Cover to cover girl

Sheila Rowbotham has been at the forefront of feminism and radical politics for decades. She tells Big Issue North about the importance of linking women’s rights to wider political struggles

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Sheila Rowbotham has spoken for over an hour about the state of everything from party politics to feminism and the university system. She can draw on 60 years of experience and a lifetime of reading.

In 1970 Rowbotham addressed the Women’s Liberation Movement conference, propelling her into the spotlight

“These are just a fraction of my books,” she says without pretension about the 20-plus shelves of tomes, papers and files surrounding her small frame behind the computer screen. “I’ve read many books, over many decades.” Modestly she makes no mention of the 20-plus she has written, contributed to or edited, despite being called the most under-rated feminist of our time.

After our interview the social historian, teacher and activist emails over some reflections on it. “I think I ended up being too negative about the prospects for change.”

No doubt she had the late Tony Benn on her shoulder. She recalls a conversation – more accurately a telling-off – in the late 1980s.

“He was really cross with me. He could be so nice but he was furious with me because he thought I was undermining people’s hope. He really laid into me like a real politician.”

To that end, Rowbotham’s latest book is titled Daring to Hope. It’s her memoir of the 1970s, when she was a central figure in the women’s liberation movement, and a participant in left-wing politics and the radical culture of the time.

It picks up where her memoir documenting the 1960s ended. Promise of a Dream charted her formative years mixing with beatniks in Paris, becoming a student at St Hilda’s College Oxford, joining the Young Socialists in Hackney, where she lived communally, and the hippies in the Summer of Love. It was a surprising trajectory for a girl from a conservative family in Leeds.

“My father worked for a firm in Keighley selling pit motors,” says Rowbotham, illustrating she was not working class, despite everyone at Oxford assuming her to be on account of her northern accent. Her academic leanings were instilled in a Methodist boarding school on the North Yorkshire coast.

“I don’t think my parents thought that much about academic things in choosing a school. It was because I had really bad bronchial problems so I was sent off for the fresh air near Filey.”

Rowbotham remembers at that time being, above all, cold. But there were a couple of good teachers – including her “rational, ironic and liberal” history teacher, Olga Wilkinson.

“She didn’t just teach you the facts – she taught you really how to think about history. She questioned things. Like the Suez Crisis in 1956 – my father thought they should have sent gunboats in but Olga joked about the pretensions of the Empire and I think we picked it up from her. There were two friends who also became quite radical in the sixth form, so we talked to one another. We were so isolated and so ignorant about the world, so we just read.”

She kept reading until she nearly ran out of books. Following the success of her 1969 pamphlet, Women’s Liberation and the New Politics, which argued that socialist theory needed to consider the oppression of women, Rowbotham was working on her first book. Women, Resistance and Revolution was to look at women in revolutionary movements across the world between the 17th and 20th centuries and, she jokes now, how the women’s liberation movement was “a solution to everything. I was very fancy and confident”. But research materials were limited.

“We really didn’t have many books [about the female experience] then. I went to the British Library and looked in the files under the heading ‘women’, and I just read all the books in there. That was my first immersion,” says Rowbotham, behind the neat curtains of her signature bobbed hair – though the fiery red has faded to an elegant white blonde.

“I read all kinds of strange books, but also Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication [of the Rights of Woman] which for some reason was put in this private library where you had to be checked out to see whether you’re a suitable person to read or not. It was seen as a danger.”

Sheila Rowbotham. Main iIllustration by Una

In 1970 Rowbotham addressed the first of eight national Women’s Liberation Movement conferences at Ruskin College – propelling her into a spotlight she was never entirely comfortable in. Even now, after decades of public speaking, she admits she is nervous chatting to Big Issue North.

“I find it much easier to write than to talk. My first talk was a disaster. I was so full of myself in thinking I’ll put this great revolutionary message across in Hull and after, the guy who’d organised the meeting said: ‘They’re very polite in Hull. In London if there was a boring speaker they’d walk out.’ That was really terrible. I’m definitely not an orator but I got used to talking.”

