Historian and author, Sheila Rowbotham talks of her life and work helping women to shape their own futures.

Neil Koenig tv producer and journalist interviews Sheila Rowbotham.
Sheila Rowbotham. All photo credit information

Neil Koenig, Radio and TV producer and journalist, interviews Sheila Rowbotham, author and historian of feminism and radical social movements.

In this interview, Sheila looks back at the early days of the women’s liberation movement in Britain, in which she was a key participant. She recalls the thrill of taking part in Britain’s first women’s liberation conference, held in Oxford in 1970. She remembers the growing excitement as the movement gathered steam, at a time when everything seemed possible; the highs and lows of campaigning on issues such as nurseries, contraception, and better conditions for night cleaners; and the challenges of balancing one’s personal and political life. And she shares her hopes, dreams and fears for the future.

Sheila Rowbotham is the author of many books, including her memoirs of the 1970s, Daring to Hope, which will be published soon (9 November 2021) by Verso Books. Other titles include: Women, Resistance and Revolution; Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World; and Hidden from History. Her later works include Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties; Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century; and the biography Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize and winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Biography.

Her poetry and two plays have been published and she has written for newspapers and journals in Britain, the US, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Sweden and Sri Lanka. She lives in Bristol.

The interview

Sheila Rowbotham interviewed by Neil Koenig


Neil Koenig 00:00

Hello and welcome to another edition of ideaXme. The writer and historian Sheila Rowbotham has been heavily involved in the feminist cause for many years. In her latest book, “Daring to Hope”, Sheila writes about her memories of the 1970s when the women’s liberation movement in the UK really got underway. Sheila, before we go into that, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in feminism in the first place?

Sheila Rowbotham 00:33

It’s a funny question because I wrote a book of memories about the 60s. And in that I was quite surprised, looking back that my interest, although it didn’t have any focus (it was an interest that would pop up and then go down again), I was interested in thinking about being a woman in some different kind of way from really my early teens, I think. I think it was really because of education, and the possibility of going on to university, which hadn’t happened with anyone else in my family. And it began to really put me into a category of being very odd. I was regarded as very odd. I was brought up in Leeds and my friend from school’s boyfriend told me I was a “one off”, which I didn’t know what it meant. And he said, it’s the thing that is wrong on the assembly line! So, I was considered peculiar. And I then realised that there were little groups of us, mainly my women friends, but also one boyfriend of a friend at school called Tony Kay. And we were very self-consciously a bit unusual in the late 50s, early 60s, because it just wasn’t usual for many women to go on into higher education and be reading books and holding forth on ideas and things at that time.

UK’s first women’s liberation conference

Neil Koenig 02:19

Now 1970 saw Britain’s first women’s liberation conference, which you were involved in. How did that come about? What was the event like? And why was it significant?

Sheila Rowbotham 02:34

Through 1969, we’d started to have little groups meeting to talk about our situation. And because we heard about the American movement that was several years ahead of us in organising, we’d heard about consciousness raising groups. So, we thought this would be good to talk about our personal feelings because we didn’t really have any theory about our situation. We just had a bemused disgruntlement at a whole series of responses that we used to get from the men that we knew. And this didn’t seem like politics at the time, it wasn’t regarded as anything that was of any social significance. In fact, men would say that this is just your individual feeling. So, when we started to talk with one another in these small groups, which there was just really a handful in London that I know of, but we began to realise that it wasn’t just an individual predicament, that a lot of women who were similar to us, who were educated, middle class women were worried about their predicament. They didn’t fit in. And we started to wonder why that was. And we also noticed that there were developments going on with trade union women in Britain, who were raising issues about equality, but they were also raising connections between themselves and people in South Africa who were suffering from apartheid. So, there was an awareness of international rebellion. And that certainly affected young women like me. I had been a student and was doing a thesis. And in the universities, there was a lot of support for movements like anti-apartheid and the opposition to the remains of colonial rule, which had been seething right through the 60s. So, there was a sense of connection. We knew about the civil rights movement, and we also knew that Black Power had raised issues about how you were seen and regarded, and not only issues to do with material inequality.

Neil Koenig 05:11

So, there was this kind of bubbling up of interest and discovery going on at the end of the 60s. And how did that then translate itself into action, into holding an event?

