Nov 28, 2011

Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham

Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham

Those women who invented so much have been partially forgotten because they were not at the centre of power, nor were they engaged in heroic acts or glitzed with glamour. But societies are recreated in more ways than meet the eye. The mundane, the intimate, the individual moment of anger, the sense of association: all contribute to the fabric of daily life. The rediscovery of their lost heritage is revelatory, and not only because these energetic innovators dreamed up so much that we take for granted in the world. They also staked our a remarkably rich terrain of debates around questions which are equally vital today.
Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century is a history of political ideas and social changes envisaged and brought about by women between the 1880’s to the 1920’s. Many of the women Sheila Rowbotham introduces us to in these pages fit the definition of the “new woman”, but they come from a variety of backgrounds and have very different goals and political convictions. Rowbotham writes about relatively well-known names such as Emma Goldman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Olive Schreiner, Annie Bessant, Mary Church Terrell or Eleanor Marx, but also plenty of more obscure ones: women whose contributions to “inventing the twentieth century” have mostly been forgotten.

Dreamers of a New Day is slightly reminiscent of Among the Bohemians, but whereas Virginia Nicholson’s focus is largely biographical, Rowbotham mostly emphasises ideas and political history. Her focus is on labour, economics, everyday changes, and their ideological implications and practical consequences, which was particularly interesting to me because I don’t read about this kind of thing enough. Dreamers of a New Day also deals with changes in gender roles and their impact on sexual relationships; with contraception and motherhood; with very recognizable topics such as vegetarianism and ethical consumer choices; and with the debate surrounding eugenics that dominated much of the early twentieth-century and its very troubling class and race implications. Another thing that was particularly interesting to me, someone whose history reading tends to be very Europe-centric, was the fact that Rowbotham focuses on what was happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have a great interest in the time period covered in Dreamers of a New Day, so I knew from the beginning there was very little chance this book would fail to interest me. Whenever I read about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I’m left with the impression that this was a time of staggering possibilities, not all of which came to be realised. Rowbotham’s historical analysis only added to this impression, particularly the chapters that dealt with the questions raised by sexual freedom in a time of even bigger sexual double standards than we have today, and when the stakes were so very different for men and for women. This is a topic I’ll never tire of reading about, and I was pleased that Rowbotham doesn’t adhere to the disturbingly common trend of deciding that women who had an interest in experimenting with new romantic or sexual arrangements were only doing so because they had been duped, rather than out of any real conviction.

As I was saying before, the women in Dreamers of a New Day are by no means a uniform group. They have very different motivations, for starters: some were rebelling against very restrictive backgrounds and upbringings; others were acting out of religious motivations; others still because of political beliefs. As Sheila Rowbotham says,
The potpourri of rebels and reformers dreaming of a new day did not compromise a cohesive group or even a ‘tendency’. Their revolt arose from disparate sources: they were driven by fear of moral and social disintegration, by anger against injustice, by visions of utopia and by a resolve to improve everyday living and relating. Nor were they united in outlook or intent. Some aspired to alter existing culture, others to transform the world; some wished to regulate and improve, others to release and liberate. They were, moreover, shaped by dissimilar social backgrounds. Some were upper middle class and keen to cast off privilege; others were members of the growing in-between strata, educated yet not quite ‘ladies’, uprooted, mobile, and liable to be iconoclastic. Among their ranks, working-class women striving for solidarity stood alongside African-American women linking gender to their emancipation as a race.
She does an excellent job of bringing together all these separate movements and showing what they had in common without painting any of them with broad strokes. She also never fails to acknowledge that gender does not erase differences and doesn’t render other categories of identity meaningless: “they might be women, but they were also free thinkers, anarchists, socialists, feminists, communists, moral and social reformers, liberals, progressives, labour movement women, bohemians, sexual radicals or eugenics enthusiastics.”

As much as ideas are the focus of Dreamers of a New Day, the personal side of history is also acknowledged. The book includes moving personal stories and anecdotes, such as a description of the excitement experienced by Olive Schreiner, Edith Ellis and Eleanor Marx on seeing Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for the first time. The three friends felt electrified: Nora’s choice at the end raised possibilities that had never been seriously considered before.

More than anything else, this is a book that will show readers the cost of things we now take for granted: it illustrates just how huge some seemingly simple shifts really were. Anything from labour rights to contraception to changes in dress code to the right to leave the house alone, without chaperonage, had a huge battle behind it. The personal costs of the freedoms we now enjoy can be difficult to appreciate, but they were very much felt by these women. Dreamers of a New Day also shows us that change does not come from a single source; progress is anything but a straight line. Sometimes for every step forward there were two steps back.

