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Sheila Rowbotham on E. P. Thompson, Feminism, and the 1960s

Sheila Rowbotham

In an interview, longtime socialist-feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham reflects on her decades on the Left, grappling with the reality of being a socialist from the middle class, and E. P. and Dorothy Thompson and the classic book The Making of the English Working Class.

Members of the National Women's Liberation Movement, on an equal rights march to mark International Women's Day, London, 1971. Photo by Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty

Interview by
Alex N. Press
Gabriel Winant

Sheila Rowbotham is a socialist-feminist historian and the author of many books. She was recently interviewed by staff writer Alex Press and historian Gabriel Winant on Jacobin’s Casualties of History podcast, where she spoke about her history on the Left and her relationship to E. P. and Dorothy Thompson.

You can listen to Casualties of History by subscribing to Jacobin Radio here, and you can listen to the episode with Rowbotham here. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


ANP

You came into the Left in the early 1960s in the environment of the disarmament campaign and the lingering aftermath of 1956. How did those years shape your political development?

SR

I think it was key to be involved in a movement, because CND [the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] had lots of different kinds of people in it. There were members of the National Union of Teachers who used to walk very solemnly and seemed incredibly old. Then there were people in leather jackets and people in jeans. It was a time when there was still a beatnik counterculture. Then there would be trade union people who went.

So there was a great mixture of people, and politics wasn’t at all sectarian; there were people who were Christian socialists and anarchists, and there was a tradition of direct action through the Committee of the 100 — peaceful direct action that came through the Ghandian influence. We did things like sitting down in protest, and on one occasion we marched to a regional seat of government. We had an idea that you’re challenging the lack of democracy in the state, at the same time as making a moral protest.

GW

You write in your description of those years — and I think you’re referring specifically to New Left Review — that you could not understand how they could be socialists but not bother about being personally remote from working-class people. I’m curious how you grappled with the question of being a middle-class socialist as you developed your political orientation.

SR

I think it may have been because I came from a northern industrial city that I had that awareness. People came from the south, and particularly London. My father’s family, and my mother’s, hadn’t had formal education. My father was a mechanical mining engineer and he’d gone up and down in life so he worked in the mines when he couldn’t get a job in the ’30s, and then became a salesman. There wasn’t a tradition of books in our home. We had various books that arrived there by chance because my father had gone to auctions and the books would come in lots, and I used to read those.

I had a really good history teacher at school, who was a liberal. At the time as I was growing up, there was such a strong emphasis on class, because of the culture of the novels, the angry young men — there was a rebellious feeling that class was something that people were protesting about. So, I think I picked that up before I ever had any idea of left politics. It was part of being against everything that seemed to have already existed.

ANP

What was your relationship with the New Left Review milieu?

SR

When I was in university, we had a group called Universities and Left Review. And it was a more fluid situation. My boyfriend then was called Bob Hawthorne and he was a close friend of Gareth Stedman Jones. I met Gareth in my first year of university. Actually, I met Gareth on a blind date — I got invited by a friend to meet some friend of somebody, and Gareth and I met.

I was not at all left-wing, and he had been chalking against the Algerian War in the streets. So it wasn’t the most successful blind date, because I was a sort of mystical beatnik hippie-type person, and I said I’ve been chalking in Paris — by which I meant I’d chalked to get money. And he’d chalked political slogans. And it wasn’t until I met him again through Bob that I got to know Gareth. But he was a student, and a bit younger than Perry and the people who started the New Left Review.

ANP

So, after a time as a Trotskyist, you describe yourself as drawn toward libertarian socialism and women’s liberation.

SR

I wasn’t really a Trotskyist. The main influence wasn’t Trotskyism and it wasn’t the New Left Review, although some of my contemporaries were connected to that. It was the politics of the New Left I’d read from the Reasoner and the New Reasoner that Dorothy and Edward [Thompson] had. I’ve always had friends who were in lots of different groups, so I developed an idea that I’m friendly with people of different political persuasions and I got that through participating in a movement in which there was this great mixture of people. There was a moral commitment, and the commitment to living and working with working-class people, which Dorothy and Edward did.

A lot of my life has also been involved in living in working-class areas and working with working-class people. I wanted to overcome the class divisions between people. From quite an early age, I felt they were pointless and stupid. And it seemed obvious that the inequalities affected people from very young, because I used to teach school, before I taught at Manchester University, so I could see the ways in which everything was against the working-class girls and boys that are taught.

