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Sheila Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham

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Sheila Rowbotham is a British
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

 socialist feminist
Socialist feminism
Socialist feminism is a branch of feminism that focuses upon both the public and private spheres of a woman's life and argues that liberation can only be achieved by working to end both the economic and cultural sources of women's oppression...

 theorist and writer.

Early life

Rowbotham was born in Leeds, the daughter of a salesman for an engineering company and an office clerk From an early age, she was deeply interested in history. Rowbotham was to write that traditional political history “left her cold”, but she credited Olga Wilkinson, one of her teachers with encouraging her interest in social history by showing that history “belonged to the present, not to the history textbooks”.

Rowbotham attended St Hilda’s College
St Hilda's College, Oxford
St Hilda's College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England.The college was founded in 1893 as a hall for women, and remained an all-women's college until 2006....

 at Oxford
University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is a university located in Oxford, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest surviving university in the world and the oldest in the English-speaking world. Although its exact date of foundation is unclear, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096...

 and then the University of London
University of London
-20th century:Shortly after 6 Burlington Gardens was vacated, the University went through a period of rapid expansion. Bedford College, Royal Holloway and the London School of Economics all joined in 1900, Regent's Park College, which had affiliated in 1841 became an official divinity school of the...

. She began her working life as a teacher in comprehensive school
Comprehensive school
A comprehensive school is a state school that does not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude. This is in contrast to the selective school system, where admission is restricted on the basis of a selection criteria. The term is commonly used in relation to the United...

s and institutes of higher or Adult education
Adult education
Adult education is the practice of teaching and educating adults. Adult education takes place in the workplace, through 'extension' school or 'school of continuing education' . Other learning places include folk high schools, community colleges, and lifelong learning centers...

. While attending St. Hilda’s College, Rowbotham found her syllabus with its heavy focus on political history to be of no interest to her. Through her involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is an anti-nuclear organisation that advocates unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United Kingdom, international nuclear disarmament and tighter international arms regulation through agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty...

, and various socialist circles including the Labour Party
Labour Party (UK)
The Labour Party is a centre-left democratic socialist party in the United Kingdom. It surpassed the Liberal Party in general elections during the early 1920s, forming minority governments under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and 1929-1931. The party was in a wartime coalition from 1940 to 1945, after...

’s youth wing, the Young Socialists, Rowbotham was introduced to Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

's ideas. Already on the left, Rowbotham was converted to Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

. Soon disenchanted with the direction of party politics she immersed herself in a variety of left-wing campaigns, including writing for the radical
Radicalism (historical)
The term Radical was used during the late 18th century for proponents of the Radical Movement. It later became a general pejorative term for those favoring or seeking political reforms which include dramatic changes to the social order...

 political newspaper Black Dwarf
The Black Dwarf (Ali)
The Black Dwarf was a political and cultural newspaper published between May 1968 and 1972 by a collective of socialists in the United Kingdom...

. In the 1960s, Rowbotham was one of the founders and leaders of the History Workshop
History Workshop Journal
The History Workshop is a movement founded by Raphael Samuel. Its main role was to promote the historiographical tradition known variously as History from below, the history of everyday life, or simply the people's history...

 movement associated with Ruskin College.

Towards the end of the 1960s she had become involved in the growing Women’s Liberation Movement (also known as Second-wave feminism
Second-wave feminism
The Feminist Movement, or the Women's Liberation Movement in the United States refers to a period of feminist activity which began during the early 1960s and lasted through the early 1990s....

) and, in 1969, published her influential pamphlet "Women’s Liberation and the New Politics" which argued that Socialist theory needed to consider the oppression of women in cultural as well as economic terms. She enjoyed wearing miniskirts and being sexually liberated. She was heavily involved in the conference Beyond the Fragments (eventually a book), which attempted to draw together democratic socialist and socialist feminist currents in the UK. Between 1983 and 1986, Rowbotham served as the editor of Jobs For Change, the newspaper of the Greater London Council
Greater London Council
The Greater London Council was the top-tier local government administrative body for Greater London from 1965 to 1986. It replaced the earlier London County Council which had covered a much smaller area...


Outlook on feminism

Since then, Rowbotham has produced numerous studies and articles expanding upon her theory, which argues that as women’s oppression is a result of both economic and cultural forces then a dualist perspective (socialist feminism
Socialist feminism
Socialist feminism is a branch of feminism that focuses upon both the public and private spheres of a woman's life and argues that liberation can only be achieved by working to end both the economic and cultural sources of women's oppression...

