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Book Review Revolution in the air

MARJORIE MAYO recommends an uplifting memoir of momentous struggles by women in the decade of the 1970s

Daring To Hope: My life in the 1970s
Sheila Rowbottom
(Verso) £20

 

DARING To Hope starts from the 26-year-old author’s commitments as a socialist as well as being “part of the emerging British women’s liberation movement, supporting gay liberation, revolt in the trade unions and resistance to racism.”

Liberation, she explained, was about “opposing all forms of inequality and hierarchy. It carried too a fragile vision of what else might be,” she continued, “a fusion of collective and individual freedom.”

These, she pointed out, were the hopes of progressive feminists at the beginning of the 1970s, weaving “the personal and the political” together, aiming to live in alternative ways in the here and now while striving for more equal, less hierarchical and more co-operative ways of being for the future.  

Daring To Hope takes the form of a diary, covering experiences from the beginning to the end of the 1970s. But there are powerful resonances with more contemporary struggles too. The campaign to organise night cleaners is a case in point, supporting the efforts of the indomitable May Hobbs. While the T&G (now Unite) was supportive, organising casualised cleaners required innovative approaches — and still does — taking account of the women’s vulnerability and respecting the fact that low pay may only be one of the problems to be addressed.  

The diaries cover a range of industrial and community struggles over this period, from the 1972 miners’ strike through to the “winter of discontent” and the election of the Thatcher government in 1979.

There are stories of creativity — women taking over a shoe factory and running this as a co-operative in Fakenham, Norfolk, for example. There are stories of women’s campaigns for childcare and abortion and the development of the Working Women’s Charter. And there are stories of cultural struggles; Rock against Racism, in response to the increasingly overt racism of the far right.

There are inspiring accounts of determination and courage here. But the diaries are far from being triumphalist. On the contrary, Sheila Rowbottom reflects on the tensions and contradictions between second wave feminism and traditional trade union cultures. For example, in 1971 the Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Skegness, at the same time as a miners’ conference. Word got around that the miners were watching a striptease act, prompting a group of women to invade the event — only to be thrown out as a result.

This invasion might not have been the most effective tactic, she reflected. But it was no longer possible to deny “the contradictory pulls between my feminism and my socialism,” although she remained committed to both throughout the 1970s and beyond, retaining respect for a wide range of socialists and communists, theoreticians and activists across a variety of fields.
 
The diaries also address tensions and contradictions within feminism and identity politics. There were powerful critiques of the state, including libertarian socialist feminist critiques. But there were also campaigns to persuade the state to provide the services that women so urgently needed, services such as affordable childcare, for example, just as there were campaigns for state action to support for women’s rights at work.

Some of these contradictions came to be explored subsequently through the publication of In and Against the State, reflecting on both the controlling and the more caring dimensions of the welfare state. There were differences over the demand for wages for housework too, a demand which she personally rejected. And there were growing tensions between socialist feminists and radical feminists as the decade progressed.

There were more personal tensions and contradictions too. There were balances to be managed between individual authorship and more collective ways of working and writing, for instance, becoming a very successful writer without becoming a leader in the process. And there were tensions inherent in the author’s commitment to building personal relationships without possessiveness or jealousy, challenges that she herself quite openly recognised.

This book grabbed my attention for personal reasons as well as for political reasons. These were stories of struggles that I remember and friendships that I continue to treasure. But readers don’t need to share this background to value this book.

The tensions and dilemmas of the ’70s were particular to their time, but they have wider relevance as well. And the diaries are characterised by the sense of hopefulness that the author succeeded in retaining, despite increasing pushbacks, toward the end of the decade.

Morning Star readers should find much of interest here. This is a very enjoyable read, chronicling the ways in which the author engaged with the increasing challenges of the 1970s, while maintaining her hopes for an alternative future.

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