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Julie Waterson

Part inspiration, part frustration

(April 1999)

From Socialist Review 229, April 1999.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Threads Through Time
Sheila Rowbotham
Penguin £8.99

Threads Through Time is a welcome breath of fresh air in comparison to the postfeminist right wing drivel that dominates the pages of the Guardian and the classrooms of universities. It is refreshing to read accounts of women’s struggles for sexual emancipation and against brutal employers instead of ‘girl power’.

For people subjected to superficial and supercilious explanations for the continuation of women’s oppression, Rowbotham’s arguments pose a challenge to those who want to move beyond immediacy and who desire a theory and a framework in which to fight for equality. There can be no doubt that she desires this passionately, and she applauds those who have changed the world. Women like Eleanor Marx and Sylvia Pankhurst feature in her book, with much praise heaped upon them for overcoming the obstacles put in their way as they took on the capitalist system.

For those who want a glimpse into the role of women in the magnificent battles which established today’s general unions, she tells of the battles between women of opposite classes. In The Trouble with “Patriarchy”, she brilliantly denounces any idea that you can explain women’s oppression, or overcome it, through the theory of a fixed and unchanging notion of male power:

‘It is not sexual difference which is the problem, but the social inequalities of gender – the different kinds of power societies have given to sexual differences, and the hierarchical forms these have imposed on human relationships. Some aspects of male-female relationships are evidently not simply oppressive but include varying degrees of mutual aid. The concept of “patriarchy” has no room for such subtleties, however.’

This book is a collection of some of Sheila Rowbotham’s finest essays, and some rather embarrassing autobiographical work. Nonetheless, the two intertwine to demonstrate the strength of Rowbotham’s commitment to socialism and equality, while offering us an explanation of her ultimate political inability to effect any real change for working class women.

Sheila Rowbotham attacked Germaine Greer in a recent review of her book The Whole Woman. Rowbotham rightly states,

‘She has retained the assumption that feminism is primarily a matter of self assertion and declaration. In fact it has historically been about very much more – including wider questions of social inequality between women of various classes and races and the nuances of personal gender power which fascinate many young feminists today.’

Somehow. you can’t help thinking this is a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black, precisely because the conclusion of Rowbotham’s socialist feminism is the same obsession with ‘gender power’ and personal change.

In fact, as a snapshot of socialist feminism, it gives us much more. It inadvertently lends us an insight as to why postfeminism has dominated in recent years. It does so by exposing the inherent weaknesses of attempting to marry a class analysis with feminism. It can’t be done. One dominates, and it isn’t class!

So Rowbotham’s history of women is in part inspiring and in part frustrating, albeit not in equal parts at all times. Her feminism tends to negate her socialism and acts as a brake on her historical context and analysis. When writing about Marx’s daughters she lambasts Engels, saying, ‘The Marx daughters’ own lives might have served as a warning that there were a few snags in his theories.’ And, with the classic socialist-feminist theory, she states that ‘Engels presented the liberation of women as the outcome of objective changes in society. He does not stress the importance of women’s own activity as part of the process of liberation.’

In theory, she agrees with Marxism: ‘The terms in which the Marxist approach to women’s emancipation was set made it very difficult to challenge these theoretically.’ In practice, it is an entirely different story: ‘The unequal power between men and women in capitalist society does not miraculously vanish within the organisations for revolutionary change.’

That explains why talented women like Rowbotham ended up trying to reform the system through the likes of the Greater London Council Women’s Committee and in attempting to find a ‘third way’ between reform and revolution (in Beyond the Fragments), only to find there wasn’t one.

The vision of real equality is gone. Rowbotham believes that inequality between the sexes is something we will never fully overcome, because ideas and how we live our lives and relate to individuals is not only socially constructed, but also, ‘We learn to relate through our families and with children who themselves come from families. These relationships affect us not as external ideas but from the innermost self-feelings in our bones.’

Rowbotham writes as if she is expanding Marxism and polishing its rough edges. The opposite is the reality – she is ripping the heart from Marxism and leaving it powerless and ineffectual. The failure of socialist feminism in theory and in practice is an important factor in explaining today’s postfeminists.

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Last updated: 20.11.2012