), which examines both the public and private sphere, is required to work towards liberation.

Rowbotham was especially influenced by Marxist social history
Social history
Social history, often called the new social history, is a branch of History that includes history of ordinary people and their strategies of coping with life. In its "golden age" it was a major growth field in the 1960s and 1970s among scholars, and still is well represented in history departments...

 as practiced by E. P. Thompson
E. P. Thompson
Edward Palmer Thompson was a British historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner. He is probably best known today for his historical work on the British radical movements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular The Making of the English Working Class...

 and his wife Dorothy. Combining a Marxist analysis with feminism, Rowbotham contends that capitalism not only systematically oppresses the working class, but also particularly oppresses women. In Rowbotham’s view, women are doubly oppressed as they are forced to sell their labour in order to survive, but also forced to use their labour to support their husbands and children. Rowbotham is critical of traditional Marxist history for what she sees as the neglect of such issues as family history, the role of housewives in supporting the economy, sexuality, and maternity. In her 1973 book Women's Consciousness, Men's World, Rowbotham maintained that the domestic household work done by women was a part of commodity production as it allowed the production and reproduction of men's labor. However, Rowbotham claimed that the human family was not just an instrument for disciplining and subjecting women to capitalism, but was a place where potentially humans could take refuge from what Rowbotham sees as the commodification of human relationships under capitalism In Rowbotham's view, raising children, sexuality and need for human relationship means that the family can rarely be reduced down to a service commoditiy. Likewise, she argues for a Marxist history that accords equal importance to the role of both sexes in the history of revolutions, unions, political parties and protest movements.

In such books as Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972) and Hidden from History (1974), Rowbotham put her ideas into practice by examining the experience of women in radical and revolutionary movements in Cuba
The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

, Algeria
Algeria , officially the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria , also formally referred to as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, is a country in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa with Algiers as its capital.In terms of land area, it is the largest country in Africa and the Arab...

, Vietnam
Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

, China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

, Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

, France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 and Britain
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 from the 17th century to the 20th. In Rowbotham’s opinion, working within the established order has never brought women any gains, and only through revolutionary socialist movements have women made any social gains. Rowbotham has argued that though male revolutionaries are willing to accept women as partners as long as the revolution lasts, once the revolution is over, women are expected to return to their traditional roles. In Hidden from History, Rowbotham examined British women's history from the 17th century to 1930 from a Marxist viewpoint For Rowbotham, the history of British women could best be defined through class oppression, the Industrial Revolution and sexism

Rowbotham has criticized Leninism
In Marxist philosophy, Leninism is the body of political theory for the democratic organisation of a revolutionary vanguard party, and the achievement of a direct-democracy dictatorship of the proletariat, as political prelude to the establishment of socialism...

 and Bolshevism, claiming that they 'narrow the struggle of women's emancipation', and sees "libertarian socialism
Libertarian socialism
Libertarian socialism is a group of political philosophies that promote a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, stateless society without private property in the means of production...

", "ethical socialism" and anarchism
Anarchism is generally defined as the political philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, or alternatively as opposing authority in the conduct of human relations...

 as providing more vital understanding. Much of her historical work has been about the latter, submerged strands of leftism. She has criticized Soviet policies starting with the First Five Year Plan of 1928-33 for not only expecting women to work full time, but also to take on the burdens of house work and child raising. Rowbotham has contended that to achieve women’s liberation requires a "revolution within the revolution" or freedom from the “colony within the colony”. Rowbotham maintains that capitalism and sexism are so closely linked that only one way to destroy both is a radical change in the "cultural conditioning" of humanity as regards child-rearing, homes, laws, and the work. Rowbotham’s books were, and are still well received in radical feminist circles.

In her 1973 book, Women’s Consciousness, Men’s World, Rowbotham presented her analysis of contemporary social conditions from a Marxist-feminist perspective. Rowbotham argues that origins of sexism predate capitalism, and that the institution of marriage
Marriage is a social union or legal contract between people that creates kinship. It is an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually intimate and sexual, are acknowledged in a variety of ways, depending on the culture or subculture in which it is found...

 closely resembles feudalism
Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries, which, broadly defined, was a system for ordering society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.Although derived from the...