ANP

Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Dorothy and E. P. Thompson?

SR

I met them when I was nineteen. I met them because I had a tutor who I’d been sent to — because I was a bit of a problem. He said, you should go see these friends of mine, Dorothy and Edward Thompson, who live near Halifax, and they write about things like Chartism.

So I rang them up and I was exceedingly nervous. And Edward and Dorothy said I should come and visit, so I did. When I got to the house, I didn’t see Edward, I just saw Dorothy, who was in her thirties then, and she was wearing this black polo-neck jumper and black tights which is very much at that time what intellectual lefty women might wear, not the people that my mother knew. They didn’t know me or have any idea why I was there, particularly, but they just welcomed me.

I used to visit them a lot, and read everything in their study. So I did read The Making of the English Working Class in proofs. And it was like no other history book I’d read. I had read things like Primitive Rebels by Eric Hobsbawm, so I’d read some left history. But Edward’s book was just completely extraordinary — all these people — and quite a lot of the places were places that I was familiar with because they’re close to Leeds.

GW

It seems like the social history revolution played an important role in your own political development over the course of the 1960s. I’m curious how you understood the relationship between your evolving identity as a historian and a professional scholar, and your relationship to the radical movements of the day.

SR

Well, we used to go to the thing called the Labor History Society. It’s a bit stuffy, but it did have an alternative perspective on history. So we got this idea that there could be a different kind of history. There were people questioning the scope of history — all the movements against colonialism were challenging the ideas of how history should be written. And of course we were very influenced by civil rights in the United States — we knew about the black movement in America and the struggle over civil rights, and then Black Power.

So the idea that culture was an area where you needed to contest how people were being defined was something that was in the air, and very important in the late ’60s, when some of us started to talk about women’s liberation. The idea of writing a different kind of history seemed to make sense, and I’m sure that was because I’d known about the challenges of labor history and the Thompsonian influence on history, which was not just about the political structures that working-class people created but actually delved into daily life and the experience of individual workers — as well as the fact that people were organizing in lots of different ways, not necessarily in a formal way to just get the vote, but to achieve things in whatever way they could, whether it was through secret societies or crowd action or union organizing.

GW

You write about the late ’60s — and this is describing yourself I think: “It’s frightening to set off on new journeys without any maps, perhaps the hardest bit is deciding what to hang on to and what to shed. There seemed to be an atmosphere which would annihilate history, as if the past was too compromised to be acknowledged.” I’m curious about how that set of questions took shape for you as you developed, it seems, your own women’s liberationist politics.

SR

I think I might have gone back to a teacher I had at school who had been a liberal and a Methodist. She was really worried about that sort of absolutism that wants to get rid of everything. I think she sensed that I was likely to become such a person. So she spent a lot of time getting me to read people like [Edmund] Burke and people who talked about some kind of organic connection through time, with the past.

I think I’ve always had the two things: one is an attraction to the people with the banners and overturning everything and the world turned upside down. But also some kind of appreciation of continuity and links back to the past. One of the nice things is that Edward met a very old woman who had actually sat on the knee of orator Henry Hunt, the radical. And so, I feel very pleased because I can say you know I’m a woman who met a man who met a woman who met Henry Hunt and that takes you back to the early nineteenth century.

GW

I’m curious to ask you more about women’s liberation politics in this period, and what it meant to you. Again, there’s a quotation that I’d like to read to frame this. You wrote:

We have stressed for instance the closeness and protection of a small group, and the feeling of sisterhood. Within the small group, it has been important that every woman has space and air for her feelings and ideas to grow. The assumption is that there is not a single correctness, which can be learned off by heart and passed on by poking people with it. It is rather that we know our feelings and ideas move and transform themselves in relation to other women. We all need to express and contribute; our views are valid because they come from within us and not because we hold the received correctness. The words we use seek an openness and honesty about our own interest in what we say. This is the opposite to most left language, which is constantly distinguishing itself as correct, and then covering itself with a determined objectivity.

That feels like a very live dynamic to me. I’m curious what in your own experience you were describing, and what kinds of political practice this insight gave rise to for you?

