Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the 20th Century

Sheila Rowbotham's work has always been concerned with unearthing connections between past and present, the personal and the political, theorists and activists. In contrast to her last book, a lengthy, much-praised biography of the poet and philosopher Edward Carpenter, Dreamers of a New Day is short but vast in scope, recounting the "utopianism of our adventurous foremothers". It examines in some detail the astonishing range of campaigns and protests of a host of radical thinkers and activists in Britain and the US at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

It's an unusual work, utterly unlike anything else appearing at the moment under the heading "feminism", and for that reason it is important. That it works so well is a tribute to Rowbotham's intimate acquaintance with many of the period's leading characters and to the themes she uses to group her material - from campaigns for birth control, to the reorganisation of the family, home and work, to experiments in consumer power.

Important battles were won as the result of the struggles of these pioneers. Today, a woman's right to sexual health is taken for granted, at least in the developed world, but early campaigners faced severe penalties, particularly in the puritanical atmosphere of the early 20th century. The American activist Ida Craddock, for example, killed herself rather than face another term of imprisonment for disseminating a sex education pamphlet. And Margaret Sanger, who took up the cause of campaigning for contraception after seeing her mother broken by multiple childbirths, had to flee to Europe after publishing Family Limitation (1914).

Other preoccupations of the period, such as how to reconcile female autonomy with the conventions and demands of marriage and motherhood, still present a challenge to feminists today, although the underlying assumptions in the debate, and the economic and social backdrop, have changed beyond all recognition. Earlier campaigns on housework were directed not at getting men to "do their share", but at improving communal services that would lighten the load of working-class women, weighed down by child rearing and often back-breaking domestic work. (In a pamphlet published in 1923, the Labour MP Herbert Morrison suggested that women should be able to send a postcard overnight to their local council to
order meals that would be freshly cooked and delivered the next day. Subject to some minor revisions, this would surely still be a popular policy today.)

Rowbotham is unperturbed by human frailties: there are several sympathetic references to the formidable Russian-American anarchist Emma Goldman, who was emotionally and erotically enslaved by an unreliable lover. Rowbotham is even-handed, too, in writing about the different approaches and styles of reformers during this period. In one chapter, she recounts how a conventional appearance helped the early feminists get their message across. Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, for instance, were always "studiously elegant". (As the Liberal father of one constitutional suffragist observed, "if you want to reform anything else, do not reform your clothes".) But Rowbotham also deals sympathetically with those bohemians who experimented with clothing, daring lifestyles and sexual freedom, and in doing so cleared new paths and created possibilities for subsequent generations.

Dreamers of a New Day repays a second reading, given the sheer weight of information it contains and the many subtle connections Rowbotham makes between causes and campaigners. The book is crammed with in­teresting stories of daily heroism, political imagination, inexplicable optimism and bravery. Everywhere you look, there's a story that deserves a book of its own - such as the tragedy of the 146 garment workers, almost all of them young women, who jumped to their death during a factory fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York in March 1911. Earlier union attempts to make the factory safer had been defeated by company bosses who insisted on locking the employees in while they worked.

There is gentle comedy here, too. Rowbotham describes how Alice Hamilton, a middle-class campaigner intent on rescuing a prostitute from a Toledo brothel, was surprised to find, in place of the "victim she had expected . . . a woman of mature years, handsome, dignified, entirely mistress of herself", in a house that was "luxurious but vulgarly ugly". For her part, the rescued prostitute was horrified by Hamilton's "altruistic settlement life in the Chicago slums".

Illustrated throughout with black-and-white photos of the women about whom Rowbotham writes, Dreamers of a New Day argues persuasively for the importance of this "lost heritage". To paraphrase Dorothea in George Eliot's Middlemarch, history is made as much by the "unhistoric acts" of modest women as by the public displays of self-important men. Rowbotham's pioneers opened up a "rich terrain of debate" that remains important to activists, campaigners and writers today.

Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the 20th Century
Sheila Rowbotham
Verso, 312pp, £17.99

Melissa Benn's most recent novel, "One of Us", is now available in paperback (Vintage, £7.99)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman