The Books Interview: Sheila Rowbotham

The history of the suffragettes is well documented, but there has been much less coverage of the early-20th-century feminists described in your new book, who organised around birth control, housework, labour rights and equal pay. Why is that?

Perhaps the story of the suffragettes ismore like a news report - there were some specific events, and then an end point - whereas the arguments around daily life were less crystallised. There was quite a lot of disagreement among the women I am writing about, and the discussions they had are still going on today.

Of all their causes, which was the most difficult for them to tackle?

One of their biggest struggles was to assert the needs of women as individuals, while also envisaging a society that was more co-operative and collective. I think that's a struggle for everyone who wants social change, because the individualist territory tends to be claimed by liberals and anarchists, while the socialists get the collective state territory, so you end up with a divide.

There are hundreds of utopian thinkers in the book. Whom among them do you especially admire?

There is a brilliant American, Crystal Eastman, who recognised that women needed solutions to their specific problems, but also that you couldn't just talk about women as being entirely different from men. She found a balance. She and others were campaigning for changes around sexuality and how you bring up children and retain some autonomy. It was a huge surprise to me when I first discovered them. I thought that, before the 1970s, nobody had ever thought about issues such as how to share childcare.

What can feminists today learn from those early campaigners?

They can realise that they are acting in a context. There is always a difficulty in speaking out alone, so finding other women who have thought the same way gives you an awful lot of strength, because it's then harder to be isolated and made to feel peculiar.

Forty years ago, you spearheaded the second-wave feminist movement in Britain by suggesting the first ever National Women's Liberation Conference. Do you see that wave of the movement as utopian, too?

Yes, we wanted everything to change. We were women who had had an education, but many of us came from non-educated backgrounds, so we didn't have precedents in our families for different ways of being. Men were similarly caught, so they treated us in very confused ways. We were all breaking every rule, and yet the old assumptions kept surfacing. I remember one guy telling me that my role as a woman was to be a nurturer. I said: "I don't want that role!" I don't mind nurturing when I feel like it, but I don't want to be stuck in that category.

Did you achieve all you hoped for?

Not exactly. But in the 1970s you hardly ever saw a man pushing a pram, for instance, and that's normal now, so big changes did occur.

Does it surprise you that a class analysis has largely disappeared from feminism?

I think it happened when the manufacturing industry dwindled and workers moved over to the public sector. Also, the Murdoch press has had the power to crush the slightest sniff of old-style Labourism, or feminism - Harriet Harman says very mild things and the tabloid press goes bananas. The way that the Labour Party abandoned working-class people has left a complete vacuum, and a deep feeling of hurt and anger.

You are a professor at Manchester University. Have you seen signs among young women of a renewed feminist movement?

Over the past two years there has been a growing interest, although some women are still wary.

In 1970 Jean-Luc Godard asked you to walk up and down stairs naked, reciting words of emancipation and you said no. Have you ever regretted that decision?

No - even though I didn't have incredibly pure, principled motives for refusing: it was mainly vanity. I did read the words of emancipation, and the woman who ended up on screen in my place was terribly slender and elegant.

Sheila Rowbotham's "Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the 20th Century" is published by Verso (£17.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next