Sheila Rowbotham 05:30

Really again, we didn’t think immediately of having a conference, it was at a history workshop event, that was a radical history event at a trade union College in Oxford, where we expected to feel that we were in company that was on the same wavelength, because we know we supported the unions, the ones of those who were there, but the men who were the students thought it was very funny that when a dispute arose, and we said we were going to have a meeting about women, and of course to them to have a meeting to talk about women was to talk about sex! So, they all roared with laughter, and we were very angry. And a little tiny group of us got together in a student study room. And we thought, initially of having a meeting about women’s history. And then somebody who was from America, called Barbara Winslow, she said there hasn’t been a general women’s liberation meeting yet, and that should be the priority. And we agreed that was true. So, we set about it, and we didn’t know really who would come or how many people would come and although estimates differ, what happened was around about 500 people came, mainly women, but also a group of men, some of whom looked after children in the creche! First we met in the Trade Union College Ruskin, but there were too many of us, and we had to overflow into the Student Union, which was a very austere space, because at the time, it was mainly men who were students who would be the ones debating, and in fact, when I’d been a student there, in the early 60s, women were not even allowed to be members of our own Students Union! That was so archaic. But that had changed by the late 60s. So, it was certainly true that women were admitted, but it wasn’t a comfortable space really, it’s a long thin room that we were speaking in. So, we had to address people in a more rhetorical way, probably then we would have been in normal meetings, little group meetings.

Neil Koenig 08:11

And this, this meeting, was significant, wasn’t it? Did you realise that at the time?

Sheila Rowbotham 08:21

Yes, there was an electric atmosphere about it. Nobody really had any overall certainty about what it was that was coming into being. But we did know that the excitement and interest and originality of thought was something that was really special and unusual. There were some disagreements, but there was in general, an atmosphere of people being prepared to listen to people who had different views from them. And it was really, I think, the discussions that took place, not just the talks, which covered issues to do with women and the unions and equality and equal rights not being enough and things like that, as well as things like the position of women prisoners. And a group talked about their personal feelings of rebellion, which had made them form a very, very early women’s group, which was influenced by the writer Juliet Mitchell, who wrote an early article which was influential in the late 60s.

Definitions of women’s liberation and feminism

Neil Koenig 09:44

Did everyone agree on the definitions of phrases like women’s liberation or feminism?

Sheila Rowbotham 09:54

We tended to be quite suspicious of feminism. There were some women who came along who were from an older group of equal rights feminists, but they were in a minority. And most of us were young women who used the term liberation, because we saw that as transformation of society. And we also imagined that liberation of women would be interconnected with other forms of liberation, in terms of issues around race and colonisation, and class, and gay liberation, which had started to also develop groups.

Sheila Rowbotham’s goals and dreams

Neil Koenig 10:45

So, what, what were the goals, the dreams that came out of the conference?

Sheila Rowbotham 10:53

Well, I think that the excitement was of encountering so many women who seemed to be wanting to change society, that was extraordinary, because people like me were used to going to big conferences, which were mainly men, with women on the sidelines. And this time, the men were standing around looking a little awkward, and not quite sure where to put themselves. There were obviously men who came to it who supported what we were doing. But the energy and initiative was with young women mainly. And we just knew that we wanted to go on talking. But the demands that were put forward, were coming out of ideas that were much more sober, so that we had basic equal rights demands that were put forward, that were issues that it was felt people would generally agree with. And those were later accepted at a meeting, a big meeting in Sheffield, a few months later, but those were for equal rights at work. And we wanted contraception, free contraception, and abortion. We were talking about nurseries as well. And we wanted to assert the position of women, you know, working class women who were in a position that was more oppressive than the middle-class women who were really taking the initiative at the conference. I mean, there were working class women there, but the impetus started from the middle class. One exception was a trade union woman called Audrey Wise.

Neil Koenig 13:00

Who later went on to become an MP.

Sheila Rowbotham 13:02

She did. And while she was an MP, she was arrested by the police with demonstrating for women at Grunwicks, who later were organising in a picket, low paid women of a mainly Asian origin.

No hierarchies and no one in charge

Neil Koenig 13:27

The way that the conference was organised was really without anyone in charge?

Sheila Rowbotham 13:32

We were absolutely determined because we were opposed to being silenced by voices of authority. We wanted it to be a collective experience in which individuals could develop through collective and mutual support.

Neil Koenig 13:51

You wanted to avoid hierarchies?

Sheila Rowbotham 13:54

Yes! I think that seems incomprehensible now, because there’s such an emphasis on figures and celebrities and leaders. But we thought that to release the potential in everybody, you needed to have a shared kind of initiative coming from people so that you would strengthen every individual’s confidence, to be able to speak and to have and put forward their ideas. I mean, in practice, it was uneven, it didn’t always completely work. But the fact that so many women were able to overcome the hurdles and difficulties that they’d had before and emerge with confidence, I think it was something that we were able to pass on to a new generation really, so that a new group of women would arise who just assumed that such things were possible.

Neil Koenig 14:56

And that seemed to have remained a feature of activities that took place in subsequent months and years, this non-hierarchical approach?

Sheila Rowbotham 15:09

Yes. A critique developed, showing that sometimes our emphasis on a small group and not having a structure could produce hidden leadership, because as nobody was responsible, some people would take the initiative because somebody had to start the meeting. And we really struggled with how to take an initiative without imposing on others. And I think that, by and large, we managed to do that, for several years anyway, until really, towards the end of the 70s, when very severe and strong differences appeared within women’s liberation, and therefore, it was hard to maintain that really.

Neil Koenig 16:02

How did this movement differ from other movements or political forces, if you like at the time?

Sheila Rowbotham 16:13

I think it was similar in some ways to some groups in the 1960s, who were influenced by anarchism and libertarian left ideas. So, for instance, there was a squatting movement that was around in the 60s and there was a …

Neil Koenig 16:39

Just to interrupt you there, the meaning of squatting is to take over housing.

Sheila Rowbotham 16:45

That’s empty, yes. Well, that was very much going on in the early 70s. Because a lot of housing had been… the councils were thinking they were going to demolish houses, and then they didn’t demolish them. So, they were left owned by the council, but they were kept empty. And people who have low incomes in the cities were able to live in the houses and because of some ancient law, it was not easy to evict them. The state woke up to it and changed the law.

“DIY” politics

Neil Koenig 17:28

So, there were quite a lot of grassroots movements happening in the 1970s. And indeed, in the 60s. An exciting time!

Sheila Rowbotham 17:42

People talked about “do it yourself” politics, which was non-violent direct action. And I think some of the roots probably went back to the non-violent direct action of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, with the Committee of 100. But it’s difficult to trace those roots, but that action was there in the memories of quite a lot of individuals involved in groups like women’s liberation, gay liberation in the 70s, because it occurred in the 1960s.

Miss World protest­­­ by women’s liberation movement

Neil Koenig 18:27

There were some dramatic moments, in women’s liberation in that period. I’m thinking of the protests at the Miss World competition.

Sheila Rowbotham 18:44

Yes, the Miss World competition came quite soon after the first women’s liberation conference. And I think it was quite difficult for people like me who were used to left and socialist ways of thinking, to accept that imagery, visual imagery, and the body, and how the body was portrayed, was part of politics. And it was really the action that women took that demonstrated how much it was. At the time it was often misunderstood and misinterpreted. So, people thought, oh, these women, “Women’s Libbers”, they called us, the media, oh, “they’re just, you know, jealous of these other women’s beauty”. But quite a lot of women who were questioning already, did understand what we were on about in a way that they probably wouldn’t have done if people were just giving them a talk about the need for equality in abstract. There’s been a feature film, and also there’s a documentary that was on our television, which really demonstrates it. It was so kind of crass, the way in which the comedians like Bob Hope and the Mecca men talked about the women that I think a lot of women began to see it through different eyes because of that demonstration. It was really important.

Campaigning for low paid female workers

Neil Koenig 20:37

The Miss World protest was quite a high-profile event. But you were also involved in quite a lot of activities that were perhaps less high profile. I’m thinking of trying to help cleaners, who mostly worked at night.

Sheila Rowbotham 20:58

Yeah, so that was very non high profile because it meant plodding around the streets of the city, with a friend of mine called Liz Waugh every Tuesday night, we did it for two, three years. Going up to cleaners who would be in a hurry trying to get to work, carrying plastic bags, with their tea in them and their sandwich for the night. And it was around about 10 o’clock at night, we had to go out. The city was absolutely deserted except for these women who we could very quickly tell, you know, because they were sort of going to work at that time when everybody else had gone home. They were working through the night, and they were contract cleaners, so they didn’t have any permanent employment, it was very easy for the contract cleaning companies to get rid of them if they tried to organise. So, without realising it really, we responded to one of the cleaners’ requests for help. She was a remarkable woman called May Hobbs, who just felt that the conditions were so bad, and the cleaners, voices were not heard. And she came to women in both women’s liberation and in socialist groups and said can you help to go around and unionise women? And so, we set off without any much knowledge and gradually learned how problematic it was. But without realizing it, we’d stumbled into a form of work that was going to become much more prevalent as the decades went on. So that more and more people were employed with these casualised conditions, we had no idea that that would happen. Unfortunately, the privatisation had started with Harold Wilson in 1968, the Labour Party had started it in the Civil Service. We started trying to organise with the Transport and General Workers Union, but it was very bureaucratic and completely mysterious, because they said, you know, you’ve got to have a certain number of people before you can have a branch of your own. So now you’re going to have to be with these window cleaners. And we could never find the window cleaners. They seemed to be paying dues, but we couldn’t find them to ever, you know, say well can we come and have a meeting with you window cleaners? No, they were never to be found. So that was a very confusing situation because we didn’t understand the bureaucracy of the union at all. And the union thought we were a complete pain, because we expected the union officials to, quite happily, come out at about one o’clock in the morning to have discussions with the women when they had their break from their work! And the union officials were the sort of guys who were just elderly guys, they didn’t want to come out at one o’clock in the morning to talk to these little groups of women. And then eventually we made contact, May Hobbs got in contact with the civil service union, and the civil service union were quite pleased to come and help and organize, because there was some younger guy and he was quite happy to do all this. And the cleaners when they went on strike, I think they got 10 pounds a week, and I think that they were only getting about that for their wages. So, they were very happy to be on the picket line!

Neil Koenig 24:59

So, were the strikes successful?

Sheila Rowbotham 25:01

Yes, they were successful. But the problem was that we couldn’t maintain those increases, because if the building changed the contractor, by British law, the agreement was no longer valid. So that was a big problem. And I think it’s very interesting now because some younger people now have started with quite good success organising cleaners, for example, in the NHS. And they have been able to overcome many of the problems that we encountered and couldn’t overcome. We did carry on as I say for about three years. But then I gave up. I found that I’d been, by mistake, trying to recruit a group of cleaners to the civil service union, because May had said to go to this building. And then I realised that they couldn’t be covered by the civil service. So, I took all the money I’d taken from them out of my account and gave it back in little envelopes, and I was incredibly apologetic, because I felt as though I’d taken their money by fraud. And they were happy because it was near Christmas. And they didn’t bother about the fact that I’d been taking this money, and I’d got them in the wrong union! I gave it back like, I think it was like the turkey money, you know, when you get the money that you’ve saved over the last few months to buy your turkey.

Lessons from history

Neil Koenig 26:50

So that was one of many campaigns that you were involved with. At the same time, you were also writing a number of books about history, particularly relating to women. Was there any kind of feedback loop between the actions, the activities you were getting involved in and what you were writing about?

Sheila Rowbotham 27:15ß

Yes, the first book I did, was very early on, “Women, Resistance and Revolution”. And it covered events in Britain. But it did also look at other countries, including China, and what was then the Soviet Union. And I also wrote about movements in Algeria. It was very difficult to find much material on countries like Algeria, but there were two really good books. I was using mainly secondary sources, although for the European history, I did draw on the documents and newspapers and I found wonderful newspapers in London, from the 1848 revolution in France, where the women had produced, amazingly, these newspapers and had said so many things that were completely similar to what we were saying. And it was a great revelation to me to read that. So, it was two ways — it was me looking for things and then realising that a lot had been said, that was similar in many ways to what we were saying. And I think at that time, we only really knew much about the suffrage movement, which was for a particular demand. But then I realised that women had been involved in movements around issues to do with consumption, as well as early trade unions, and even in these revolutionary movements like the Commune and the 1848 revolution in France.

Neil Koenig 29:20

So, the activities you were taking part in, were kind of helping to illuminate the history that you’re writing about in some way?

Sheila Rowbotham 29:28

Yes, I think it made me ask lots of questions that I hadn’t asked when I was a student. I just assumed that the history I got was kind of history. Very rarely would women appear. And that was partly because it was mainly about the history of leading male politicians. And so, as history began to be questioned by people on the left, because there were left wing historians who were looking at society and movements from below, that opened up the question of well, where were women in all this? I mean, you knew that the women weren’t there in the leading positions in the state, but women were obviously there in society and daily life. So, you began to think, because that area was coming into history, it made it possible to think there’s an absence here.

Balancing personal and political life

Neil Koenig 30:29

You also write about the challenge of balancing? I don’t know if that’s the right word… the personal and the political.

Sheila Rowbotham 30:41


Neil Koenig 30:42

I mean, what how did that kind of play out for you?

Sheila Rowbotham 30:46

Well, that idea of transforming oneself as well as changing society, had come to us, I don’t think we were that aware, but it came from the American New Left, who had been struggling against McCarthyism in the States. So, they felt you had to have some kind of personal link to your politics. Because otherwise, the politics also they thought, could end up like the Soviet Union in which in the name of socialism and communism, really horrific things, acts had taken place. So, the group of people on the New Left who tried to distinguish themselves from what had happened in the former Soviet Union, were open to talking about the links between personal behaviour and attitudes. And when the women’s liberation movement developed in America, the American women took over those ideas and said, you know, if the personal is political, we’ve got to think about our personal relationships, including our sexuality. And so, people like me were interested in having changes in how we related personally, because it was quite possible to be critical of society and yet defer to men, because men tended to be the people who said how things should be done. So, it was an idea that began to extend into our lives with men for heterosexual women. But it was also for people who were attracted to people of the same sex an issue because they also wanted to have more equal relationships, too. So, there was the idea that you would be trying to democratise not only society in the fullest sense, but also your own personal relating. And part of that was to get rid of jealousy and ownership, which I think, like I say in the book, really, I think what we did was to reduce some of it. Because there was such an emphasis in the culture on possession and ownership and jealousy. We wanted that to be much less and we tried to make it much less. I think it was possible, as long as people weren’t really threatened. As soon as people were really threatened, then those reactions really kicked in again. So, we never solved that — how you deal with the loss and desertion and abandonment. But we did, I think, try to make it so there wasn’t that idea of, you know, male control over women’s sexuality.

Neil Koenig 34:01

Would it be fair to say that you might, at the time have viewed marriage as a bit like that, that it had kind of overtones of ownership in it?

Sheila Rowbotham 34:14

Well, the Americans had a group, the acronym was W.I.T.C.H. And one of the first things they did was to go off with their weapons, which were white mice, to disrupt the American bridal fairs that were sort of great big commercial events. And so, they were taking this sort of non-violent direct action. But on the other hand, they then started to rethink. A friend of mine called Ros Baxendall had been part of that group. They thought this is not very good, because this is attacking other women who want to have their white dresses and their bridal outfits. And so, there is a dilemma in that, a problem, I think, because those of us who weren’t married would be critical of marriage. On the other hand, we didn’t criticise friends who were married or who stayed married or, you know, because the idea really in the early days of women’s liberation was for women to choose how they should live and to have the choice over their lives. So, if women had the choice over their lives to get married, we didn’t really attack that. Or at least not people that I was connected to, I think perhaps some people might have done but… we didn’t have a sort of anarchist, total condemnation of people for getting married. After a certain point it just ceased to be an issue, because so many other people weren’t getting married anyway.

Neil Koenig 36:04

In your memoirs, you also write a fair amount about what was going on in your personal life. And there’s this interesting word “duogamy” that comes up, which I think today has taken on a different meaning.

Sheila Rowbotham 36:21

Has it?

Neil Koenig 36:23

Yes. Was that just a term that you coined?