It’s amazing just how current and relevant this book is, and just how many of these are questions we still struggle with today. This was indeed a period that defined the twentieth and early twentieth-first centuries, and Sheila Rowbotham does it justice.

A few more interesting excerpts:
To revolt against the conventions of appearance meant putting oneself into an unprotected space. Critics sneered at the plain shirtwaisters and ties worn by Russian-Jewish immigrant working-class new women who sat in caf├ęs debating marriage, the family and working conditions. One hostile observer in the 1890’s derided the ‘pallid, tired, thin-lipped, flat-chested and angular women’ for whom ‘the time of night means nothing until way into the small hours.’ To dress, act and think differently upset cultural assumptions about gender that were deeply embedded.

Greenwich Village’s idealization of ‘outsider’ groups had focused initially on ethnicity and class. However, by the 1920’s jazz and the blues were transporting a lyrical and metaphorical sexual imagery from the culture of poor blacks to fashionable white audiences. Much was lost in translation; it passed through a prism of incomprehension. The white intelligentsia, in casting off their Protestant guilt, was inclined to envisage a uniform black American which they constructed as a primitive ‘other’. This put educated black women seeking independence and sensual expression in a difficult predicament. Erotic affirmation could simply confirm racist stereotypes.

Mothering as a social metaphor could constrict as well as expand the parameters of social citizenship. The dreamers who sought to make women, as a group, the catalyst for change continually stumbled against the problem of how to devise alternative perspectives without restricting women’s options for autonomous diversity. Again and again, in proposing ways in which women could cohere around their specific interests, dreamers slid into yet more restricting demarcations. Stella Browne made a valiant attempt to introduce a concept of collective agency by making reproductive control for women the equivalent of worker’s control for men. This rephrasing of anarcho-syndicalism in relation to the body did offer a dynamic fusion between the individual and a wider social context; unfortunately it also introduced a theoretical categorization which implicitly excluded women from the workforce and men from sexual reproduction. What is more, the dreamers found themselves at odds with one another. Awakened they might be; in agreement they were not. The sacrificial redeemer present in both social purity and social mothering jarred with aspirations for assertive cultural transgression and power. The supporters of protective legislation wanted to regulate women’s work; the egalitarians wanted unrestricted equality.
Reviewed at: The F Word

(Have you read it too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to add your link.)

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  1. I am so glad that this book was such an interesting study for you, and you've shared a lot of the amazing and interesting things about it with such clarity, so thank you. I can't say that I have ever really read a book about this subject, but you've convinced me that I need to pay more attention to this book, and books like it. Very thankful to have read this review today!

  2. Oh, interesting! I like that this book focuses on ideas and not people- much more intangible in some ways, but also very relevant. It reminds me of a book I heard about recently on NPR called The Origin of Tipis, which is about trying to find out the origin of certain ideas and things that today we take for granted.

  3. This sounds like an important book. I think we often forget what it took for us to enjoy the freedoms we have today.

  4. This does sound really interesting and informative, Ana.

    I could probably stand to be reminded of the cost of things I now take for granted, I got just a tiny taste of it here.

  5. I am shamefully ignorant of many of the women that paid such a high price for me to have the freedom that I enjoy today. This is a read that needs to go on my list!

  6. Zibilee: And I'm thankful for your kind and thoughtful comment (as always!)

    Aarti: Ooh, that sounds like a great read as well. Off to investigate...

    Kathy: Yes, we really do.

    Amy: I think we all could!

    Kathleen: I hope you'll find it as rewarding as I did!

  7. I'm really not good with history books, but your review intrigued me - this seems like a very interesting book!

    I believe it's important to know how we came to where we are now, how the fights were daily made, in order to better understand our position and... learn from the pioneers to move forward down the road ahead.

  8. Larissa: Yes, exactly. I particularly like that books like this show us that things we now take for granted once seemed unattainable changes.

  9. I read a couple of her books in uni, but I don't think this was one of them. Have you discovered Dale Spender? She has a book that sounds similar to this, but it covers more time (and, as such, is a very cumbersome publication). I think you'd like her....

  10. This one sounds wonderful! I definitely need to find out more about these partially-forgotten women.

  11. Buried in Print: I haven't come across Spender yet, no - many thanks for the recommendation!

    Tracy: It's a fascinating read :)

  12. Oooh, this looks excellent! WANT.

  13. Emily Jane: This is definitely right up your alley!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.