshop groups that were forming in London. I sent a message around. We had an office and a newspaper called Shrew, which had notices of meetings. People came from the women’s liberation workshop to my house to hear May Hobbs, and she got various people through that meeting to say that they would go out and leaflet the cleaners to join the TGWU. My neighbour Barbara, who had come from Jamaica, was also working as a cleaner at the time, so I heard about their conditions from her.

We had minor successes as a result of enormous effort, which involved walking the streets every Tuesday night looking for cleaners. But the problem was that the firms could end the contract, and once the women moved, it was really hard to find them. Working-class people didn’t always have telephones. Those cleaners were seen as an anomaly, then — they were on the sidelines, as a result of being contract workers. That’s no longer the case.

At the time, we didn’t see it as an exclusively ‘feminist issue’, particularly — we were concerned about women’s working conditions in general. The immediate thing was to try reach the women who seemed to be the most vulnerable. There was another attempt to find out about the conditions of home workers, who were isolated and very low-paid. We got into this attempt to organise cleaners, and whenever there were strikes from organised women, women’s liberation would support members locally. There were lots of women’s strikes in the 1970s because of low pay — so women really were a vital part of a broad push to try to improve conditions among workers as a whole.


You also write about your travelling, and about the importance of communication and mutual support across lines of difference. That task seems to be twofold in the way you outline it: requiring women to first acknowledge and support one another on points of difference, and then be able to still work together to fight shared points of struggle.


In the very early days of women’s liberation, when I went to speak in other countries, I felt as though there was this extraordinary similarity, but that was probably partly because we were coming at things from comparable groups, who were all being propelled out of the situation we’d been in before through education. But I also learned from meeting working-class African-American women that the experiences which had shaped our perspectives were not necessarily shared by all women. Contact with white working-class women confirmed that. They needed change in capitalist society, but they were not coming from the same position as myself.

In the eighties, a friend of mine had a history project in Ireland. She was involved with a group of Irish women in Belfast, who were working in the health service. Several years of discussion revealed they had so many other daily life problems and memories, stretching back through the generations. I remember talking about how my boyfriend had taken me in the sixties to a woman who agreed to fit diaphragms for people who weren’t married. One woman in the group listened to the story and shook her head, and said, ‘another country!’, because in Ireland, it would’ve been inconceivable to be able to get a diaphragm in the mid-sixties.

Despite all those differences, though, I found that when women get together it’s still possible to be able to cross over quite a few of those boundaries. We always have common experiences.


One of the prevailing themes in Daring to Hope is the conflicts within the emergent women’s liberation movement. For example, you discuss the conflicting attitudes towards the traditional family, towards men as allies versus antagonists, and towards the historical concept of the patriarchy. How important did you feel at the time that it was for the feminist movement to be cohesive on those points? And how do those early divisions relate to the cleaving we see in feminism today?


From early on, there was an implicit division between radical feminists and socialist feminists, but in practice, there was a lot of cross-over. At that time, radical feminists were saying we had to focus on women’s problems, and we socialist feminists were saying you couldn’t isolate women’s problems completely from whatever circumstances exist within capitalism: they affect women in certain ways, but they’re also affecting some men. It wasn’t a conflict that made working together impossible; it meant people approached things in different ways, but friendships cut across.

By the late seventies, revolutionary feminists came along, and they were more likely to be critical of men as inherently violent. To me, that didn’t work in terms of how I thought about human beings and politics. I had rejected the idea that humans were fixed categories of certain types, who could never change, because I’d seen people’s attitudes change — both men and women. I believed you could have equality and democratic personal relations between men and women. I didn’t see men as the only cause of the trouble, too, because I knew that there were some women who supported very conservative policies.

In the early 1970s many of us in women’s liberation wanted to reach out to all women, and to a certain extent, we were able to. But it was more likely to be women interested in left or liberal politics who were going to take up some feminist ideas than conservative women — certainly at that time. Subsequently, though, different versions of feminism have affected women across the political spectrum. There seem to be some groups of conservative women who have taken on certain forms of feminism — not really social forms, but forms that you could recognise as a type of feminism. That’s one of the disturbing things about feminism, for those who are opposed to it. It has a capacity to creep into all sorts of places.


An overarching theme of the book is of the challenges of formulating a coherent socialist feminism and avoiding a situation in which one movement — either socialism or feminism — must shrink to fit inside the other. Do you feel like that’s something that’s ever been arrived at with the necessary clarity of purpose, even if it’s been lost now?


