A century of women

By Sheila Rowbotham, 1999, Penguin, £11-99 Reviewed by Clare Wilkins

Socialism Today No. 41, Sept. 1999
A CENTURY OF WOMEN is an attractive book for dipping into. It is a frustrating book to read from cover to cover, however, because it is, as Rowbotham says, an 'open-ended narrative'. Individual testimony mixes uneasily with sweeping generalisations and the reader seems to be expected to make their own history from reading the book.

Women's lives have changed enormously this century and the actions of women themselves have played a vital role in the transformation. Putting women back into history is about giving individual women their history, but it should also be about making some collective sense out of women's divergent experiences.

At the beginning of the century most women were invisible in society, whatever their class. Pregnancy and childbirth were hazardous and frequent, as dangerous as abortion, which was illegal. Contraception was almost totally unavailable. Divorce was complicated and outside the reach of the poor. Cohabitation and illegitimacy were frowned on and stigmatised.

The participation of women with children and married women in the workforce makes women just under half of the British workforce and just over half in the USA today. Of course, working-class women have always had to work and many women whose work achieved greater opportunities for future generations, worked because of economic necessity. Nevertheless, women are far more independent financially than 100 years ago. Few women had access to higher education; women could not vote or be involved in mainstream politics; most were not in unions.

During the first world war, women entered jobs that they had never done before. Although most of these jobs ended with the war and women's participation was largely forgotten, women did not return to domestic service (the largest sector of women's employment before the war). The development of new light industries and the expansion of clerical work offered a better paid and less confining alternative.

Mobilisation of women in the second world war, and the high profile they were given in propaganda, led to dramatic changes in consciousness amongst women, including about their role in society. The need for women in the workforce sat uneasily with the desire of politicians to safeguard a woman's place as being in the home. Although nurseries were on the agenda, relatively few materialised compared to the number of places needed. Some women longed for a return to 'normality', others longed to keep their new jobs and independence. Despite changes in the nature of work women were involved in after the war, by the end of the 1940s women were a bigger proportion of the workforce than in 1939. The post-war upswing, technology, and the expansion of higher education, increased expectations for women.

In dealing with the 1960s onwards, the book is less mediated by historical scholarship than by Rowbotham's personal experiences: 'It was as if the whole world was bursting at the seams and everything was about to change'. 'Not only did inequality persist… but class permeated how people related to one another and how they felt about themselves'.

All history is the product of the time in which it is written, and this is also true of A Century of Women. It is a product of the growth of women's history in the last 25 years which, according to Rowbotham, 'has fused personal memories and oral testimony, shifting the focus of interest and highlighting women's experience'. It seeks to encompass the 'multitude of events which became daily news decade after decade, along with all those submerged personal experiences which women's history has sought out'.

This contrasts with the impetus behind Rowbotham's ground-breaking book, Hidden From History, published in 1973, which arose 'directly from a political movement… out of discussions in women's liberation and on the left about the situation of women in contemporary capitalism'. (pix) This was a time when she thought that 'a socialist feminism is again possible in the world', (p169) after the revolutionary events of 1968.

A Century of Women deals with the civil rights movement and gay liberation as it hurtles along, but it is difficult to feel or to retain a sense of context for much of the interesting material presented. The lack of a coherent socialist or feminist framework leaves the 'new right' with the only explained ideology. Its emergence can be seen at the end of the 1960s, and was elaborated and extended in the 1980s by Thatcher and Reagan: 'The assumption that America was a land of infinite opportunity encouraged the view that the poor must have failed personally'. (p390)

In the 'decade of the individual', the ideological centre was moved to the right. Feminism looked inward and socialism was under fierce ideological attack, and this has left its mark on Rowbotham's thinking.

In her limited concluding section, just six-and-a-half pages out of 580, she stresses the 'much more muddled picture - and a far more interesting history' that has been made by the 'contrasts (that) are apparent not just between Britain and the US but within both countries, because of class, race and ethnicity, along with region, age and disability'.

But these contrasts have always been there. It seems to me that the picture is more muddled because Rowbotham has lost touch with the feminist, socialist analysis which provided the framework for her earlier writing. Now she merely presents the contrasts and allows them to speak for themselves. This would not be such a bad thing in itself, if bookshops were full of books with a defininte socialist analysis of the history of women in the 20th century. But they are not.

A Century of Women chronicles many aspects of women's lives and the changes in them, but it makes no comment. Rowbotham ends the century unsure of the way forward. In fact, the way forward remains, as she said in 1973, with the working class and 'the action of working-class women in transforming women's liberation according to their needs'. (Hidden From History, p169) Socialism is still the idea that will change the world.

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