SR

We’d heard there was this thing called “consciousness raising” from America. And we did try and do it, although we used to worry that we didn’t do it as purely as we felt perhaps in America they were doing it, because there was still a feeling that perhaps we ought to go off and organize and give out leaflets, and try to involve more working-class women and reach out to people.

So we did have groups that spoke about all our feelings. And those meetings were really strengthening, because one of the things that happened at that time was that we’d been brought up in the ’50s in a time when women didn’t really feel much connection to each other. We were brought up to compete, and be attractive to guys. If we were attracted to men, that was what we were meant to be doing. If you were a person who was questioning that as a woman, you often gravitated to being with men more, as when I was a student. So, the people I knew who I discussed ideas with would be men.

And I always have a few women friends who were people who crossed over and were interested in ideas as well. But it really changed with the development of women’s liberation. My address book, which had been a lot of guys who were friends, and a few women, became less men, and more and more women who became really close friends.

It became a way of understanding more about women who weren’t necessarily completely the same as yourself, and it was quite often slightly random who you ended up in a consciousness-raising group with. But because we had to talk personally, it enabled you to understand where people were coming from. You had background to understand why they might take a particular position.

One of the rather agonizing things about that form of politics, which was a bit of a problem, was that it didn’t always necessarily work that you felt equally friendly with everybody in the group. So there was a kind of hidden tension around the fact that, perhaps, there were inequalities of friendship. But the friendships that have persisted from that politics are still going. We’re in our seventies and we’re still in contact with a lot of people who we knew from the women’s movement. It was something that was more than just a moment of discovering the emergence of the women’s movement — it’s carried on over time.

ANP

There have been a fair number of feminist critics of the brand of social-humanist history popularized by Thompson. Is that something you’ve tried to address in your own work?

SR

Not really. You mean because there was not a great deal of reference to women in The Making of the English Working Class? Well, there wasn’t. But at the time it seemed like there were a lot of references to women, because we had to read people like J. H. Plumb — history in which there were really absolutely no women at all. The fact that there were some in The Making of the English Working Class did arrest my attention.

There’s a bit of a tendency for Edward to feel that women was something that he didn’t want to write about because he knew that Dorothy was interested in women, as well as in the politics of Chartism. And so there was a bit of a feeling that he didn’t want to take over Dorothy’s area, actually. Because it wasn’t that he wasn’t aware or interested in the position of women.

They didn’t particularly like women’s liberation. They thought we were too middle class. They thought we were indulgent for talking about our vaginas and sex lives, and they thought we were incredibly privileged because they’ve been through the war, and we had so many choices. That’s what Edward felt, you know; why on earth is there this movement of young women?

And then after they went to India, in the mid-’70s, they began to shift in relation to women’s liberation. They never stopped being friendly with me or with other people like Catherine Hall. There’s no way in which they were hostile to feminism. They were hostile in a rather sort of old-communist suspicion of feminism, really. They were for the emancipation of women but they were very concerned that an exclusively middle-class approach didn’t dominate, because they felt that — and particularly this is Dorothy’s view — they felt that working-class women valued things like the family, because the family was their place where they got a lot of support and kinship, and was a source of support and power. And they were very suspicious of the “abolish the family” stuff our generation was affected by.

ANP

You said that their politics started to shift after they went to India. Can you talk about how they shifted?

SR

Yes, they did. They met a lot of Indian socialist feminists who had been involved in the resistance to the clampdown in India with Mrs [Indira] Gandhi. It was through them that I met Radha Kumar, who was a socialist feminist friend of theirs. Because of Edward’s family’s connection to India, the links to the Indian left were very strong for him. So I inherited through them many friends, including Radha Kumar.

In Britain, I got to know a clothing worker called Gertie Roche. She’d been in the Communist Party [CP] and left in ’56. In fact, they always said that it was interesting how the people who are remembered to have left in ’56 are the middle-class intellectuals like themselves but actually in Yorkshire there were a lot of working-class trade union people who left in ’56, including this wonderful woman, Gertie Roche, who carried on being involved in women’s liberation.

It was quite funny actually because I can remember going to a meeting in the early ’70s in Leeds, and she was there and communist women came. And of course the division had been so bitter and deep that they had never spoken since the time when she’d left the CP and they’d carried on. In a way, I think the women’s movement brought these older women a bit together again because they found themselves in the same meetings again.

