Sheila Rowbotham: Rebel Crossings at Five Leaves Bookshop Tuesday 8th November
Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers, and Radicals in Britain and the United States. Published by Verso Books and available to purchase at Five Leaves Bookshop.
The first Women’s Liberation Movement march in London, March 6th, 1971.
As a rule of thumb, when elections roll around, Nottingham can usually be guaranteed to be a little blob of red in a sea of blue. So starting my week with a lecture from socialist writer and feminist, Shelia Rowbotham seemed appropriate. Add to that that her new book, Rebel Crossings, is about the interweaving of liberalism, socialism and feminism in the late-nineteenth century, and you’ve got a recipe for an event that I was rather keen to attend.
I did a little research on Rowbotham before heading to the event, of course. By this, I mean that I googled her name, saw a very long list of accomplishments and immediately closed the browser in shame. This is a person who was at the forefront of the Second Wave of Feminism, campaigning for equal pay, free contraception, 24-hour nurseries and the like, sticking to her values even when they became unfashionable. Throughout it all, the needs of working class women has been at the forefront of her discourse, something other critics often neglect. Meanwhile, some mornings I can’t even muster the wherewithal to roll out of bed to find food, even when I know there is ice cream in the house.
And yet Rowbotham has never especially presented herself as a feminist icon. When someone mentioned her organising the 1970 Woman’s Liberation Conference, a landmark moment in modern feminism, she quickly interjected ‘Not on my own!’ It’s refreshing.
It is at this point that I should probably draw attention to the Five Leaves Bookshop, one of Nottingham’s hidden gems. We have far too many of those, you walk around the city for long enough you’ll have hidden gems stuck in your shoes. Tucked away in one of Nottingham’s many little alleyways, it bills itself as ‘Nottingham’s radical bookshop.’ I don’t know what image that conjures in your mind, but for me, it wasn’t the endearingly cosy little bookshop I found myself in. It was a lovely place to be. Also, it had lots of plants. Plants improve all things.
Anyway, back to Rebel Crossings. To call the book a passion project is to do it a disservice, it is clear from the way Rowbotham talks about it that it is inspired by areas and people that have influenced her throughout her life, particularly Edward Carpenter, the so-called Sheffield Socialist. Can we all agree that he sounds like a superhero from a silver age comic book? In any case, the book is a work of non-fiction about six radicalised, idealistic young socialists rapidly approaching the dawn of the twentieth century.
Passion is infectious, and listening to Rowbotham was eminently fascinating. She mentioned, in passing, that she’d been actively researching the material that appears in Rebel Crossing since 2009, and it shows. She spoke of the lives of the various people the book covers in the same way you might discuss members of your own family. Of particular note to me was William Bailie, who would apparently stand outside in the mancunian rain to protest, and whose stance on wicker chairs resulted in union disputes that led to him moving to America. But all six characters are connected, it is to Rowbotham’s credit that she has managed to piece these stories together from various disparate primary sources.
A few years ago a friend of mine told me ‘Don’t act like this period of history is any more important than any other simply because you’re in it.’ History has always had an amusing tendency to repeat itself, and this becomes very obvious with the reactions of the other attendees. The various anecdotes of the lives of these radicals brought not stoic historicising, but amused tittering and guilty grimaces. We saw elements of ourselves in these people who lived more than a century ago. The whole thing felt very timeless, as Rowbotham discussed socialism, self-expression, secularism, yoga, new unionism, pregnancy and free love with aplomb and wit. A stand out moment was when she talked about the protest methods used by strikers in Bristol, which involved throwing bricks at scabs and stealing their food. This along with scandalous affairs, children born out of wedlock (named Sunrise, which is so adorable I might actually cry) and bitter arguments about ‘doing instead of talking’ seems so at odds with our ideas about the late Victorian era. And yet this is real history. True history.
Add to this a few contextual facts that were at once amusing and deeply depressing. The fact of the matter is that these people came from a world that was growing rapidly disillusioned with the political climate, where the working class were regularly dehumanised to the point that they fought, not just for economic gain but ‘to prove that they were men’. It’s hard not to see the idealism of these young socialists, their attempts to build bridges and tear down societal walls, and feel genuinely heartbroken at how little has changed in spite of their efforts.
Hopefully, we’ll get to live in a world where those walls keep falling, rather than being built up. Who knows?