Sheila Rowbotham 36:27

I invented this word. I didn’t know any other people used it. It happened in my life because I was in a relationship with David Widgery. And we were well suited in a lot of ways. But I met another man called Paul Atkinson, after a few years being with David, and I really fell passionately in love with Paul. And it seemed inconceivable to leave David, but I couldn’t give up Paul. And so, it was a kind of empirical situation, it wasn’t a kind of, “I am now going to have a relationship with two men!” It was because the circumstances arose. So that was how that happened. And other people also seemed to get into that situation round about the same time. But I didn’t know that there were in America, for example, people quite consciously experimenting in communities, who did feel that you should not have any sexual possession. There were some libertarian people who tried to break down individual relationships. But those extremes of trying to change personal behaviour usually ended up with people just breaking up, the whole group would break up. I think the extreme attempts to try to change patterns of human activity didn’t work at all in that way. But for quite a few years, I did have a relationship with both David Widgery and with Paul Atkinson.

Differing approaches to feminism and women’s liberation

Neil Koenig 38:33

You mentioned just now extremism. The women’s liberation movement was quite a broad church and contained people with a lot of different views. And there were some women who favoured not having any contact with men.

Sheila Rowbotham 38:56

From the early 70s, a group of radical feminists felt that they just, some of them felt they didn’t want to be in relationships with men. So, they gave up sexual relationships, and they tended to live mainly with other women. But then some other radical feminists did sleep with men. So, you know, it wasn’t an absolute thing. And it was more the late 70s when those divisions came up in a very extreme way, because one group of women said that men were inherently violent, and that, you know, basically men couldn’t change, and other people like me, who were socialist feminists felt that you couldn’t say of any group of people that that group of people can never change just because they were born in a particular way, because that meant that you would be cutting off the possibility of changing how people perceived things and how people saw things and how they felt. So, we disagreed with those views. I think one of the difficulties of having this thing of trying not to have just single-person, one-to-one relationships, was that when you had a child, there are certain complications if the child doesn’t know who the father is. And so, I was kind of conservative on that issue, I thought that children ought to know who their fathers were. Because we were also arguing, it was very important for fathers and indeed for non-biological parents to help in raising children, because we thought the family could be such a tiny sort of intense and oppressive group. We wanted to extend it to a larger group of people. What happened really was that when women started to join women’s liberation groups, the fact that the men were not participating, looking after children, or doing housework became an issue of conflict, because people were saying, as women, we don’t want to carry on doing these things that’s just been expected of us, that we do the domestic work and look after the children. And in that kind of context, ideas about the nuclear family being oppressive were raised, so that people were saying the family is really oppressive. But at the same time, it became evident that that any one thing is never the total truth. I think that the family could be oppressive, but it could also be an important source of support. And I think that was one of the reasons why a lot of working-class women were very dubious about women’s liberation, middle class women attacking the family. And through the process of discussion, I think the realisation came that the family is both. It’s rather like the state, that the state is also something that can be oppressive. It can be coercive, but at the same time the state can provide welfare and is a valuable source of support, particularly for any vulnerable group of people who are dependent and can’t earn an individual wage, like women who are looking after children. So that notion that the family was both a support and a source of subordination and oppression existed and began to come together as something that was more complex as an understanding about the family. But we did want to extend beyond the individual couple to go to a larger group, rather in the way that people had had a larger group before really when there had been kinship networks that looked after children as well. And non-biological parents in houses did get involved with looking after the children and the relationships and connections and closeness has continued. You know, now the children are in their 40s or 50s.

Reaching a wider range of women

Neil Koenig 43:40

Going back to the conference in in 1970, you said it was a lot of young women, perhaps predominantly from middle class backgrounds, involved at the start. But as the 70s went on, you started to reach out and connect with a very wide range of women, from other backgrounds. How were these ideas received by different groups?