There’s another interesting connection with Gertie Roche. Gertie gave me the journal of Claudia Jones, who’d had to leave America because of the McCarthy witch hunt. So she was in London and she started a magazine and Gertie gave me these copies of this magazine that Claudia had given her. Those sorts of connections, between somebody like Claudia Jones and the trade union woman in Leeds, are not the kind of links that people normally pick up on but I thought that was interesting. People always are connected on the Left. And yet, over time, those interconnections get forgotten.

GW

A few minutes ago you were describing the — skepticism maybe is too strong a word — but the ways in which Dorothy and Edward held themselves at some remove from the feminist politics of your generation. It seems to me that some of your historical work — would you say it was addressed in some way to working out those dilemmas or those separations?

SR

They didn’t like Women, Resistance and Revolution. They thought that I was marching along to a prearranged goal. Which in a way was true: I thought we’d seen the light and solved everything in the women’s liberation movement. I wrote it in ’69, when the very first groups were emerging. There’s a sort of sense that we’re going somewhere, that all these other revolutionary movements have failed but there’s something that we’re heading off to that’s going to solve everything. And they were really annoyed about that because they felt that it was this thing in Marxism that they didn’t like, which is the sort of all-knowing homing pigeon that always knows where it’s going. I didn’t know that but I was incredibly upset that they didn’t like it.

I did get more detailed as I became more elderly, and as less people read the books. Lots of people read Women, Resistance and Revolution, and it went into lots of different languages. But the Thompsons did like Hidden From History, which I wrote because I was teaching women in adult classes in the Workers’ Education Association and [the women] didn’t like the long chapters in Women, Resistance and Revolution. So, I wrote it with lots of short chapters, which has meant it’s gone into a lot of schools.

GW

I also wanted to ask you about Black Dwarf, which you were a key figure in.

SR

Black Dwarf was through Tariq. I had been at university with Tariq Ali, and we stayed friendly after he left and I left. He introduced me to Clive Goodwin at a meeting of the May Day Manifesto group that Edward and Dorothy were connected to. I used to sell Black Dwarf initially, for quite a long time, and then eventually I got put onto the editorial board.

I don’t think Edward liked that very much either, actually. He thought it was too London-y and too revolutionary, sort of show-off stuff, I think. The thing that he and Dorothy were quite sympathetic to was much later, when I was doing a thing called Jobs for a Change, because I worked for the Greater London Council [GLC], and Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell were there.

I was in a thing called the Popular Planning Unit with Hilary Wainwright. There are lots of attempts to try and think through how do you ground ideas of an alternative economic strategy and how do you democratize the process of planning and making an alternative socialist economics? So those two were connected.

GW

I’m curious what you think of as the main lessons you learned from those years. We talked a fair amount about the late ’60s but you know, to move forward in time.

SR

I guess, keep on keeping on. I happened to get involved in the Left at a rather down time, so I didn’t have very strong expectations. You’d go to the Labour Party Young Socialists and we used to go leafleting, and very few people would come to our meetings as a result of giving out leaflets. But suddenly there was this great zoom up of militancy and excitement and lots of people were involved in demonstrations in the late ’60s.

So, I think that impetus carried on, certainly into the ’70s and even in the early ’80s there was a lot of resistance to Margaret Thatcher, in the first few years. It wasn’t really until the abolition of the GLC in ’86, sort of a rather gloomy realization came upon us that perhaps things weren’t going to happen as quickly as we thought.

I think there’s been an awful lot of decades since then. It’s really difficult being older because you end up thinking, oh, all that time has gone, and so much effort, and yet, we didn’t actually affect significant change. Some changes occurred, but they’re almost not ones that we were thinking about. I think the changes that were really important have more to do with culture and attitudes, but not significant changes in terms of inequality.

GW

That certainly seems true in the United States as well, but if we take anything from The Making of the English Working Class, it’s that people’s movements, even in defeat, never go away.

SR

That’s absolutely true, yeah.

End Mark

About the Author

Sheila Rowbotham is a socialist-feminist historian and the author of many books — most recently the memoir, Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties. She was interviewed on Jacobin</cite’s Casualties of History podcast, where she spoke about her history on the Left and her relationship with the eminent historians Edward and Dorothy Thompson.

About the Interviewer

Alex N. Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.

Gabriel Winant is a historian of health care and the labor movement. He is a former member of Unite Here.

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