Sheila is the country’s foremost socialist feminist thinker and historian. This is the second part of her autobiography, following on from “ Promise of a Dream” and takes us through the 1970s – all in 291 pages!
We watch as Sheila, like Alice through the looking glass, enters another world. She is from a middle class background, but instead of following the well worn path of university, marriage and domesticity, she threw herself into a journey of personal self discovery with a determination to join other individuals and groups who were also looking to turn the world upside down.
Today we are saturated in books and manuals that call on people to change their lives with the mantra, “be the best person you can”, but for Sheila (and many other people at that time) it was about defining, and redefining oneself as a woman, and working collectively with others to change society for everyone.
We are taken by Sheila through her life and loves during a very dynamic and exciting period of history. She says “The seventies saw a great surge of rebellion and dissent that spanned politics, culture and personal life.”
As we follow Sheila through her life in these years we experience how different this country was, and how much easier it was for people to be politically active. Housing was cheap, there were plenty of jobs, you could sign on for benefits and you didn’t have to bother about how you looked. (no selfies!) Young people had the space to think about their life and get active in whatever they wanted to.
Breaking down barriers between classes of people was seen as vital in politics in the 1970s as students made alliances with factory workers, cleaners, postal workers and so on in challenging an unfair society.
One of the most important part’s of Sheila’s story is how she works together with women who want to smash the traditional view of what it means to be a woman. Reading about all the different women’s groups that popped up at that time is incredible when we look around today. The women were working at a grassroots level and their aim was to set up an autonomous women’s movement. It is inspiring to read about the way in which women set up local groups to discuss, debate and then organise collectively to take up issues in conferences, on the street and in other organisations.
One of the big differences between today and the 1970s is women believed could change their lives and those around them. The 1970s was a time of a deepening economic decline in the country – which working class people were going to pay for it.
But there was a strong trade union movement with many working class women who were at the forefront of strikes and disputes. Alliances were forged between the new women’s movement and the growing number of strikes started by working class women.
One of the first mentioned in the book is the fierce May Hobbs, a working class woman from Hoxton, who together with other night cleaners took action against low pay and poor conditions. Sheila and her women’s liberation group took up their cause and joined them by leafleting and supporting their strike action.
It was not easy for the working class women and some of the biggest disputes were with their own unions and the men who generally ran them. For women such as Gertie Roche in the 1970 clothing strike what started out as a spontaneous walk out by many women textile workers led to a bitter dispute with their male comrades. Twenty five year old Sheila is challenged by Gertie who throws back at her “And you. Are you emancipated in your own life”.
The word “socialist” is thrown around all the time these days but to me this is what it means when people like Sheila stand back and support working class people and promote their campaigns, and in doing so do not hijack them for their ambitions and self promotion.
When Sheila’s book “Women, Resistance and Revolution” was published in 1972 she immediately retreated to the laundrette. She did not want the media attention as she says “though we were intent on creating a movement that was non-hierarchical, the media persisted in creating celebrities and labelling individual writers as leaders”.
Nevertheless the book became an international best seller, particularly amongst women who were also seeking likeminded sisters and a path to emancipation.
In 1973 her book “Hidden from History” was published, a groundbreaking text on the history of feminism and socialism in the C19th and C20th, revealing women’s role in political and social activity. Sheila acknowledges the collective nature of her research. It was written with the support of her friends with whom she had conversed on subjects as diverse as socialism and feminism, witchcraft and women’s work, and who had given her copies of what they had written.
Underlying all this activity is Sheila’s own constant musings about her life as a woman and her relationships with the men in her life: how to be, and stay, independent, while still having close, intimate relationships with men which allowed her to grow, to have a child, to develop her mind and her politics. Through her writing we can hear her chewing over all these dilemmas and I love her poems which she uses to give an insight into her emotions.
“Daring to Hope” captures the mindset of a generation of people in the 1970s. Through her life and activity Sheila reminds us of how we can set ourselves free, but that it takes a great deal of activity, of thinking and relating to other people. Labour historians Edward and Dorothy Thompson were good friends of Sheila and it is one of Edward’s phrases that sum up the book and the era: “Enduring militancy is built not upon negative anxieties, but upon positive aspirations….it is always the business of the Left to foster the utmost aspiration compatible with existing reality – and then some more beyond.”
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