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48. Sheila Rowbotham: Manchester’s Dreamer

Woman at sunset in silhouette

Sheila Rowbotham exposes the social inequalities of everyday life, often by telling ‘hidden histories’ that have gone unrecorded.

Sheila Rowbotham, the renowned socialist feminist historian, writer, and campaigner, joined the Sociology department at Manchester in 1993 and left upon retirement in 2009. As a student of the famous historians E. P Thompson and Dorothy Thompson, Rowbotham’s work takes up the task of unearthing and documenting the ‘hidden histories’ of our everyday lives.

Rowbotham’s contribution has been distinctive in emphasizing the ways in which class exploitation and sexual oppression have shaped these histories. This is reflected in one of her earliest books, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It, which was first published in 1973 and reveals the untold stories of women’s ordinary lives, marginalized for so long in mainstream history. Hidden from History formed the cornerstone of women’s studies today, and discusses issues like birth control, abortion, and sexuality – all those ‘personal troubles’ belonging to women that the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s claimed as its own in their political significance.

Rowbotham has not just reflected upon and written history; she has also made it. She was a founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, organising the first conference in 1970. Rowbotham’s activism in socialist and feminist politics makes her a key figure of the British left. Much of her activism and her work reveals desire to highlight the personal aspects of political struggles, and to make politics and history come alive with the stories of those who make it. This can be seen in three of the key books she wrote while at Manchester: A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the US (1997), which shows the ways in which women have shaped history; Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (2000), which provides a highly personal memoir of living through the  ‘stormy political period’ of 1960s; and Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (2008), the biography’ of the gay socialist writer whose life heeds the importance of looking at sexual struggles alongside socialist concerns.

Rowbotham – in both work and personality – was Manchester’s dreamer. Her books seek in various ways to give voice to those ‘dreamers’ in history: dreamers in the sense that from their positions in the past they tried to imagine better futures. Whether Edward Carpenter (who titled his autobiography ‘My Days and Dreams’), or the early Victorian feminists who Rowbotham calls Dreamers of a New Day (2010) – the people she has written about share with her an ability to think ordinary lives anew, and to open up possibilities for freedom -not just through politics – but through the ordinary affairs of everyday life.

Sheila Rowbotham is a keynote speaker at the Morgan Centre’s ‘Atmospheres’ conference held at the University of Manchester, 1-2 July 2015.


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