Dreamers of a New Day

Article excerpt

Sheila Rowbotham, Dreamers of a New Day London: Verso: 2010 Hbk: 978-1844677030, £11; Pbk 978-1 8446761 32, £17.95

Author of a recent splendid biography of Edward Carpenter (2008), Sheila Rowbotham is a well-known socialist historian and feminist. Her books Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972) and Hidden from History (1973) were pioneer studies of women's liberation, in outlining their struggles against social oppression and gender inequalities. Dreamers of a New Day is her most recent book. Like Rowbotham's earlier historical studies, it is a work of fine scholarship, wellresearched, lucidly written, and intellectually engaging.

The book is focused on Britain and the United States, and covers the period from around 1880 to the beginning of the First World War. This was, of course, a period of immense social change, with the resurgence of industrial capitalism - reflected in the growth of urban slums, the advent of large-scale corporations, mass production and sweated labour, and the widespread movement of the human population - particularly immigration into the United States.

Dreamers of a New Day essentially details the response of women across the political spectrum to these social changes, and the sense that they had that a new way of life was possible. It thus brings together a mass of interesting material on, for example, the following: birth control campaigns; the efforts of women to democratize personal relationships and thus explore new forms of sexuality; the links between women's efforts at emancipation and the socialist movement, particularly the role of women in the trade unions and their own labour organizations, including the suffragettes. It is thus a very wide-ranging text, discussing numerous women's organizations and the many social issues that involved women around the turn of the twentieth century. It carries the subtitle 'Women who invented the twentieth century', for many of the issues raised by these 'rebel women', as Rowbotham describes them, have now become part of everyday life. Indeed, she suggests that women in the early years of the twentieth century had transformed many of the conditions of their own lives, decades before the intellectuals of the 1960s discovered 'everyday life' as an arena for radical politics.

I have only two misgivings with regard to this valuable book. The first is that Rowbotham often, somewhat disconcertingly, flips back and forth in the text between Britain and America. The second is that there is no real introduction to the contents of the book - for the introduction is a rather breathless sweep over numerous issues, woman's organizations and countless women rebels and reformers - Rowbotham mentioning (but often no more than mentioning) within the space of nine pages, no less than forty-one different women. …