Sheila Rowbotham 44:11

Initially, the black women’s groups were more concerned about race. And within that they were beginning to also talk about gender in the very early 70s. And those groups were also very much engaged with issues about the state and the way the state, in the shape of the police, were intervening in the lives of black communities, particularly, of course against young black men. And the white women’s liberation, as we recall, was also actually concerned about those kinds of issues, but we were more removed from them because it was not necessarily our own families, whereas, for example, my son went to what was called a community nursery, which was set up as a self-help nursery, and then gradually got funding from the local state. And one of the workers there was a black nursery worker, who was of Caribbean origin. And her son was brought up in Hackney. And then he, in one of the times when there were various uprisings in the city, went out to see what was going on, and was just standing at the doorstep and, you know, was grabbed by the police. So, although these issues were not directly affecting us, they were very, very close to us if we lived in inner-city areas, which were both white and black, because we got involved in lots of community projects because we were concerned about nurseries, and we were concerned about things like adventure playgrounds and things that we were campaigning about. We were also campaigning on abortion, and free contraception and supporting women in trade unions. So, in all those ways, there were large numbers of women who were from both South Asia and from the Caribbean, who were doing those kinds of jobs. So, we had a contact, and were aware of those issues, as well.

Neil Koenig 46:57

Those women from those groups, how did they react? Did they take on what you and your colleagues were telling them?

Sheila Rowbotham 47:04

Well, some women became very active, because they were involved in issues around policing and immigration. But the things that we were going on about, I don’t think they saw all of those as being particularly relevant to them. Because they had different, somewhat different concerns. I had a neighbour called Barbara Marsh who I kept in contact with through the 60s and 70s. And she was a very staunch Catholic, so she never agreed about abortion rights. She came from Jamaica, and she was very conscious about issues to do with women, and class and race, because she experienced racism when she came to Britain. But she never would have gone to a women’s liberation group. Although she did, she was an active trade unionist. But she used to talk about all these things.

Feminism and the legacy of the 1970s

Neil Koenig 48:20

Looking back on the 70s now, how does it seem to you? What, were the highs and lows if you like?

Sheila Rowbotham 48:32

We often thought things were very bad in the 70s. But given what’s happened subsequently, when I look back, I mean, lots of things don’t seem that bad. I mean, there was a lot of poverty. And then there was still bad housing, there were problems that people had renting. But you know, these problems didn’t go away. And in some ways, they’re still very much live issues that women are facing, as well as men. I don’t remember such issues to do with sex, sexual aggression that seems to be now being reported in schools. I mean, I taught in schools…

Neil Koenig 49:24

Is that possibly because people were more reticent about talking about those sorts of issues in the 70s, and that the prevalence was just as great then as it is reported to be today?

Sheila Rowbotham 49:40

Yes, I think it was perhaps so hidden that people didn’t express some of the things that now people would be putting on social media and things, but I’m not very good at talking about social media, because I don’t have anything to do with it! I find it difficult enough to cope with listening to the news on the radio and doing my email!

Neil Koenig 50:13

Just going back to the 70s for a moment. One thing that comes across quite strongly from reading your memoirs is a sense of excitement and purpose, at least in the beginning years of the 70s. And what do you think had changed by the end of the decade?

Sheila Rowbotham 50:33

Well, there were real splits. And therefore, the atmosphere at very big conferences wasn’t so good. But it didn’t stop people carrying on I mean, we carried on having, you know, campaigns and discussing the situation of women, it just was, it goes off into lots of different streams. I think, also people got involved in all kinds of cultural groups. There were women photographers and designers, and they were raising a lot of things that were about how women were represented, though, it wasn’t that things just came to a complete halt, it was that we didn’t have anything that was vaguely there as a general collective movement. But it wasn’t the end of interest in feminism and women’s emancipation and liberation. And indeed, in the 80s, those issues went into different places, influencing things like local government, for example. I think, really, what happens is that the things that have been coming up from below start to become part of institutions. So, Women’s Studies develops and gets much more of a force from the 1980s. And also impacts made in the trade unions, and also women of Asian descent, and women of Afro-Caribbean descent, and African descent are much more of a force from the 1980s in society than they had been in the earlier period. There are also more people who are from those backgrounds who were actually brought up in Britain, and they are much more confident than their parents who were trying to make a living in difficult circumstances, having come from other places. So, the ones who were brought up in Britain were much more likely to have ideas of what sorts of changes they needed and articulate them. So, there were kind of new things that happen in the 80s. And there’s also the powerful movements of Greenham [Common] of women arguing against the bases and insisting on the women’s participation in the peace movement.

Neil Koenig 53:24

This was the protests at Greenham Common in the 1980s by women against the installation of nuclear armed cruise missiles here in the UK.