. Rowbotham argues that as in feudalism serfs were obliged to serve their masters, she contends that wives are likewise contracted to serve their husbands. In her books, Rowbotham has used a broad variety of sources such as government statistics, pamphlets, novels, interviews, songs, secondary sources, and her own history. A major source of criticism of Rowbotham is her heavy reliance on secondary sources for such books as Women, Resistance and Revolution and Hidden from History.

In her 1977 book Dutiful Daughters co-written with Jean McCrindle, Rowbotham interviewed fourteen women of lower-middle class and working class origin. Though Rowbotham notes that the life stories of women interviewed for Dutiful Daughters were not intended to be representative of all British women, she argues that these snap-shots of different lives if combined with enough other oral histories can provide an understanding of the experience of ordinary women.

As part of relating the personal to the political, Rowbotham has examined the sexual and political beliefs of such late 19th-early 20th century radicals as Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter was an English socialist poet, socialist philosopher, anthologist, and early gay activist....

 who saw socialism as way for humanity's spiritual rebirth and Stella Browne
Stella Browne
Stella Browne was an English feminist, socialist, sex radical, and birth control campaigner.-Life:Browne spent some time in Germany before World War I, meeting radical feminists there, such as the circle around Helene Stöcker....

 who fought for birth control and argued for the importance of sexual pleasure for women Rowbotham argued that the political beliefs of Carpenter and Browne were closely tied to their personal lives

Besides her work as a historian, Rowbotham has been active in left-wing causes. In her book Beyond the Fragments co-written with Hilary Wainwright
Hilary Wainwright
Hilary Wainwright is a British socialist and feminist, best known for being editor of Red Pepper magazine.-Personal life:Hilary Wainwright's father was the Liberal MP Richard Wainwright, and her brother, Martin, is the Northern Editor of The Guardian, to which she occasionally contributes.She...

 and Lynne Segal
Lynne Segal
Lynne Segal is an Australian-born, British-based socialist feminist academic and activist, author of many books and articles, and participant in many campaigns, from local community to international. She has taught in higher education in London, UK since 1970, at Middlesex Polytechnic from 1973...

, Rowbotham called for the various fractions of the British left to unite, and work for a socialist Britain through grass-roots activism. Rowbotham has great faith in activist social movements working from the bottom up to change society. Rowbotham feels that historians have a duty to contribute to social change by writing books that expose what she sees as the evils of society. As such, Rowbotham is highly critical of those historians who, influenced by theories of French structuralism and post—structuralism, write in a style unlikely to appeal to the general public.

In Rowbotham's opinion, an issue of great importance is providing a definition of patriarchy
Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination...

 so that women know what they are struggling. Rowbotham finds fault with those feminists who deny men a role in the battle against sexism. In her opinion, women and men should stand equally against both capitalism and sexism to achieve radical social reorganization.

Recent professional life

In 2004, Rowbotham was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts
Royal Society of Arts
The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce is a British multi-disciplinary institution, based in London. The name Royal Society of Arts is frequently used for brevity...

. She was Professor of Gender and Labour History, Sociology at the University of Manchester
University of Manchester
The University of Manchester is a public research university located in Manchester, United Kingdom. It is a "red brick" university and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive British universities and the N8 Group...

, England until her involuntary retirement in 2008.

Rowbotham's involuntary retirement from the University of Manchester caused protest from students. The Facebook
Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004, operated and privately owned by Facebook, Inc. , Facebook has more than 800 million active users. Users must register before using the site, after which they may create a personal profile, add other users as...

 group Save Sheila Rowbotham was established to campaign for her continuation as a Lecturer. The same year she published the first ever biography of Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter was an English socialist poet, socialist philosopher, anthologist, and early gay activist....

, titled Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love and did continue to teach within the Sociology department at Manchester. In Autumn 2008, Rowbotham's request to stay on after the age of 65 to a third of her job was refused. However after protests from students, academics and others internationally the university offered her a third of research professorship. She is currently a Simon Professor.

Rowbotham's 2009 biography of Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter was an English socialist poet, socialist philosopher, anthologist, and early gay activist....

 was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize
James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Founded in 1919, the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes are among the oldest and most prestigious book prizes awarded for literature written in the English language and are Britain's oldest literary awards...



Papers of Sheila Rowbotham are held at The Women's Library at London Metropolitan University
London Metropolitan University
London Metropolitan University , located in London, England, was formed on 1 August 2002 by the amalgamation of the University of North London and the London Guildhall University . The University has campuses in the City of London and in the London Borough of Islington.The University operates its...

, ref 7SHR

External links