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Sheila Rowbotham

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Sheila Rowbotham is a marxist feminist from England. She was born in Leeds in 1943 and educated at a Methodist school near Filey and at Saint Hilda's, Oxford. Early in her career she taught at technical and further education colleges, and in the Worker's Educational Association. She hithchhiked through France after she left school and made money chalking on pavements.[1] She was on the editorial board of Black Dwarf and was part of the Women's Liberation Workshop. In the 1990s she was a research adviser in the Women's Programme of the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) at the United Nations University. Her academic specialty is social history.[2]


Shiela Rowbotham has stressed the need for subaltern groups, including women, to develop their own narratives and language which describe reality as they experience it:

In 'Through the Looking Glass' I am trying to examine the way society communicates to the individual. It is not that the perception of women is unique. On the contrary, oppression has many common features – and thus rebellion can locate and connect itself. For example, the demands of both the working class and of black liberation to control and define their existence now and in the past, their resistance to the appropriation of their labour, their language, their gestures, their dreams, have helped many women to wonder where they are in mankind and humanity. Women are still divorced from these words. We are not included now in the notion of what is human. Nor are we part of the alternatives made by men. The idea of militant dignity exists in the word 'manhood' or in the idea of 'virility' or the solidarity of 'brotherhood'. Women have only the neutral dignity men have allowed women they have called 'good'. The indignity of femininity has been internalized for millenia. Sisterhood demands a new womwn, a new culture, and a new way of living. The intimate oppression of women forces a redefinition of what is personal and what is political. — Women's Consciousness, Man's World, p xi.
The oppressed without hope are mysteriously quiet. When the conception of change is beyond the limits of the possible, there are no words to articulate discontent so it is sometimes held not to exist. This mistaken belief arises because we can only grasp silence in the moment in which it is breaking. The sound of silence breaking makes us understand what we could not hear before. But the fact that we could not hear does not prove that no pain existed. The revolutionary must listen very carefully to the language of silence. This is particularly important for women because we come from such a long silence.

We perceived ourselves through anecdote, through immediate experience. The world simply was and we were in it. We could only touch and act on its outer shapes while seeing through the lens men made for us. We had no way of relating our inner selves to an outer movement of things. All theory, all connecting language and ideas which could make us see ourselves in relation to a continuum or as part of a whole were external to us. We had no part in their making. We lumbered around ungainly-like in borrowed concepts which did not fit the shape we felt ourselves to be. — Women's Consciousness, Man's World, pp 29-30

She makes reference also to Betty Friedan who called the dissatisfaction she observed in herself and other women in the 1960s "the problem that has no name".[3]

Sheila Rowbotham loves some kinds of rock music and some things about it, but has also deplored some aspects of some of it:

My own sense of myself as a person directly conflicted with the kind of girl who was sung about in pop songs. When I was sixteen I remember feeling really angry about 'Living Doll' because it contradicted all the thoughtful proud bits of me. It cut away from all my inside efforts toward any identity. It hurt me particularly because when I tried to argue about it with a boy I really liked I felt terribly constrained by his contempt when he said that was how he liked girls. — Women's Consciousness, Man's World, p 13.

In one place at least, Sheila has described in slightly jaundiced terms the British marxist milieu available to her in her formative years. She mentions "the awkwardness in the dessicated revolutionary tradition of the mid sixties in Britain which made it particularly difficult to use Marxism as a creative and living force. My generation, which came to left politics immediately before the eruption of the student revolt, inherited a Marxism which had only continued in the Western capitalist countries as a defensive body of orthodoxy surrounded by protective walls, encrusted with fear, stiff with terror, brittle with bitterness, aching with disillusionment."[4]

Sheila Rowbotham considers women's movements to be distinct and vital agents in the struggle for socialism. However, she says that, unfortunately, the women's and socialist movements diverged after the First World War (at least in England): "as the currents of liberal feminism, sexual liberation, gradual socialism, and communism became increasingly divergent, the possibility of making a revolutionary feminist movement faded."[5]

According to Mary Anne Warren, Sheila is now focusing on working class women as potentially providing the inspiration and leadership of a strong feminist-socialist movement. Working women have occasionally glimpsed the need for a change more radical than that proposed by male socialist leaders, "the possibility of changing society so that people not only had more to eat but encountered one another in completely new ways and developed a radically different consciousness of each other."[6] (This more encompasing vision is also implied in the Union women's slogan, "Bread and Roses".)

Like many other feminists, Sheila has noted that feminism cannot simply invert male values if it is to be progressive: "But the problem created by simply ... inverting existing male values to make a female culture out of everything not male, is that the distortions of oppression are perpetuated."[7]

She thinks that putting women or femininity into some rarified zone of perfection and unreality is a bad idea:

The elevation of the family and domestic values in opposition to 'materialism' or 'competition' nearly always takes a politically reactionary form. Just as the elevation of 'motherhood' or of a feminine culture which is merely the reverse of existing male-dominated culture is also reactionary in effect. By making the family, motherhood or feminine culture into an abstract ideal, the real connection between the distortion of human relations in the family and in capitalist commodity production are obscured. However, women have not been unaffected by capitalism and oppression. The idealization of women is incongruous in a revolutionary feminist movement. It belongs rather to the sentimentalism which elevates powerless people into innocents." — Women's Consciousness, Man's World, pp xi-xii.

Other works

  • Mary Anne Warren, 1980. The Nature of Woman: An Encyclopedia and Guide to the Literature.
  • Sheila Rowbotham
    • 1969. Women's Liberation and the New Politics (Spokesman Pamphlet #17)
    • 1973. Women's Consciousness, Man's world
    • 1973. "The carrot, the stick, and the movement", Radical America v. 7 (July-October) pp 73-9.
    • 1974. Women, Resistance and Revolution
    • 1976. Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women's Oppression and the Fight Against It
    • 1989. The Past is Before Us: Feminism in Action since the 1960s. British women's movement late 1960s to mid 1980s, including Asian, African and working-class women.
    • 1992. Women in Movement: Feminism and Social Action. A textbook-style history of women's activism since the French Revolution.
    • 1994. With Swasti Miller (editors), Dignity and Daily Bread: New Forms of Economic Organising in the Third World and the First. Examines women's grassroots efforts to overcome poverty.

Notes

  1. Women's Consciousness, Man's World, pp 13-14.
  2. Mary Anne Warren; Sheila Rowbotham, Woman's Consciousness, Man's World, Bio on inside cover (Penguin).
  3. Women's Consciousness, Man's World, p 5. See also Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963).
  4. Women's Consciousness, Man's World, p x.
  5. Hidden From History, p 169. Quoted in Mary Anne Warren, p 402.
  6. Women, Resistance and Revolution, p 116. Quoted in Mary Anne Warren, 401.
  7. Women's Consciousness, Man's World, p xi.

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