Despite her academic prowess, Rowbotham never reached media celebrity, unlike American peers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

“It is a real dilemma because somebody like Germaine Greer, for example, has an enormous impact in taking the ideas out really widely. But then, because she was a particular individual that people heard of, people thought that’s how everybody in the movement was,” she says.

“We had a complete aversion to that sort of single person leadership. And often when we used to go and speak in the early 1970s, we would go in twos or threes because it was easy to make one woman feel they were just whinging or making a fuss, but it was harder if there were two or three.”

Rowbotham and colleagues got out into communities, listening to working-class women and conveying their messages.

“The idea of women sticking up for themselves and sticking together became very strong. It gave a real boost to women in the unions who had been struggling for equal rights. And I think talking about the personal ways in which women were put down hadn’t really been part of how equal rights had been framed until then.”

At the conference Rowbotham says: “There was a feeling of eruption. We didn’t know what was going to happen – we just knew we had to gather totalk. We had no idea how many people would come and then several hundred people did – women, a few men and some children.

“After that we just carried on. We didn’t know why it was happening. I remember socialist men in Leeds asked: ‘How do you recruit them all?’”

Informal conversations turned into consciousness raising groups in which women gathered to share their experiences. They would become a “strengthening” cornerstone of the growing second wave of feminism. “In about a year, we went from having 12 groups to about 70, plus other campaign groups.”

The conference set out four key demands: equal pay; equal educational and job opportunities; free 24-hour nurseries; and free contraception and abortion on demand. Rowbotham acknowledges the fragility of these rights still – pointing to the Texas abortion ban and the attack on reproductive rights by far right governments in Poland and Hungary.

“They just have to be fought for all over again, which I’m sure women will and that some men will support them,” she says. Does she think our rights in the UK could be unstable?

“In general, politically, they could be, yes, because the sense of frustration and despair and impasse could create support for a new kind of right.”

Towards the end of Daring to Hope, with a weakened Labour party and growing divisions within the women’s movement, Rowbotham’s optimism is waning. Together with Lynne Segal and Hillary Wainwright she put together a pamphlet calling for the successful lessons of organising in the women’s movement to be applied to socialism more broadly. Beyond the Fragments was launched in the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. It was criticised by some left groups and radical movements for ignoring their predicaments, while some feminists suspected they were trying to co-opt the women’s movement into existing socialist frameworks.

“We wanted to have an equal connection between the movements in order to make socialism more expansive. But we assumed that seeing the connections from one form of subordination to another would be automatic. Somebody pointed out that it’s not automatic. Actually, we do need to make those connections explicit and conscious without reducing the importance of each autonomous struggle around particular identities.”

She points to an example where these connections were forged.

“During the Miners’ Strike, that realisation was really strong in Black working-class communities. When Women Against Pit Closures went travelling around in Hackney, for example, they were completely amazed because people there, who had never met anyone from a mining community, recognised that their struggle resembled theirs and they connected to them. Those moments are wonderful but quite rare.”

Rowbotham is characteristically measured when considering whether feminism is more or less fractured today than it was in the 1970s.

“It’s really hard for me to say, because I haven’t been active in groups, but looking at it from the outside, I’m aware that the differences do still exist.”

When Thatcher’s government was elected in 1979, Rowbotham, by then a new mother and campaigning for adequate childcare, admits in her book: “I was aware that something exceedingly bad had happened, but the full import was slow to sink in.”

Although a member of the Labour Party today, she is not active. Asked whether she feels the party has the ability to unite the left she lets out an exasperated groan.

“It’s really depressing to say I’m 78 and I’ve been going around in these circles for decades and still can’t come up with the answers. Perhaps, if it was possible to have some radical left alliance with greens, that might be able to have some impact, but it has happened many times in history – people have set up parties that just ended up arguing with one another…

“Even if you have a really strong, ferocious movement with support for the majority of people in the country, when you create socialism, there are problems which we haven’t even got anywhere near yet. Looking around at the examples of socialist societies there are lots of problems that are difficult to resolve just by having abstract ideas. You can’t judge how those are going to turn out.”

