Dreamers of a New Day: Women who Invented the Twentieth Century

Sue Wingrove discovers some remarkable women of recent history

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Reviewed by: Sue Wingrove
Author: Sheila Rowbotham
Publisher: Verso
Price (RRP): £10.99

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During the late 19th and early 20th centuries a confluence of factors encouraged women to envisage changes in their circumstances.

Discoveries in science and technology, the rise of global trade and a world war were among developments which inspired – and seemed to offer the chance for – real political and social change.

In this book Sheila Rowbotham, professor of gender and labour history at the University of Manchester, looks at how, from the 1880s to the 1920s, women “armed with only the sketchiest of maps” tried to take control of their destinies. She covers not just Britain but also the United States where besides the politics of gender and class was added that of race, as African-American women struggled to bring that onto the agenda.

The author has deliberately “sought out obscure dreamers” who questioned prevailing assumptions, adding to the pantheon of women’s history a whole new cast of characters. This is a story of hundreds of different movements, campaigning on everything from welfare reform to the right to ride a bicycle.

On every aspect of change there were conflicting ideals, typified by that surrounding the right to practise contraception – or even the right to write about it. Did it allow women to choose motherhood or did it simply enable men to expect sex whenever they wanted?

Those who sought to keep women from taking a wider role liked to characterise the vanguard as unsexed, oversexed or simply deranged. So although campaigners may have had different agendas, they would all learn, in the words of reformer Mary Beard in 1912, that “everything that counts in the common life is political”.

It was a message the world would hear again, in another great period of struggle for women’s rights: “the personal is political” was a frequently heard feminist rallying cry in the 1960 and 1970s.

Sue Wingrove is former deputy editor of BBC History Magazine
 

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