Sheila Rowbotham 53:36

Yes. I was thinking about what happens. I went to teach at Manchester University from the mid 90s. I got my first job in my 50s, a bit late! That was my first full time job! I had students of different waves coming through. There were people who were part of the movement about environment and animal rights, who when I first went there, there were people who were influenced by ecological movements of which we were not that aware about environmental issues and ecological issues in the 1970s. It was sort of there, but very much on the on the periphery, whereas it starts to, in the 90s, to really become much more to the fore and young people were defending trees and the environment. So, there’s again, the same ideas of non-violent direct action. I can remember meeting a young man, I can’t remember the precise date, probably the early 2000s, or late 1990s, who really was mobilising I think, in the Southwest [of England], in a town and he’d sort of circulated everybody, he’d sent things out to every household in the town about some issue to do with the environment. And he also talked about this way of organising, you know, not having leaders and things. I thought, oh well, perhaps he is influenced by, you know, the ideas that we had in the early 70s. And I said to him, where did you get these ideas? And he said, well, he said, Buddhism! That was kind of completely amazing to me, that he didn’t get them from any left politics or feminism or anything, he got it from Buddhism. So I don’t think that the movements ever stopped, there was then Seattle, the protests at Seattle, and students who, in the 2000s, were campaigning against the World Trade Organisation, because of the globalised nature of capitalism and a lot of women’s movements in many parts of the country, many countries, are very much concerned about resources and access to resources and material issues that are really basic, which have been threatened because of either the action of very large companies, or because of the changes in the environment that’s been caused by global industrialisation.

Hopes and fears for the future

Neil Koenig 56:48

So, what would you say your hopes, and maybe your fears are today for the future?

Sheila Rowbotham 56:54

Well, I guess I’m always kind of moderately optimistic. And I have to say that, in the very recent times, the news is so terrible, that I think it’s impossible to have any kind of easy optimism about prospects of what can be done. But, I mean, the main issues are not that different. It’s still I think, that capitalism is still a very wasteful system. It’s a very unjust system and a very unequal system. And it’s very difficult to make small changes even, in it. And sometimes the small changes are made, and then they get reversed. My big hope would be over a global transformation of capitalism. My smaller hope would be that at least some kinds of basic social and economic reforms could be done in places which would lessen the waste in human potential. And I think along with that, would be the importance of trying to contest the ways in which values of competition and inequality, which have become absolutely deep seated in our society, and the acceptance that the power of the market has to be something that is how we judge how we organise our society, if that is extended, I think we need to push that back. And I don’t think any one group is ever going to be able to do that. So, it means making links and coalitions and connections beyond any particular group, to try to at least start pushing back into the ground has really been taken. I mean, the capitalism that we were contesting in the 70s was more social, because of the struggles that people had had in the past, than the capitalism that we face now, in which many of those forces like the trade unions in the countries like Britain, did stand for broader things than simply just increases in wages. They had social values behind them of solidarity and connection to others. They’ve been made less powerful. So, the need is to have other kinds of ways of organising to complement the older ones. But I don’t know what those would be.

Neil Koenig 1:00:08

Leave that to the next generation?

Sheila Rowbotham 1:00:11

I know, because to tell you the truth I’ll be 80 in two years’ time — well, about one and a half years’ time. And I do notice that I just get more tired. And everything seems to take me a longer time now. So, I hope younger people will, I mean, obviously, people of my age want to help but we have got a bit older now. So, we can’t completely do the same things we used to do!

Neil Koenig 1:00:44

Sheila Rowbotham, thank you very much.


Daring to Hope

The Decade That Invented The Future

The British Library: Sheila Rowbotham

Film about the Women’s Liberation Conference, Oxford, March 1970, made by Liberation Films

Credit: Interview conducted in audio, video and text formats by Neil Koenig Senior TV and Radio Producer, Journalist and ideaXme Board Advisor and Guest Interviewer.

ideaXme is a global network — podcast on 12 platforms, 40 countries, mentor programme and creator series. Mission: To share knowledge of the future. Our passion: Rich Connectedness™! If you enjoyed this interview please check out our interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat.

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For all those who love big ideas and great stories. #movethehumanstoryforward #science #futurism #quantumai #technology #spaceexploration #climatechange