She was supportive of the radical policies of John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn but feels they have been manoeuvred out of the way.

“I can’t see that the Labour Party’s taken those things on board at all.”

She has been shocked, she adds, that in Bristol, where she now lives, “people who have been incredibly loyal Labour have had memberships suspended”. One is sociologist David Miller who was sacked by Bristol University last month amid an investigation into anti-Semitic lecture material.

“It’s important to press the inadequacy of a capitalist society in enabling people to care for one another.”

“People are being, in a rather complicated way, accused of being anti-Semitic if they criticise aspects of Israel or Zionism. I don’t think that’s right, because you should be able to criticise what a society’s doing, or the politics of various forms of nationalism without being seen as somebody who’s anti-Semitic. Indeed, there’s a lot of Jewish people in Israel who would be critical of the right wing there.”

Equally, she says, she doesn’t agree with deplatforming in universities “unless speakers are deliberately attacking a group of people who were unable to defend themselves because then your speech is affecting the freedom of others. A broad range of left to right views ought to be voiced.”

Despite her unshowy brand of activism, Rowbotham’s importance was confirmed by her students in 2013. Then lecturing in gender and labour history at Manchester University, where she had settled as a research fellow in the mid-1990s, Rowbotham faced forced retirement after turning 65, despite her wish to continue. Her students launched a campaign and the university renewed her contract.

Young people bring Rowbotham hope, fortunately, because “my generation are getting a bit tired,” she says.

“Among young people, and young women in particular, there’s a great spirit of determination now, and a willingness to actually link that up with feminism, which really wasn’t so strong I don’t think in the 1980s and 1990s.”

She hopes that we might be on the precipice of a period of radical social change, following some dark days like those that followed the time documented in Daring to Hope, when it was “hard to put the case for any vision of a transformed society by the 1980s because we were trying to defend the most basic welfare rights”.

Feminism, Rowbotham accepts, is in a similar defensive place now, amid endemic male violence.

She recalls demonstrating about the Yorkshire Ripper murders in the late 1970s, and friends in Leeds describing their fear to go out at night, but wasn’t frightened herself while living in Hackney at the time.

“There was widespread misogyny then too – it was so taken for granted that it hardly needed asserting.

“I remember a flasher when I was coming home quite frequently and I knew that he worked in the Ridley Road market because I saw him with a stall, but I just thought he was sort of pathetic.

“In the 1960s when I was 17 and I went to Paris, men would follow me in streets that were completely empty and that did make me nervous, but I didn’t feel fear automatically on the streets.”

Today, she says, male violence feels “more vivid”. She suspects it to be a reaction to women’s progress that “comes out of bitterness and despair and humiliation”. Covid too has had a disproportionate impact on mothers and carers.

Rowbotham says that blaming the patriarchy is “a bit of a dead end” and instead we should consider the role of capitalism in the oppression of women.

“If you look at capitalism historically, and see how it’s changed, you can see how that’s affected the position of women. It’s really important to press the inadequacy of capitalist society in enabling people to care for one another and to live in mutual harmony. It encourages people to be at variance with one another and to see everyone is an opponent to climbing up individually. It is important to keep stating that because otherwise I’m sure it will just go back to people thinking, well, that was just to do with the Covid times.

“There was that famous Tory slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’ but capitalism isn’t working at the moment for the majority of people.”

But Rowbotham’s hope is unshakeable. She tells me, with what sounds like the blind reassurances of a kindly relative: “Don’t worry! Something always turns up.” In fact it is the guarantee of a woman who has spent a lifetime reading about radical politics and the nature of progress, which may seem cyclical but is ultimately on a forward trajectory.

“The circumstances of women have changed dramatically in my lifetime. Very few of us went to university, we were totally ignorant about sex, we could hardly get access to contraception, and not being married or being a lesbian was overtly condemned,” she reflects in her follow up email, before signing off: “In sisterhood, Sheila.”

Daring to Hope: A Memoir of the 1970s by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso. 

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