It’s not something I remember explicitly discussing at the time, but when I was looking back, I came to see that this was a difficulty we faced. First, it’s perhaps hard to see that in 1970s Britain socialism was far more acceptable than feminism — so we were struggling to assert feminism within the Left.

There tended to be a different approach to ideas among socialist feminists, depending on how we had come to be active. Those of us who had come to women’s liberation in the very early times, when we really didn’t have a theory, stressed working things out together and formulating our approach to knowledge collectively. Only then were we able to become confident about our ideas, because we hadn’t just come to them in our own thoughts — we’d established them through being in a movement, through discussion, through checking with other women who we could trust not to ridicule us. That was how I was able to think, really, and to express ideas.

By the mid-seventies, I sensed that a new contingent of socialist feminists had emerged partly through the campaigns, with a total picture of socialist feminism. They spoke with a sense of certainty. They were more inclined to see being a socialist feminist as a political tendency, whereas I think those of us who’d been involved from the early times were still groping about trying to assimilate ideas from women’s particular experiences, rather than seeing ourselves as having an encapsulated understanding. We possessed instead an underlying vision of total social and cultural transformation.

On the other hand, we certainly learned through campaigns for specific reforms such as abortion, family allowances, and nurseries. Gradually the range of people became much broader. That was particularly true in relation to nurseries, which was such a desperate need at that time. That meant that more working-class women, both black and white working-class women, got involved.

Although women’s liberation as a loosely connected movement ended in Britain in the late 1970s, the impact continued. Many feminists became active in the burgeoning peace movement during the 1980s; we also participated in the radical municipal politics of that decade through councils, in places like Sheffield and Leeds and the GLC, and there were strong links with Women Against Pit Closures during the miners’ strike. Awareness of the connection to the state’s policy on immigration and policing was stressed, practically and theoretically, especially by black and Irish women’s groups. And many ideas from the 1970s and 1980s about women’s positions were to be passed on and developed through the growth of Women’s Studies.


A lot of the rights fought for — abortion, childcare, equal pay — are very much rights we’re still having to defend half a century down the line, if we’ve achieved access to them at all. When you recall writing Women, Resistance and Revolution, you describe Edward and Dorothy Thompson warning you against the risk of writing towards an assumed liberated future. How do you feel about that now?


It’s sobering that change can be achieved and then subsequently reversed. Edward and Dorothy had rejected both the liberal view of history as the progress of ‘Western civilisation’ and a mechanistic interpretation of Marxism that presented an inevitable triumph of the proletariat. They both wanted a labour history that examined the daily life and ideas of actual working-class people — women as well as men. That kind of approach has inspired much left-wing history, and it goes deeper than my first book did. In my defence, I would say I was in my twenties when I wrote Women, Resistance and Revolution, and was swept away by the passion and excitement of discovering women’s rebellion in the past. Perhaps that was why the book had such an impact.


Do you think a future exists in which those rights can ever be taken for granted?


The best illustration I can think of to answer this question is Ursula K. Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed. In that text, she describes how even when characters achieve a truly cooperative, mutual, caring society, there are still some discontents and problems that arise because of the nature of some individuals, who feel they aren’t always able to express their full capacity. In The Dispossessed, the main character leaves that society, and he joins another one — one which sounds rather like America — and ends up joining resistance to it there because the individualism is so pronounced that it’s harmful.

I think there’s always going to be the problem of how we can balance the different aspects of what people need. They need individual expression, and they also need mutuality and support and security at different times in their lives. In my lifetime, women in Britain have certainly been able to make gains as individuals in a competitive economy and culture. Women are now much more acknowledged in areas like the media, academia, sport, and business, for example — there are still limitations, but individual women have reached positions that would’ve been inconceivable in the Britain of the early 1970s.

That individual progress doesn’t solve the situation of all those women who have been pushed into worse conditions and very low-paid jobs. And that, I believe as a socialist feminist, is the problem in restricting feminism to the pursuit of equal rights under the current capitalist system. It enables some individuals to move up — but does very little for the ones left down below.

Sheila Rowbotham’s ‘Daring to Hope’ is now available from Verso Books.

About the Author

Sheila Rowbotham is a socialist feminist historian who was instrumental in the Women's Liberation Movement in Britain. Her books include Women, Resistance and Revolution and Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism.

About the Interviewer

Francesca Newton is online editor at Tribune.