On 10 January 1969 in an article called “Women; the struggle for Freedom”, published in the Marxist magazine Black Dwarf, socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham poured out her anger and resentment about the inequality and injustice of women’s lives: “A much less tangible something – a smouldering, bewildered consciousness with no shape – a muttered dissatisfaction – which suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES.”
Sheila lived in a communal house in London, worked part -time teaching at a local F.E. college, and was involved with socialist politics. But she saw her male comrades as part of the problem. “They, like the left generally then, treated women with derision when we spoke up about how we felt about our lives,” she told me when I spoke to her. This came to a head when she became involved in producing an issue on women’s issues for “Black Dwarf”.
Sheila remembers that when her male comrades tried to make out that it was her that was the problem, not all women, the 17 year old secretary, Ann Scott, spoke up: “It’s not just Sheila, it’s all women.”
As Sheila explained to men in the article: “We still get less pay for the same work as you. We are still less likely to get jobs which are at all meaningful in which we have any responsibility. We are less likely to be educated, less likely to be unionised. The present setup of the family puts great strain on us.” Sheila was part of a minority of women that had got to Oxford, but it was not an easy position to be in. “The girl who for some reason breaks away intellectually is in a peculiarly isolated position. In the process of becoming interested in ideas she finds herself to some extent cut off from other girls and inclines naturally towards boys as friends.”
In the 1960s everything was changing. Civil rights movements across the world were kicking off and there was a widespread belief that things would change dramatically. Rowbotham was researching women’s history, finding links with the writings of women such as Alexandra Kollontai, who in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution drew the links between the personal and the political.
Sheila’s own analysis of women’s discrimination was (and still is) grounded in her respect for working class women. She realised how divided women are by men and society, but that the position of working class women was much worse. “They remain the exploited, oppressed as workers and oppressed as women.”
Whilst some women were still intellectualising about feminism, working class women such as Lil Bilocca and the Hull fishermen’s wives in 1968 were defending the lives of their men at work on trawlers. As Sheila recognised, “It was unusual to see a woman fighting publicly and speaking, and men on the left listening with respect, tinged admittedly with a touch of patronage.”
At the same time as some women, mainly middle class, were taking part in workshops, conferences, and setting up the first Women’s Liberation groups, there was a parallel movement of women activists in their workplaces. The women at Ford’s in Dagenham, led by Rose Boland, showed that women could organise themselves and take strike action. It also had a ripple effect on the left. “The Ford’s women also helped make the question of women’s specific oppression easier to discuss on the Left” says Sheila.
Women’s groups spread across the country, culminating in February 1970 when where the first nationwide meeting took place at Ruskin College Oxford. Sheila was amazed at the response. “We thought perhaps a hundred women would come. In fact more than 500 people turned up, 400 women, 60 children and 40 men…it was really from the Oxford conference that movement could be said to exist.” They settled on four demands to begin with: equal pay, improved education, 24 hour nurseries, and free contraception and abortion on demand.
For Sheila it was not all analysis. In 1971 she was involved with the Hackney Women’s Liberation Workshop and the night cleaners campaign. They were a very badly treated group of women workers. May Hobbs was one of the central activists as Sheila comments: “May Hobbs came to my bed room to speak about the cleaners and various people came from London Women’s Liberation Workshop to hear her in autumn 1970. There were certainly not crowds volunteering to leaflet in the city at night! Partly because women were busy campaigning for nurseries, contraception abortion- issues that related more to their immediate lives and it was not possible anyway for women with children to go out at night. Those of us who volunteered tended to assume that if we recruited women the union would support us.”
Over the last fifty years much has changed for women in this country. But Sheila comments that few people now talk about an alternative vision for society, and that while race and gender are dominant issues, class has been marginalised. “Inequality has increased. Women have been pushed down and working class women pushed down even more.” She believes that the values of the left in the 1960s, which were about solidarity and caring have been replaced with ideas of individual rights rather than ones of collectivity and the possibility of creating a different society.
In 1969 Sheila concluded her article: “But the oppressed have to discover their own dignity, their own freedom, they have to make themselves equal. They have to decolonise themselves. They then can liberate the colonisers”. In 2019 this still seems a worthy aim for women, to liberate themselves – and then liberate men.
You can read the whole of Sheila’s article here.
Verso are republishing Sheila’s autobiography Promise of a Dream; Remembering the Sixties in July 2019.